I should’ve seen the signs when UCLA had to go overtime to beat UC Irvine. Losing to Georgetown was expected because they were more physical and exposed UCLA‘s troubles in the post and guarding the perimeter. But now the doors have been blown wide open after an upset loss to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo at Pauley Pavilion.
The No. 11 team in the nation should not be losing to Cal Poly. They shouldn’t have trouble defending the perimeter. They shouldn’t have two 6-10 forwards and a 6-10 center and still have difficulty protecting the rim (Cal Poly outscored UCLA in the paint 28-16). And they definitely shouldn’t blow an 18-point lead at home.
It’s a disgraceful performance and yet, it’s not a surprise under the recent Ben Howland era. Over the last four seasons (starting with 2009-2010), the Bruins have had non-conference losses to Portland, Cal State Fullerton, Montana, Middle Tennessee State, Loyola Marymount and now Cal Poly. None of those teams deserve to be in the same breath as UCLA and yet the Bruins were outplayed in every contest.
This goes squarely on the shoulders of Howland, who I’ve said is on the hot seat this year. It’s his job to prepare his team and make adjustments during the game. Losing to lesser teams says something about them exploiting a weakness and blowing an 18-point lead says a young team got complacent. For a coach who’s as detail oriented as Howland, that’s on him as much as his players not executing.
Talent-wise, UCLA should hang with almost anybody in the country. But coaching is not just about recruiting talent, it’s developing and using it effectively. For all the talk about the great guard play from Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams, little has been said about David and Travis Wear being outmuscled by Georgetown or giving up easy layups due to poor defense.
Josh Smith is still in the doghouse so it forces the Bruins to play three guards, Kyle Anderson – who may be 6-9 but is a guard in a big body – and a Wear twin. That means there’s four perimeter guys and if shots aren’t falling, there’s little room for second chance points.
I’ll just reiterate this for the record. If UCLA does not get to the Sweet 16, Ben Howland deserves to be fired. It’s been five years since his last Final Four appearance and with the high expectations this team has, anything less is unacceptable.
If I’m Howland, I go back to the basics. Work on perimeter defense and unfortunately, that may mean implementing more zone defenses which he despises. Create more options for Muhammad and Anderson to get to the basket. Limit the Wear twins being on the perimeter since you have four guys who can attack well from there.
A loss like this calls for the panic switch and if Howland doesn’t work on it before conference play, it could be a stressful year in Westwood.