UCLA Basketball: A Better Team Without Its Best Player?

ANAHEIM, CA - DECEMBER 17: Norman Powell #4 of UCLA Bruins celebrates his dunk with Tyler Lamb #1 during the second half against the UC Davis Aggies at Honda Center on December 17, 2011 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

I have probably been reading too much Bleacher Report, which yesterday declared: "UCLA Basketball: 10 Reasons Bruins Can Still Make Tournament Despite Poor Start." But maybe this team can come the closest to playing to its potential of any team in the last four years. I think everybody left on the roster, to some extent, gets along and likes each other. Their practices recently have been great and there seems to be a renewed commitment to 40 minutes of defense. As the most athletic talented player says:

"We actually came together more as a team," Powell said. "Our chemistry is building. We all haven't played together. Travis and Dave sat out last year. I'm just coming in. We've been trying to feel each other's game out. And in practice, we're actually working hard and there's less attitude and more coming together as a team. Our chemistry is getting better on defense and the flow of or offense."

Here are 5 problems that are a big cause for the five losses and how they seemed to being addressed and give some reasons for hope.

Let's break them down after the jump.

5. As always when discussing a CBH team the first issue is defense:

The importance of playing good defense has become abundantly clear. In UCLA's five victories, opponents are averaging 51.6 points and shooting 31.1 percent. In their five losses, opponents are averaging 75 points and shooting 56.5 percent. . . .

"In the summer it's just keying on your man, not too much help," Jones said. "You're playing NBA rules and it's more spread out so it's hard to get there to help. In college everything is so help oriented. We've been playing with them so much all summer and I know my mindset wasn't that great about helpside defense, but now I'm trying to be the catalyst of that. Making sure I do that and get on the others for not doing it." . . .

"We're getting better in that respect," he [CBH] said. "Hopefully that's something that will continue to evolve."

The NBA problem is interesting. I disagree with Jones a bit in that the NBA does play help defense but the summer league pickup games do not. These games for the pros are about getting in shape not about learning with your teammates. That needs to be learned with your team be it in college or the pros. Playing summer league is great for players, bad for teams.

Also, this UCLA team does not have a Darren Collison/Russell Westbrook/Malcolm Lee lock-down type defender. But if it dedicates itself as a team to defense it could be much better as it has been recently. I hope Stover continues to play a lot as Smith's backup because I think he is a key to the defense.

4. This team has not played a single game with all the available scholarship players. None. This is bad luck but the team is overcoming it. Ironically depending on De'End Parker situation UCLA may have to play David Wear a little at small forward (with a zone) because they only have one backup for the wing (Norman Powell) right now. For tomorrow, only De'End Parker is out as Travis Wear will return.

3. Chanti Dan is really screwing the Bruins by making them play at the Sports Arena. It is a terrible symbol from an AD who seemingly doesn't care about the program, students, players, etc.

USC used to play there, but it considered the building an anchor to the program.

. . . "In a situation like this, we have this feeling like it's us against the world," Lamb says. "We certainly love the fans who come out and support us. I mean, we've had some pretty bad losses."

. . . "It's just not a homey environment," [the usual positive CBH] he says.

2. Addition by subtraction: when you read that you probably think about Reeves. Well that is coming but this is really about Josh. Josh's weight is the closest UCLA comes to a North Korea style secret. Only a few know and the simple answer is "too much."

"You get out of it what you put into it," Howland says. "He didn't put much into it in the offseason. I'm hopeful that as the season progresses he'll get better. Some of it is just how he takes care of himself when he's off the floor. We really don't have much control over that."

Smith is looking better each game. If he doesn't eat too much for Christmas, he should be getting better (and lighter) with each game.

1. Howland has admitted mistakes this year for those paying close attention. He is not going to play David Wear at the three without playing a zone. But of course the biggest was Reeves Nelson:

"It was frustrating," says Howland, in his ninth year at UCLA. "I tried really hard, probably to the detriment of the team. We're making up for some of that now, trying to pull it all together."

Reeves was UCLA's only returning all-conference player and let's face it, with Josh overweight probably the best player on the team. . . potentially. But Reeves blew it.

UCLA is a better team without its best player. That is becoming obvious. Will this new found team spirit help them be a good team? Ironically the players who are going to replace Reeves are, for obvious reasons, the closest on the team and feel lost without each other when Travis missed a UCLA game in the hospital:

But something was off, David said, and the 6-foot-10 sophomore played like it, scoring just seven points while missing six of eight shots.

"That was the first time, really, he wasn't there playing or on the sidelines in a game I was playing in," David said.

. . . "There's just an unspoken connection," said their father, David Sr.

Am I being too optimistic? Sure, but maybe this team can still make some noise. Hopefully Howland will be able to make this team work. It is the only way they can win.

Go Bruins.

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