UCLA Basketball: "Every Game is a Must Win"

Those are the words of Ben Howland. Every game is now a must win. We are obviously at this point because CBH knows UCLA needs to get to the Big Dance and to do that we must do very well the rest of the year. Ben Howland has gone so far as to say we must win the Pac-12 tournament.

While part of me thinks it is refreshing for a coach to be overly pessimistic instead of Chianti Dan like on the Pac-12 South football title; I wish he had had not said it. I think the Pac-12 regular season champion has a good shot to go to the 68 team tourney. Also, anything can happen in any one game in a tourney like the Pac-12 so it would be very good to still win the Pac-12 regular season title. I think CBH realizes that when he says every game is a "must win."

And every game is important not just for this year but for next. Shabazz Muhammad, the number one recruit in the nation, has still not decided where he is going. To sum up, here is a best guess (and when you are talking about the minds of 18 year olds, it is a guess): he knows UCLA and CBH is the best place to go to learn basketball and believes in the "UCLA factor" for the NBA. He also wants to play for a team that has a chance to win a title, thus the University of Kentucky. If UCLA can finish strong, it gives UCLA a better chance. If UCLA finishes like it started, Shabazz is going to Kentucky.

Of course, putting aside Shabazz, CBH really needs to finish strong. What does it take to win the Pac-12 this year? Probably no more than four, and certainly no more than 5 losses in Pac-12 conference play. UCLA already has two. Thus to win the Pac-12 title, UCLA has the following game grouping (after the jump):

Can't lose games home games against Utah, Colorado, USC, Stanford, Washington and WSU and road games against USC, Oregon State, Washington State, and Arizona State.

Games that we need to win with maybe one slip up as a group include: on the road against Oregon, Arizona and at home against Cal. Oregon's Matt Court should be illegal as it is ridiculous, that game will be really tough. Arizona the crowd will be loud and the game is on CBS which will make it louder. The good news is we are a better team than Arizona, the bad news is all the three pointers Arizona missed at the Honda Center could easily start to fall in that home environment. Cal is the only team in the Pac-12 that may be a cut above the rest and we will need some home court help.

There is one game we will likely not win: at Washington. It has not happened in years for any UCLA team, even the legitimately good ones. I hope I am wrong, but I don't see it. Washington has talent and the home environment helps make up for the coaching.

Now to the glass is half full and half empty part. First half empty. We are not going to do this because:

Howland will play man to man too much and this team is just not athletic enough. It is frightening to think that right now the best starter and defender for the season is Lazeric Jones, who was arguably the worst last year. UCLA has been destroyed at times this year and it is not like it has been great teams or players destroying our defense. How many times this year has the opponent shot over 60%? Despite having five players 6'10" or taller UCLA ranks 201 in the nation in rebounding.

On offense, a similar theme, our best player for the season has been Lazeric Jones, once again the worst of the five starters last year. Howland is so desperate for offense that he recently moved Jones to two guard to create more shots for him.

On the intangible front, UCLA plays the rest of its home games at the Sports Arena. The negative effect of this arena on fans and players cannot be discounted, except by Chianti Dan who did not seem to realize that playing home games on your rival's campus in an arena that a football school rejected is not a good thing.

But then there is the glass is half full side of the argument.

On defense, since December 14, in its last eight games UCLA opponents have shot over 40% only twice, the same number of times opponents have shot 25% or under. The defense, while not classic Ben Ball Warriors, has been effective. UCLA has also done better in the rebounding wars in the last 7 games, having only lost that rebounding war twice. The Wears in particular are rebounding better.

On offense, playing two point guards in Jerime Anderson and LJ, has paid off in an unexpected way. UCLA averages only 10.8 turnovers per game, good enough for number 9 in the nation. Led by Jerime, UCLA also ranks number 18 in the nation in assists to turnover ratio. And UCLA is now taking better shots. A prime example, not only is David Wear no longer playing small forward, but the Wears are shooting inside more.

On intangibles, the team chemistry is now very good. But the key to success may be similar to the start of the season: Josh Smith.

He's shown flashes of brilliance, tenacity and utter dominance, but has also had moments of immaturity, laziness and complete ineffectiveness.

With Reeves Nelson having been permanently dismissed from the program in early December, the burden on Smith is bigger than ever.

The Wear twins are effective players when they're going well, but neither has the ability to take over a game the way Smith did against Arizona State last Saturday. . . .

"We need Josh to play as he did Saturday," coach Ben Howland said earlier this week. "He was very inspired. He played really hard, with a little animation." . . .

A Smith resolved to make 2012 his most productive year yet means there's hope for a somewhat-floundering program. Without the leaner version of the big man, though, chances of success are slim.

Bad puns aside. UCLA knows what it must do. Play hard every night as all games are now "must win."

Go Bruins, Beat SC!

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