Before we talk about UCLA's game Saturday against Fresno State at 8 pm on the Pac 12 Network, let's give a little context on where UCLA basketball is at right now. UCLA is "turning the corner" with huge wins, why fire Howland now some are saying? Let's play the date game.
- December 18, 2010 was the last time UCLA beat a ranked team in the out of conference schedule. UCLA beat #18 BYU and Jimmer Fredette that day.
- March 27, 2008. The last time UCLA WENT to the sweet 16. Anyone remember when Steve Lavin was regularly criticized for only being able to get UCLA to a sweet 16?
- March 15, 2008. The last time UCLA won the PAC tittle, regular season or PAC tournament. UCLA has not only missed the NCAA tournament 2 out of the last four years, they have also been irrelevant in the PAC two out of the last four years.
With those numbers Howland needed a PAC title and a "miracle run "to justify keeping his job this year. And yes this team is improving as all Howland's teams have done the last four years. It is even the best offense team Howland has had since 2008, ranked 9th in the country in assists and 26th in points per game. But, and this is a big but, does this team really look like it is poised for a final four run, let alone a PAC 12 title?
The funny thing is if Josh Smith was still here, I would see a chance. There is no way Jennings of Long Bench goes 13-15 inside against Smith. Can you imagine ANYONE backing down Josh and pushing him out of the way, the way Texas' Ridley and Jennings have done to UCLA's insides players? Now, Josh would have done something embarrassing, fouled too much, and/or passed out but even 15 minutes from him would have been great.
Now, we have Howland's favorite the Wears, while Travis is playing smarter, are just not physical enough to deal with those big thick guys inside. Tony Parker, was never supposed to be about this year as it takes a while for a big like him to develop. But again, here is the rub, at the end of last season, Howland had Smith and Anthony Stover. I realize Stover was lost because of grades but I never got the impression that Howland was too upset about it. This team should not have had problems at the Center spot.
So, yeah this team may continue to turn the corner and improve but does anyone think this team will win the PAC 12 or make a deep run? Shoot, it may even beat a ranked team, say Arizona at Pauley, later in the year. But again, since when is 5 years without a PAC 12 title and, let's be really optimistic, say one sweet 16 good enough at UCLA?
So, I think we may have another fun game and win over Fresno State coming up. But what does it mean? Again, not much. I will enjoy watching the players and root for their return next year but a win over Fresno State is not going to erase those dates or even another date November 25, 2012, when UCLA lost to Cal Poly.
Fresno State may be a tough game for UCLA. Against common opponents they are 2-3, but they beat Cal Poly and lost to Texas by just two. Actually I don't think it will be a tough game, but Fresno State has the style to frustrate UCLA:
- Fresno State ranks second in the MW and in the top 20 in the nation in scoring defense (55.8 ppg); Wyoming leads MW (55.3 ppg)
- UCLA is averaging 78.5 points per game, while Fresno State has not allowed an opponent to score over 70 points in a game this season.
And for Howland there has to be a bit of irony with this game. The team's press hype sounds like the old days when Ben actually won and dominated basketball games:
[Fresno State Coach]Terry Turns Up the Pressure, Exploits Takeaways
The relentless defensive pressure that Terry expects from his squad has held opponents to just 40.0 percent shooting (211-of-527) from the field and 28.0 percent 3-point shooting (40-of-143). Fresno State has forced an average of 16.0 turnovers per game (176 total) and own a +47 points off turnover margin (173-126), as well as a +43 steal margin (90-47).
Of course, like Cal Poly, they play hard but do not have much talent. Fresno State ranks third from the bottom in assists per game in the nation. Their marginal point guard and leading scorer Allen Huddleston shots only 35% from the field (although he does shoot 36% from three) and has more turnovers (2.8) than assists (2.1) per game. He is good at stealing the ball.
Second leading scorer and other ball handler Tyler Johnson shoots 41.2% from the field and 40.7% from three. He only averaged 9 points a game but is a threat from three if you do not pay attention to him.
Leading rebounder Kevin Foster often comes off the bench. Why? Well lets just say shooting is not his forte, as he is shooting 30% for the season. While not as big, Jerry Brown often starts and plays inside for Fresno where he shots a whopping 40%.
Kevin Olekaibe usually starts as the third guard. He is good at stealing the ball but is a 31% shooter overall and only 27% from three where he takes five shots a game. Olekaibe has been in a slump as he has scored as many as 43 points in a game and averaged 17.8 last year.
Coach Terry will play a number of other players as well but this is a team that plays defense first and wants to beat you 50 to 48. Fortunately there is no dominate inside player so UCLA should win fairly easily but it will be ironic if a defense first team gives Ben Howland fits.