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Scattered Thoughts: Seniors, Focus/Defensive Intensity & Recalibration Of Season Perspective

Last 24 hours we have had some good discussions (and some great posts) development of freshmen. I wanted to shift our attention over to our upperclassmen.  I specifically wanted to expand upon the point blinkshot made in his spot on post about freshmen expectations from the weekend:

Undoubtedly, these expectations aren't just on the freshmen - but also the team as a whole. However, when we consider that Aboya was a backup to LMR and LRMAM for 2 years (and of course, LMR backed up Love last year as well), that Shipp has always been the 3rd option on the team, that Dragovic barely had minutes before this season and isn't a great defender yet (and has skill sets more fitting of a 3, but has to play the 4 for us) - it should be no doubt that we'd have inconsistent play as we try to fit a convert a bunch of former role-players to starters and integrate 5 freshmen into a defensive system.

I have been thinking about this for a while and this kind of goes back to a post baldbruin wrote about experience last weekend following the tough loss against Arizona. The more that I think about it experience is not the key problem with our team. I think the key problem with our team is it doesn’t have an overwhelming, dominating leadership presence we have been blessed with last few years and also during the 1995 title run. Few weeks ago while discussing DC's leadership, I invoked the memories of 1995 bringing up Ed O, Edney and Zidek. I think in terms of talent PAA has an edge over Zidek. However, when it comes to leadership I think DC/JS are not Ed O and Edney.

Now let me be clear. I am by no means expressing disappointment in DC and JS. Those guys will be special Ben Ball warriors given what they have accomplished during their time in Howland’s program. Nothing will take away from their contributions to reestablishment of UCLA as a basketball power in the national scene. Yet, I think we also have to be honest with ourselves and realize that neither neither DC nor JS have the dominating leadership presence of an Ed O or AA.

Ed O or AA instilled an “attitude” in their teams through their play on both ends of the court. DC or JS just don’t have that because of their inability to play the role of a defensive stopper. Again it’s not an indictment on their efforts but the fact is neither DC nor JS have the ability to match up against more athletic opponents. They have been getting torched on the defensive end. It’s a bummer because given the fact that hallmark of a Ben Howland coached team is defense, it is incredibly difficult for any of these guys to vocally lead rest of the team when they themselves are getting burned on D time after time.

When Ed was leading the team in 95 or when AA/JF/LRMAM/RW led the team last few years, you knew in the back of your mind that we were going to lock up the opponent when we needed a stop or get that key bucket. I have to admit I don’t have that confidence any more in the back of mind while watching this team.

Again, it’s not an indictment against these group of seniors and upperclassmen of the talented freshmen bunch (as pointed out by posters here). I just think it was unfair on my part to hope that DC/JS/PAA would have the kind of senior year Ed O/Edney/Zidek enjoyed in their last year at UCLA. The more I think of this year’s team perhaps we should think about the mix Howland had in his second year at UCLA with the upperclassmen core of DT/CB/RH mixed in with the freshmen bunch of AA/JF/JS/LMR. If you look at the offensive/defensive stats from last five years the comparison seems more apt:

Year Offense Defense
2004-05 108.1 (69) 94.0 (55)
2005-06 113.0 (28) 85.1 (3)
2006-07 116.8 (23) 84.0 (2)
2007-08 119.7 (7) 83.9 (3)
2008-09 121.04 (3) 92.9 (43)

Notice the defensive stats from 2005 and this year.

This is not the first time Howland has had a tourney team with mediocre defense at UCLA. Howland’s 2004-05 team was having defensive issues because it took a while for the upperclassmen core of DT/CB/RH to gel with Howland’s first recruiting class at UCLA. It took almost two years for that team to finally get it going as it turned it on following a very disappointing loss at Southern Cal in later part of 05-06 season. I think we are experiencing the same deal right now. We don’t have a dominating presence like Ed’O in the locker room.

Our current  group of seniors (and upperclassmen) have some talent, but Howland hadn’t depended on them to play as major roles as they have been playing this year. While at the same time we have 5 talented kids still figuring out what it takes to play Ben Ball defense with 40 minutes of sustained intensity in closing stretches of this season. I firmly believe these kids will get it by next year. It will take time. I know I have been frustrated with not sensing the same intensity from JH as I sensed from AA and RW. Yet if you look at the numbers from 04-05, you can see what kind of defense we had despite AA and JF’s passion and desire for winning every game.

So I am going to do is hope that our guys come out and just fight to win every game. I don’t really care what happens at this point in terms of who wins the Pac-10 conference. I just want us to regroup and play with nothing to lose starting on Thursday night against the Stanford Cardinal. I do believe we will be underdogs against the Trees that will be chomping at the bits to jump all over UCLA.  Maples is one of the tougher places to play in the conference. Dawkins's team hasn't had the greatest year but they have had some decent wins at home including a win over Montgomery's Bears.

All I can ask for right now is for our guys is to give everything they have from start to finish. In some ways, our guys should play a little more relaxed from here on out because they no longer should feel any burden of winning the Pac-10 championship. It’s out of our hands now. What they can do is figure out how they can turn up the intensity on defense and focus on executing on all the opportunities they get on offense (will not rehash all the blown layups from last couple of games).

By the way, speaking of executing on offense, I think as clear as it is that the core issue for this year's team is defense, I think a key problem on our offense is we are not executing when our team really needs it. Last year we had KL, who was just about as sure shot as a team could get on offense via his lowpost game, shooting touch and FT shooting. We also had that from Ed O during that 94-95 season. As described above I just don't think DC has that ability to carry the team that way. Again it doesn't take away anything from what DC has given to this program and the legacy he will leave as one of the most successful UCLA basketball player in post-Wooden era. Still it's something to think about in terms of recalibrating our perspective on rest of this season. I have certainly done with mine.

Lastly, I should make the point that we shouldn’t be looking ahead to the Pac-10 tourney or the Madness. I know it's mantra of this community to take it one game at a time but it still is worth repeating for all the newcomers in recent days/weeks. If our guys don’t work on getting better on finding their defensive grove, intensity and focus (they seemed to locate during that four game home stand), we will have a very short stay in both of those tournaments (just like we did in 04-05).

So, here is to our guys finding their focus and defensive intensity, allowing our three seniors leaving on a high note.