The excellent scouting website Bruin Report Online has a series of headlines on why UCLA has struggled on their basketball page (none behind a firewall) because of a lack of effort. A typical line is:
It's a broken record now, but UCLA's lack of effort and lack of focus once again cost them any chance at a win at Oregon on Saturday.
This is not the problem. This implies it is a failure of motivation. I think the players play hard. I think Steve Alford is a decent/good players coach. The most recent example is Tony Parker Saturday. The senior Parker was taken out of the starting lineup and came off the bench and played well. For many coaches a player in a similar spot may have tanked. Other examples are Noah Allen, who plays hard even though he never knows if he is even going to play. Yet another is Prince Ali. We have heard no complaints from Ali despite the fact he has gone from likely starter before the season to being passed by Noah in the rotation at times. He also has played hard but not always well.
The issue is Steve Alford has problems adjusting his strategy or using his players correctly. Last Saturday was really the first time in his three seasons at UCLA Alford had changed the lineup for a non-injury reason. Players' minutes also seem set in stone except for foul trouble.
This is not to say Alford's strategy is always bad. It has work well against certain teams. UCLA best wins have come against teams that had two things in common, they are good defensive teams and relatively poor outside shooting. They are teams with very good bigs and one good three shooter.
1. Kentucky (two of their three starting guards shoot less than 30% from three)
2. Gonzaga (their guards went 2-16 from three against UCLA)
3. Arizona (their guards shot 14-39 and the game was close because two guards hit their threes.)
UCLA can beat a team that is defense first and has poor outside shooting guards.
On the other side, there are three ways to beat UCLA.
1. Speed us up. UCLA struggles with a fast athletic team. This is not on Bryce as much as Aaron Holiday. Aaron Holiday can get sped up and out of control. Aaron Holiday has 23 assists and 35 turnovers in UCLA losses versus 61 assists to just 26 turnovers in wins. Holiday does not do well in fast games and makes more mistakes. Jack Wang had a great chart about UCLA's struggles with fast teams.
2. Exposing Bryce on Defense. If the other team has three good guards, we are in trouble as Bryce is a major liability on defense. USC last time we played them went to Kevin Reinhert (their third guard over and over again) and his sub Elijah Stewart. The two combined for 13 of USC's first 30 points on Bryce. USC's offense was clicking and UCLA suffered its worst home loss under Steve Alford.
3. Having too few athletes in the game at once. The following players are relatively "un-athletic" for their positions:
Tony Parker as a 4
As Steve Alford has said we are too dam "slow." Playing three of these guys at once makes us slow.
It is not a matter of effort because there are coaching answers to these problems. Here are some possible answers.
1. Slow the heck down.
It is funny to see Tony Parker up high defending a four and then leading the break. It is also a recipe for disaster. This is the least athletic but most balanced offense UCLA has had in years. By that I mean the classic starting lineup of Parker-Welsh-Hamilton-Alford-Holiday have all scored 20+ in a game this season except for Holiday whose high is 19. This team's scoring strength is not a great athlete like NP4 or Shabazz Muhammad getting out on the break or a Russell Westbrook or Arron Afflalo breaking down someone one on one; this team has no one likely to go pro next year. Its strength is its balance and ability to exploit a defense's weakness. It can score every way in the set offense, Parker in the post, Welsh with the deadly mid-range jumper, Isaac with the teardrop, Holiday off the dribble or Bryce with the three. Playing fast negates that in that it makes it a contest of athletes. UCLA needs to play within its offense.
2. If the other team has three very good offensive guards, you have to consider benching Bryce.
UCLA's problem this season has not been offense but defense. UCLA gets exposed by athletic offensive teams. The best way to improve this is benching your slowest and worst defender. UCLA's offense is good enough it can survive without Bryce.
If the other team is not pressing and has three good scoring guards, UCLA is better with Ali in the game for defense. Hamilton has become an adept scorer and is a good number one option. Ali is just good enough on offense you can't ignore him (like you could Noah Allen) or he may embarrassing you with a thundering dunk. If Ali can play smart and know he is playing for his defense, UCLA will be better with him on the floor over Bryce in some situations.
Keep in mind a lot of teams do not have three good scoring guards.
3. Protect your non-athletes.
Do not play Tony Parker at four against an athletic four. Gonzaga's Wiltjer was killing Tony until Jonah Bolden came in the game to shut him down.
Never play Thomas Welsh as a wing in the zone (as Alford does in 3-2 zone). Welsh's strength is his height. Having him chase down players on the wing makes him rely on his feet instead of his height and makes Welsh a bad defender.
Never play GG as a three and try not to play Bolden at 3. Yes, GG is a skilled passer and a decent shooter. But come on, how the heck is a 6'11" slow guy going to cover a guard? I am not sure GG can even cover an athletic four let alone a three. To a lesser extent this is true for Bolden who is very athletic for a four but just average for a 3 on defense.
Limit GG's minutes. GG is much better on offense than Bolden. Bolden is much better on defense and rebounding. We need D and rebounding, not offense. GG should play single digit minutes and should be the eighth man in a seven man rotation. Bolden needs 30+ minutes a game at 4.
One last note on rotations, it depends on the opponents. Some examples, against a good pressing team Bryce has to play point. Big-Big can work against Arizona and some other teams and should not be abandoned completely.
The key point is Alford has a team of good not great players that a good coach could do a lot with. It is versatile as he said to start the year. To Alford's credit he has the players bought in and no complaints about minutes. It is not about the players' efforts. It is about Alford's use of the players. Alford can't be rigid but must adept.
He needs to use his players better to take advantage of matchups and get the most out of his team. If he does, we can beat Kentucky; if he doesn't, we can lose to Wake Forest.