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UCLA Basketball: Don’t Blame the Players

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UCLA’s next basketball coach inherits a very good team.

NCAA Basketball: Southern California at UCLA
Teams were double and triple teaming Moses Brown at times this year.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team had the most bizarre season in recent memory. There were blowout losses, comeback wins, and a terrible set offense with two head coaches and all of this happened while leading the conference in scoring. The only thing everyone can agree on is that this year’s team underachieved. If for no other reason, it was ranked top 25 preseason and picked second in the Pac-12. So what happened?

While all agree that the coaches were to blame to some extent, some here have to come to the conclusion that the players are overrated and/or headcases.

I strongly disagree. This team is incredibly talented and would have easily achieved those preseason goals with a good coach. I will use three underachievers as an example. The ultimate Alford player and Murry Bartow’s two favorites.

Moses Brown

A long time ago, BritishBruin posted how it takes bigs longer to become good players. Ironically, in some way, the UCLA player Moses Brown is most similar to is Ryan Hollins and Hollins is a perfect example. Ryan was a high school track athlete. He was long and could leap out of the building. He was a mediocre Pac-12 player, but, during his senior year, the light bulb went off and he keyed a run to the championship game. He also went on to a long pro career. Moses is potentially much better than Hollins.

So, why was Moses a liability at times on the court? Let me start by talking about his defense. Moses really struggled in man-to-man. It was easy for me to see why. You want Moses close to the basket. Bartow would talk frequently how he wanted to play Brown more minutes, but the team was often better with Jalen Hill and even Alex Olesinski on the court.

The reason is simple, Moses has never played true man-to-man. My own child went through same thing in rec or house league. My kid was the tallest in the league. My child’s team was very good and, when they played man-to-man, his coach would put my kid on one of the worst players and tell my kid to sag off to help. The team did well but then came All-Stars. My child was forced to play real man-to-man against a good player. My child was torn apart on defense because he had spent the year sagging off and helping.

Moses is infinitely better than my kid, but he has played his whole life similarly. His first job was rim protector. He probably never played in a 3-2 zone. And, to be clear, he is quick for a big. He could do it, but was never coached on how to do it. Bartow loved Brown so much that he kept UCLA in zone strictly for almost the whole season when they should have been in man-to-man. It was bad for UCLA and bad long-term for Brown as he learned very little.

In 20 Pac-12 games, Moses Brown had three assists. That’s hard to do. He never passed. Again, in high school when he got the ball, it was all over. He was taller, longer and more athletic than anyone he played against. Now, in the Pac-12, it’s simple. Brown doesn’t pass. If he gets the ball, opponents triple team him and it’s easy peasy to neutralize him. As a result, he also forced a lot of bad shots.

A good coach would teach him how to play man defense, how to pass, and little things like proper footwork and getting to the right spots. Bartow emphasized zone and feeding the post, not inside and out. Jalen Hill outplayed him because he knew how to play man-to-man and he passed. But Brown has a much higher ceiling than Hill and could be a great Pac-12 player. He should have a better pro career than Hollins, but he needs the right coach.

Jules Bernard

Bartow had a man crush on Jules Bernard. He loved the way he played and encouraged Bernard to play with what Bartow called “reckless abandon.”

Are you kidding me?

This is like telling a great white shark to kill more things. Bernard’s problem was that he went for the kill too often. He would drive to the hoop when it was one on three on a regular basis. One stat that sort of tells that tale is free throw attempts. He had 21 free throw attempts in 11 road or neutral court Pac-12 games and 35 in 9 home games. At home, you get bailed out on the drives with a foul call. On the road, not so much. Bernard was a ball stopper and non-passer.

I like to think of Bernard like Sidney Wicks. No, Bernard will never be that good, but he needs to learn that, just because you are so good that you can score one-on-three, it doesn’t mean you should try to do so. One of my favorite Coach Wooden stories was when Sidney Wicks begged Wooden to shoot further out. After weeks of begging, Wooden relented and told Wicks if he could make ten shots in a row from a further out spot in practice, he could do it. Wicks made nine in a row and missed the tenth. So, the answer was still “no.” But, Wooden was still happy because Wicks was so good he could hit that shot.

Moreover, think of it from Bernard’s perspective. He is so good that he can score at times one-on-three in the Pac-12. How do you think that worked in high school? Do you think they could stop him? And for another story on my same kid. One game two of the best players were missing, the coach told the team to get the ball and get it to my child to shoot at every chance. My kid outscored the other team and had a career high in a win. The next week my child was awful and had a terrible game. Part of it was the other team was better, but part of it was my kid was forcing shots and not being ready to go back to being the team’s second or third option. Again, Bernard is infinitely better, but there is no doubt that, for most of his life, Bernard one-on-three has been a better option than his teammates.

Bernard was ill-served by Bartow telling him to play with “reckless abandon.” Bernard has a decent three-point stroke and he needs to learn to pick his spots. His effort is off the charts and a good coach would love him AND teach him to play within an offense. As it was, he was outplayed by David SIngleton who hit the open threes and, generally, only took good shots. Singleton understood he was, at best, the third option and did not think “shoot” every time he touched the ball.

Cody Riley

While Brown and Bernard were Bartow favorites, Riley was probably the player who paid the most for the coaching change. In some ways, Riley was an Alford favorite and was in Bartow’s dog house. Alford loves a stretch four. A number of them are in the pros now. His first big recruit that was a 100% on Alford was Kevon Looney. TJ Leaf put up some of the all-time best numbers leading UCLA in shooting 68% from the field and 47% from three. But it is the other Alford pro four that Cody may have the most in common: Jonah Bolden. Bolden played for UCLA for one tumultuous season where he never fit in, yet he is playing the most NBA minutes of any player on that 2015-16 team that had a losing record.

Bolden missed his first season for academic reasons. His second season he was suspended the first game. Riley got off to a similar rough start. He was suspended than injured. But, like Bolden was passed by Tony Parker playing out of position or Gygory Goloman who was slated to start in front of him before injuries, Riley under Bartow was an afterthought finishing the season with Alex Olesinski playing in front of him in the rotation.

Now, Bolden was a great athlete. Riley is more of a big guy who can do it all, at least on paper. Riley can play back to the basket, hit an open three, pass, dribble, etc. He looks like the perfect Steve Alford stretch four, but here is the thing, Riley, like Bolden his second year, does not understand that he is the fourth or fifth option on offense. No Riley, we don’t need you to post up and score. We need you to rebound the Moses Brown miss when your man double teams Moses. No Cody, we don’t need you to drive to the basket a la Jules Bernard, but we do need you to keep your man out of the lane so Bernard can drive. And, most of all, we need your big body on defense. Both Moses Brown and Jalen Hill rebounded on a much better per minute basis than Riley.

Riley is also the guy most hurt by the terrible set offense. UCLA’s push offense did not fit Riley’s game. Riley is also the guy that is hardest to figure out. He can bury an open three, but is second-worst to Brown at shooting free throws. He is a real good passer for a big guy but was a turnover machine at times this year. The upside of Riley is high. It will take the right coach to get him there. Unlike Bernard or Brown, it is less of a sure thing, but a guy like Riley shows potential which could be developed by the right coach.

As it is, this season Alex Olesinski was a better option on the court. Alex understood that he was always the fifth option. In the last game when Moses had the ball and Alex’s man went to double team, Alex, knowing Brown was a mortal lock to shoot, crashed the boards and get a tip-in bucket when Brown missed. Alex was smart but UCLA’s offense was not. No offense to Alex but Riley has a much a higher ceiling.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is all three of these guys have the potential to be All-Pac-12 players and, in Brown’s case, he has the potential for a long career. The problem was that Alford and Bartow never taught, really coached or used them appropriately. And it is not just their fault. As I tried to show with Brown and Bernard, I have little doubt they are playing the way they have always been coached. That just doesn’t work at this level.

With the right coach, this team could have exceeded preseason expectations. Ultimately, as Oregon which just won the Pac-12 Tournament without their best player shows, coaching matters.