Is there such a thing as a "must win" college basketball game in December? Technically, not really, but following Tuesday's demoralizing loss to Georgetown that dropped Texas' record to 5-3, in practice Saturday's match up with UCLA at Reliant Stadium (4:15 pm CT, ESPN) certainly feels like a game this young team needs to win to help avoid becoming the first group of Longhorns to miss the NCAA Tournament during Rick Barnes' tenure.
The Bruins will be playing with a sense of urgency themselves, entering the game with an equally shaky 5-3 season record that includes a home loss to Cal Poly and no quality wins. Like Texas, UCLA's preseason stock was fairly high, but Ben Howland's club has been a mess in the early going this season and -- having lost two more players to transfer (both Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb left the team in November) as well as the faith of an increasingly disillusioned fan base -- if he fails to get this team turned around quickly and the Bruins miss the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four season, the head coach who as recently as March 2008 was celebrating a third consecutive trip to the Final Four almost assuredly will be fired at season's end. If he even makes it that far:
And the flaming bag of poo that has become UCLA basketball continued to burn as the Bruins suffered their third loss in five games. Speaking of which, I suggest you all start putting together your résumés now, because there's a chance UCLA will lose to Texas on Saturday, in which case I fully expect Ben Howland to be fired before he makes it back to the locker room after the game.
This UCLA squad looked formidable on paper heading into the season and many thought that the the Bruins -- bolstered by the arrival of arguably the best recruiting class in the nation -- were primed to reverse their recent skid, but as has become characteristic of the Bruins in recent years (and was decidedly uncharacteristic of them during their Final Four run), the team has often looked listless, while the defense has been soft. Desperately needing to turn things around, Howland used an in-season scrimmage versus Cal State San Marcos this week to transition away from what has been an ineffective zone, returning to the man-to-man defense on which his reputation was originally built.
Following the departures of Smith and Lamb, UCLA is largely playing an eight-man rotation that includes four true freshmen. The name everyone knows is SF Shabazz Muhammad, the consensus No. 1 recruit in the 2012 class who is similar in both size (6-6, 225 pounds) and skill set to Oklahoma State's Le'Bryan Nash, but he's joined in the starting line up by two more gifted freshmen. The 6-6, 220-pound SG Jordan Adams is an exceptionally difficult player to deal with, a natural scorer who can stroke it from deep (17-46 3PFG, 37%) but has both the physical size/strength and ball skills to attack the paint, where he's great at getting a shot at the rim or a trip to the free throw line. Rounding out the trio is Kyle Anderson, a 6-9, 225-pound athlete who starts at the wing but is one of the best rebounders in the entire country.
The three freshmen are flanked in the starting line up by a pair of experienced veterans. The team's conductor this year is redshirt senior Larry Drew II (6-2, 180 pounds), who spent three seasons running the point at North Carolina before leaving in February 2011 and transferring to UCLA. Averaging 4 points and 4 assists as a junior before he transferred, Drew is off to a strong start in Westwood, where he's averaging 35 minutes per game and, though still not scoring much (5.3 points per game), is thriving as a distributor, with an exceptional 68-to-11 assist-to-turnover ratio. Rounding out the starting five is redshirt junior Travis Wear (6-10, 230), who is an asset on defense and chips in value in a number of different areas but has failed to develop into an impact player, unable to create clean looks for himself consistently enough to be a great scorer and providing only average rebounding for his size.
The starters are spelled by a pair of solid frontcourt players in David Wear -- twin brother of starting forward Travis -- and freshman Tony Parker (6-9, 270 pounds), a natural basketball player with good hands whose minutes should continue to increase following Josh Smith's departure, and who I see proving to be a better option than Smith sooner rather than later.
Keys to the Game
Let's see if we can do a little bit better with these than last time, yes?
1. Play zone and make UCLA hit some threes. A zone defense accomplishes several things against UCLA. First, it neuters Larry Drew, who can't shoot from the perimeter and is most effective as a drive and dish guy. Second, it condenses defensive resources around the paint, which is where UCLA's players most scare you. Third, while Adams and Powell have good outside strokes, UCLA as a team isn't a great perimeter shooting team -- shooting just 32.8% on their threes this year and scoring just 19% of their points for the season via the three ball. Fourth, I like the way Texas is playing zone right now, and don't feel great about our man defense against UCLA's explosive athletes.
2. Let these kids play some basketball. Installing set offense like the flex is a worthwhile objective, and maybe this group can function at higher level in the halfcourt when Myck returns, but they're just not capable of executing it right now, and following a fail parade like the Georgetown game, these young players are at risk of getting tighter and tighter and tighter and Barnes needs to figure out how to release these kids from overthinking and get them to just play some basketball. Instead of slow developing plays with poor screening that doesn't accomplish the objective, let Felix and Ridley run some two-man game on the pick n roll. Bring McClellan a high ball screen and tell him to go score. And though I don't know that I'd press Larry Drew and UCLA, I'd sure as hell tell my guys to push the ball on every defensive rebound, looking to score early in the shot clock against an unset defense. We need our guys to get out of their heads and play loose and confident on offense. Simplify, build 'em up, tell them to go play some damn basketball.
3. Don't kill yourself with turnovers, win the free throw battle. It's no secret that we're going to lose a lot of basketball games this year if the extreme turnovers persist, and most of that's on the players to get fixed. Barnes has always had teams that value possessions and this group's either got to get that figured out or forget about an NCAA Tournament bid. UCLA is only forcing turnovers on 19.3% of possessions, one of the lower rates in the country. I expect they won't be playing that soft zone anymore, but either way Texas needs to reduce their turnover rate by almost half, no two ways about it. At the same time, if UCLA is going to ditch the zone defense in favor of pressure man defense, Texas needs to be aggressive in getting to the line. And making some for a change (64% FT shooting on the year).
4. Play Papi. This is another match up where I like what Papi offers us on both ends of the floor, and want to see him match or exceed Holmes in minutes. Again, at least while Kabongo is out, Holmes trying to create offense is counterproductive. The same isn't true of Papi.
Damn, it's hard to get a feel for this one, isn't it? Both teams are struggling, both will be playing away from home, and both are going to be looking to mix things up and evolve from what they've done (unsuccessfully) to start the year. Texas has won three in a row versus UCLA, though, and the Bruins are one of the few teams that's reeling even more than we are. I don't have a great feeling about it, but I'll call for Texas to win the one they have to.
Texas 70 UCLA 68