UCLA man-to-man defense ‘a work in progress’

LOS ANGELES — Jordan Adams thought UCLA’s exhibition game was cancelled. He figured they just wouldn’t play it.

It was strange, indeed, to be playing an exhibition contest in December after you’ve already played eight games that count.

That’s exactly what the Bruins faced on Tuesday night when they welcomed Cal State San Marcos into the new Pauley Pavilion. It was an 83-60 win for UCLA which won’t count on their record.

The decision to push the exhibition game back was because the school wanted the first game inside of the new Pauley Pavilion to be an official game.

Understandable, but it still made Tuesday’s events kind of strange. It was an announced 4,174 people in attendance. Many of the students elected not to show up, at all.

“It’s odd to be playing an exhibition game in the middle of the season,” UCLA head coach Ben Howland said. “I will admit that. That is a little different.”
Tuesday’s exhibition was supposed to be about man-to-man defense. It was supposed to be about the Bruins getting better defensively while also being able to execute offensively against man-to-man defense in the half court. Howland asked San Marcos head coach Jim Saia to play man-to-man defense for the whole game.

The Cougars did and the Bruins turned the ball over.

As a team that has taken care of the ball fairly well this season, they did not on Tuesday night. UCLA committed 21 turnovers which is more than they’ve had in any game this season. In games that count, the most turnovers the team committed was 16, twice. For Howland, it was the story of the game.

“(It was) the biggest negative of the game,” Howland said of the turnovers.

Added Larry Drew II: “I think that was the most pressure we’ve seen, man-to-man wise, all year. They really did a good job of pressuring the ball, getting out in the passing lanes, just getting a hand up in denial just trying to get us to speed up and turn the ball over.”

As far as their own defensive issues, the Bruins held San Marcos to 37 percent shooting in the game but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The Cougars missed a lot of open shots.

“You can see that our man defense needs a lot of work,” UCLA head coach Ben Howland said. “We have to continue to evolve defensively in our man.”

Howland has expressed his preference for his team to play man-to-man defense and there is some hesitancy on his behalf to play zone defense.

“He doesn’t like the zone,” Shabazz Muhammad said.

After Tuesday night, he’s convinced his team is going to have to have a healthy balance of man and zone throughout the season.

The big question is how effective can their man-to-man defense be? Even with Josh Smith no longer on the roster, overall quickness and athleticism isn’t a strength of Howland’s team.

Those are key components to being able be a good team defensively, especially in man-to-man.

The team feels like they’re just good enough to make it work.

“We just got to play with a sense of urgency all the time and play harder all of the time,” David Wear said. “We can’t relax on defense and focus on offense all of the time.”  

Moreover, they feel they have to make it work because once Pac-12 conference play begins they won’t be able to rely heavily on their zone defense. The team doesn’t mix it up defensively with different zone looks. They go with a standard 2-3 zone which the team hasn’t put a lot of work into to this point.

“There’s only a couple of teams that could really rely on zone,” Wear said. “Obviously, Syracuse just because they’ve been playing it for years. It’s really hard when we really haven’t worked on it as much and Coach Howland isn’t really a zone coach.

“Once you get into conference play, you just face so many different shooters and you have so much time to game plan for that, it’s really tough to just play zone the whole time.”

Wear says the man-to-man defense is the most problematic area for this team, so far.

Howland says “It’s a work in progress.”