Bruins have next move in chess game

LOS ANGELES -- Word on the street is out: Larry Drew II and Kyle Anderson can't shoot and the UCLA Bruins can't rebound.

At least that's the word USC and Arizona State swore by when they used very similar defensive strategies to upset the Bruins the past two games. The Trojans and Sun Devils both sagged off of Drew and Anderson, daring each player to shoot the ball while focusing defensive efforts on shutting down leading scorers Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams and crowding the paint to get rebounds.

The idea is to make Drew and Anderson uncomfortable and it worked in those games. Those two players bring a pass-first mindset to the offensive end and were a combined 13-for-38 (34 percent) as UCLA lost consecutive games for the first time this season.

The Bruins (16-6, 6-3) have lost three of their past four games, and to break the slide against Washington on Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion they'll have to counteract the new strategy that is sure to be employed by future opponents. Anderson acknowledged that the tactic is "a smart way to play us," but the best counterpunch would be to make shots.

UCLA has slumped from the field in its past two games, making only 51 of 140 shots (36.4 percent) against USC and Arizona State. That's well off the Bruins' season average of 46.5 percent.

"If we're making shots how we normally do then it will work out in our favor," Anderson said. "We just have to have confidence in shooting jump shots. I've been in the gym a lot working on getting my shot back, so just knocking down that jump shot and making them play us honestly."

It's difficult to adjust on the fly, however. Drew said after the USC game that the strategy had him thinking a little too much instead of just reacting.

"Obviously it's in your head because you expect somebody to come out here and guard you like you do them and it's like they're not guarding you," Drew said after the USC loss. "It's kind of obvious."

The most difficult area to reconcile, Drew said, is that he knows the defense wants him to shoot and so if he does, it plays into the hands of the opponent. He said he needs to find a balance.

"I want to shoot the ball but at the same time, that's what the defense wants me to do -- take away from everything else we've been doing all season," he said. "It's something I'm going to have to adjust to. Just getting in the gym and getting up more shots and making more shots so I'm coming into the game ready to knock down an open jumper. That'll just free up everybody else so I'm going to have to adjust to it."

The Bruins are also working in some new wrinkles on offense to combat the strategy. They are spacing the floor differently and working in some new motion plays to make the opposing defense move around to help clear out the middle.

"I think it's about our spacing," Muhammad said. "If they are going to clog the paint, I think we have to really space the floor out so they really can't clog it so much. If we shoot the ball better and space the floor out, they really can't do anything about clogging it."

Coach Ben Howland, however, said opponents wouldn't alter their strategies so much that it takes them out of character. Against Washington on Thursday, for instance, he expects to see a lot of ball pressure.

"I think every team is different," Howland said. "They are going to play how they play. That's kind of how SC plays, that's how Arizona State plays. I think teams are going to do what they do, they aren't really changing anything."

Rebounding is an area of bigger concern to Howland. The Bruins have been on the wrong end of a 181-145 rebounding deficit over the past four games, including a 97-69 deficit over the past two. In conference games, UCLA is last among Pac-12 teams with a minus-5.3 rebounding margin.

"We've got to do better there," Howland said. "It's a team effort, it's not anybody. Kyle has done a great job. He's one of the leaders in the conference. We've got to get everybody else to do a better job blocking out and stepping up."

Muhammad put the blame on himself. He's averaging a mere 4.8 rebounds per game and hasn't had more than six in a game since Jan. 5. He has averaged 4.25 over the past four games.

"I think I can average about 10 rebounds," Muhammad said. "We really need to step it up on the rebounding and I think I need to really take initiative in doing that. It's just a habit. You have to go for the rebound every time and sometimes I find myself trying to get out on the break and we don't have the ball, so that's one thing I have to concentrate on is going in to grab that rebound."

Howland said that if the team continues to get outrebounded the way it has in recent games, the Bruins will be lucky to go 6-3 in the second half of conference play.

"We're 6-3 and we could easily be 7-2 and tied for first had we done something here or something there in either of our home losses," Howland said. "That being said, we're not going to end up 6-3 in the second half unless we shore up our rebounding."