NEW YORK—UCLA’s first big test is in the books and while an 82-70 loss to No. 7 Villanova in the NIT Season Tip-off semifinals Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden isn’t exactly going to get the flags waving in Westwood, you have to give UCLA a passing grade.
This was the first road trip of the season for a team with no seniors and the first Division I road trip in the careers of starting point guard Lazeric Jones, starting center Joshua Smith and backup guard Tyler Lamb. It was also against a team ranked in the top-10, and UCLA was within six points at 62-56 with 5:43 to play.
Here are five things the Bruins can take from this big-time step up in competition as they prepare to face Virginia Commonwealth in the third-place game Friday at 11:30 a.m. Pacific.
1. The Bruins don’t quit.
This is an important characteristic for a young team coming off of a marginal season. UCLA had several chances to roll over, but simply kept fighting back.
They trailed quickly, 8-0, but fought back and cut the lead to 14-11. They trailed, 44-29 at halftime, but roared back and cut that deficit to 58-52.
“We played our hardest,” said forward Reeves Nelson, who had his third consecutive double-double with 13 points and 10 renbounds. “I think everybody on the team can say they played as hard as they could and tried as hard as they could. At the end of the day, that’s all you want to be able to do.”
2. The Bruins can’t afford to get in those types of holes.
This is a young team with a lot of fight, but it’s also not very deep. Only 10 scholarship players suited up for UCLA and the Bruins used a nine-man rotation, but trying to come back like that with a shallow bench is not a good plan.
Every time the Bruins got within striking distance, they gave up a Villanova run.
“Always trying to climb back is a tough job,” UCLA guard Jerime Anderson said. “You get there and you can’t get over that hump. That’s what kept happening to us.”
3. The Bruins might have problems against quick, athletic guards.
Villanova guards Corey Fisher, Maalik Wayns and Corey Stokes killed UCLA off the dribble, continuously finding paths to the basket. They combined for 61 points.
“We probably should have hedged the screen a little differently than we did,” Coach Ben Howland said. “That’s my fault. I was worried about them slipping screens and hurting us that way.”
Fisher, who scored 26 points, basically won the game for Villanova with a virtuoso-like performance at the end of the first half. He scored six points during a 14-2 Wildcats run that extend Villanova’s lead from 30-27 to 44-29.
“They were really good guards,” said Jones, the UCLA point guard. “Some of the two best guards in the country. We learned a lot of things. I sure learned a lot of things. I have to go back and get better. This team deserves better.”
4. Joshua Smith needs to be on the floor
Smith has had foul trouble in all of UCLA’s games this season. The Bruins were able to overcome his absence against the lesser competition they faced against Cal State Northridge, Pepperdine and Pacific, but to compete in the big time, they need their big man.
Smith, listed at 6-10, 305, had his way in the paint at times against Villanova. He had 10 points and four rebounds in only 19 minutes, but sat on the bench for stretches. He was in the game when UCLA cut Villanova’s lead from 30-21 to 30-27, but sat out during Villanova’s 14-2 run to close the half.
“I’ve just got to figure out a way to stop getting two quick fouls,” Smith said. “That’s three games in a row for me. I want to see how I can play without getting into foul trouble.”
5. This UCLA squad has potential
There are no moral victories, but UCLA’s ability to hang with a Big East power is a positive sign.
The memories of last year’s 14-18 season are official in the rear view mirror. This is not a team that will lose to Cal State anybody and could very well be in the mix for the Pac-10 title in a couple of months.
“We’re going to grow and get a lot better every game,” Anderson said. “I think by the time we get to conference, hopefully we’ll be in the top 25, maybe even the top 10. I think our team is that good and we just need to keep getting better.”
Staying healthy is important. UCLA got a scare last week when Malcolm Lee went out with a sprained ankle and missed a game, but Lee returned Wednesday. After getting shut out in the first half, he shook off the rust and finished with 13 points.
“A loss is a loss, but I feel that our team played good in moments,” Lee said. “But to be as good of a team as we want to be, we’re going to have to play more consistent. We played good in moments, but we need to play that way all the time.”