Wang's Word: Men's basketball struggles with thin defense, sluggish half-court

This season, UCLA men’s basketball revolves around Moses Brown.

The 7-foot-2-inch freshman center will be a mismatch for most of the teams on the Bruins’ schedule. That much was obvious after he posted 19 points and 17 rebounds – seven offensive – against Purdue Fort Wayne on Tuesday.

The question now is what else UCLA fans should keep an eye on.

As with any one of coach Steve Alford’s teams, defense is the obvious answer. But what specifically can the Bruins improve on defense?

None of the guards have shown they can defend in isolation, and all the healthy big men right now are either freshmen or redshirt freshmen who will be constantly challenged in the pick-and-roll.

A simple fix could be eliminating undisciplined fouls, such as reach ins and lazy swipes at an opposing player driving through the paint.

“(Fouling) was part of our defense that I think has been a problem when we looked and evaluated things as a staff,” Alford said. “We’ve got the bodies, we’ve got the length, we’ve got the athleticism to be much better defensively, but you can’t foul. A foul is part of not being good defensively. You don’t foul when you’re in the right defensive position – fouling happens because you’re out of position.”

If the Bruins want to get out and run on offense – and they probably do after tallying 85 possessions against the Mastodons compared to their average of 74 last season – defense becomes even more of a key.

“Defensively, I think there are some things that we need to work on,” said sophomore guard Kris Wilkes. “We gotta play a whole 40 minutes, not just 20 minutes like we did last year. We have to get rid of that and move on forward this year and play better defense.”

On offense, most of the concern comes at point guard, in which sophomore Jaylen Hands and freshman David Singleton will be UCLA’s one-two punch.

This is Hands’ first collegiate experience in a traditional ballhandling role, and Singleton said the last time he played at the position was his freshman year of high school. Hands was trigger-happy last season and chucked early shot-clock 3-pointers instead of moving the ball in the flow of the offense, which drew ire from Alford.

How Hands runs the offense in a half-court setting – and if he can approach former point guard Aaron Holiday’s 5.8 assists per game last year – will determine if UCLA has a top-tier offense.

“We’ve got a long way to go with half-court offense, because I think once we got to half court we stood a lot,” Alford said following Tuesday’s game. “And we didn’t screen and cut like we’ve got to do. … When you have success in transition and then all of a sudden you have to play in half court, you stand a lot.”

Wilkes is taking over Holiday’s role as the go-to scorer, but the sophomore doesn’t have the handle to consistently break defenders down in isolation. If Wilkes can improve his off-ball movement and how he utilizes off-ball screens, he’ll give himself more breathing room to slice through opposing defenses.

Another interesting development is sophomore guard Chris Smith’s shot. He made all three of his 3-pointers against Purdue Fort Wayne, and if he can shoot a respectable percentage from beyond the arc, I think he can steal minutes from redshirt junior guard Prince Ali.

UCLA remains a perimeter-focused team offensively with paper-thin defensive tenacity. The foundation is there in Hands, Wilkes and Brown, and Alford has the players to make a deep run in March.

The question is how much the Bruins will buy into change.