UCLA basketball: Marques Johnson Q&A regarding opening loss
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Former UCLA All-American and five-time NBA All-Star Marques Johnson (above), who is also an analyst for Fox Sports Net, spoke with The Times on Saturday evening regarding his thoughts about the Bruins’ season-opening 69-58 loss to Loyola Marymount on Friday at the Sports Arena.
Did Friday night show that for all the hype about UCLA’s big men, college basketball is really mostly about guard play?
That’s what it’s all about. That’s the main ingredient for success. If you have good guards in college and adequate big guys, you can win a lot of games. If you have good big guys and average to adequate guard play, you’re going to struggle.
Did Loyola Marymount expose anything with its approach to the Bruins’ big men?
Smart coaches know you spread them out, whip that ball around the perimeter and get these bigs firing out and then use the quickness of their guys, the dribble penetration, to create all kinds of problems. It’s gonig to be tough to stop quicker teams and that’s what you saw.
Did Joshua Smith seem significantly different than last year as far as conditioning, and was he a disappointment?
Yes. And again, you say that taking into account that the defensive strategy that Loyola brought into the game was to surround him, front him, get deep backside, weak-side help to discourage the pass over the top. And UCLA’s got to do a better job; they missed him on five or six occasions where he was either posting up or coming across the lane. That’s the one thing they need to stress more in practice -- feeding the post. That was the same thing Kevin Love kind of went through at times when he was there. He might have great post-up position, and it’s a small window of opportunity. It’s like, one-thousand-one and it’s gone and if you don’t pull the trigger with a pass, the opening is closed. And that’s where UCLA was a little slow in pulling the trigger on some of those passes.
The weight, I was hoping, as we all were, that he would come back in better physical condition. It is what it is. He’s probably not going to be in shape to run up and down the floor to be an effective player within a month or so, but he’s still a force. I’m watching him just beat up those interior guys last night establishing position and catching it. I mean, he’s going to pound anybody he plays against, but he needs to get in better condition and once he does that, he’s obviously going to play a lot better.
Does UCLA need to consider zone defense?
Well, you know how Coach [Ben] Howland is. If you’re going to play big, to me, you’re almost better off looking at some zone. If you look at the lineup that they had last night, you could play some 2-3 zone with the Wear twins and Reeves [Nelson] and Josh … you might have the innate ability to stop dribble penetration because you’ve got everybody in position already.
But playing big you still have to defend against long perimeter jump shots and close out without getting beat off the dribble. The big lineup is definitely better suited for zone defense. I get the feeling we’ll see scaling down more and more [of the big lineup]. They may start off the game with that big lineup, but if you look at the total minutes of guys on the floor, the combination of five guys, I think that big lineup maybe won’t be as dominant as the coaching staff maybe had hoped it will be; they won’t dominate the minutes like they had hoped they could put them out there and just kind of be able to defend adequately.
Is the inside-out approach the right way to go given UCLA’s personnel?
If you can knock down the jump shots; if Tyler Lamb and David Wear and Reeves to a lesser extent and Jerime Anderson once he gets back [from suspension], if you can knock down some jump shots because if I’m going to play UCLA, I’m packing it in and daring them to shoot the perimeter shot and they have to prove to me they can beat me consistently by knocking down 18- to 20-foot jump shots. If not, they’ve got to re-think what they’re trying to do.
If you’re coaching UCLA in practice the day after this game, what changes do you make and what do you say to your team?
You have to keep everybody together and everybody thinking about the same goal, playing together as a team. And Coach Howland is one of the best at starting off at this level and building and getting his team to improve. You don’t want to have a loss tacked on you this early to a mid-major like LMU coming in, but at the same time it’s a teaching tool and I think what they’ve got to do is get these guards more focused in on stopping dribble penetration.
A couple of times last night, the shot clock is winding down and [Loyola Marymount’s Anthony] Ireland has the ball in his hands, there’s three seconds on the clock and [UCLA’s Lazeric Jones] has his hands down. There’s some awareness things that you have to really home in on if you’re a defensive basketball player; you know he’s got to shoot the ball, he’s got to push the ball and make him take a couple of more dribbles, take up a couple of more seconds. It’s just decisions like that that could be improved.
Did the Wears, who combined to make 10 of 20 shots, shoot too much for your liking?
No. Not at all. Those are the shots that the defense was giving them. David Wear, in particular, did a great job knocking them down in that first half. But those second-half shots, when you’re looking at a 10-point deficit, are a lot tougher to make as opposed to those first-half shots when the game is still in the feeling-out process. But overall, I had a positive impression of the Wear twins and what they brought to the table.
Do you think Jerime Anderson will make a difference once he returns from his suspension in the next game Tuesday against Middle Tennessee State?
Yeah. I think so. He has senior leadership and also the hunger after what he’s been through [with his arrest and subsequent suspension in connection with the theft of a laptop]. He’s out to redeem and to prove and to show. Just his mind-set I think is going to be so team-oriented and positive and so perfect for what this team kind of needs in terms of leadership.
Did Friday night’s game change your expectations for what this team is capable of or how this season will unfold?
When the media predicted this team to win the Pac-12, I thought that was a reach and I thought everybody got enamored by their size. I like Oregon and I like Cal and Arizona even. Washington, because of their quickness, is another team that’s going to present some problems. I thought UCLA is a top-25 team, but it’s a work in progress. You can’t just say, ‘Play these big guys and that’s going to be our approach to the game of basketball’ and come out in the first game and expect them to gel. It’s going to take some time for them to learn how to play with these different lineups.
It was disappointing to lose to Loyola, don’t get me wrong. You never want to lose to a team like that at home, a local team you should beat. But give the Lions a lot of credit; they played a great game, shot the ball extremely well. Ireland played a great basketball game.
But I like Coach Howland and this was an attention-grabber for these guys, especially heading into Maui in the next couple of weeks. … Now it’s time to get to work, so from that standpoint it’s not a horrible loss at this stage of the season.