Murry Bartow tries to fill the void whenever he can. UCLA’s interim coach will call one of his players to the sideline during a stoppage in play, giving a pointer on the way the offense should be run or a nuance of the defense plan that the team just isn’t getting.
It’s the sort of message that ideally would be conveyed by someone on the court.
“You love to have that guy that’s been in your program four years and he’s a coach on the floor and all that,” Bartow said during a quiet moment this week at the team’s practice facility. “With this team right now, we don’t really have that.”
Across town, USC coach Andy Enfield is also having to be more assertive than he would like. The Trojans have mostly floundered in the absence of point guard Jordan McLaughlin, who steadied the team in the waning moments of a tight game or whenever an opponent went on a big run.
McLaughlin is now doing those things for the Long Island Nets of the NBA’s G League, leaving the Trojans to search for a galvanizing presence that has rarely emerged.
“The great teams have great leaders on them usually,” Enfield said last weekend after his team faded in the final minutes of a loss to Oregon State. “You look at championship-level teams, there’s great leadership, and there’s an unselfish spirit and players that go out and do the right thing over and over and over, offensively, defensively, off the court, in the classroom. We’ve had that the last three years. This year it has been a bit of a struggle with that.”
A lack of leadership is a major reason why UCLA and USC, each 15-13 overall and 8-7 in the Pac-12 Conference, find themselves with equally disappointing records heading into the season’s final meeting between the teams, Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion.
It will be a senior night without a senior for the Bruins, which explains part of the problem. UCLA’s starting lineup last week featured two freshmen and three sophomores, with three more freshmen and a junior playing off the bench.
The youth has forced Bartow to be part basketball teacher, part voice instructor in the quest to help his players activate their vocal chords. It’s probably no coincidence that the season’s most impassioned speech came from assistant Tyus Edney, who spoke the day of coach Steve Alford’s dismissal about what it meant to wear a UCLA jersey.
Cultivating their voice is an issue that has lingered for the Bruins even with the change in coaches.
“That’s something you can’t go on the court and work on,” sophomore point guard Jaylen Hands said. “You can go on your handles, passing, you watch tape, but leadership is just qualities that you have to hone in by yourself. Everyone is different, everyone doesn’t lead the same way.”
Sophomore forward Kris Wilkes has supplied leadership by flapping his arms to provoke a roaring crowd. Freshman guard Jules Bernard has done it by providing energy off the bench with his drives to the basket and active footwork at the top of the zone defense.
For Hands, leadership has involved finding the right balance between scoring and passing. That’s not always easy for someone who is the Pac-12’s assists leader yet also capable of scoring outbursts like the 27-point barrage he unleashed in the second half against Oregon on Saturday.
Hands has also led with his hand, lifting up the chin of sulking teammate Moses Brown during a comeback against the Ducks earlier this season. It’s the sort of gesture that has made Bartow sense growth in his court leader.
“I do think he’s much different today,” Bartow said, “than he was starting the year.”
Unlike its rival, USC can’t tout the youth excuse. The Trojans’ starting lineup includes two seniors and three juniors but lacks the sort of bulldog personality that could hold things together amid the inconsistency that has plagued the team.
The usually buttoned-up Enfield let loose his leadership rant last weekend after junior forward Nick Rakocevic was called for the latest in a series of flagrant fouls that have forced him to the bench and disrupted the team’s rotation. Rakocevic is one of the Trojans’ more outspoken players but has had trouble harnessing his emotions on the court.
“There’s certain guys that just need to be able to play with a more even temperament whether you’re successful or you fail,” Enfield said, “because everybody fails. You need to keep grinding it out and keep working hard and keep getting better and be a leader. That’s what the great players do, and that’s what the great teams have.”
Neither the Trojans nor the Bruins would claim to be great with their records hovering around .500, but it’s never too late to talk things out in an effort to make a late-season run.
UCLA’s comeback from a 19-point deficit against Oregon included an encouraging soundtrack: the chatter of players nudging each other to be better.
“It’s important to hold each other accountable and we have that trust in each other that we can get on each other,” Bernard said, “but the next play, we’re going to be great teammates, we’re going to love each other still. I think we’ve grown to a comfortability point where we can do those type of things.”
UCLA VS. USC
When: Thursday, 6 p.m.
Where: Pauley Pavilion.
On the air: TV: ESPN; Radio: 570, 710.
Update: The winner of the crosstown rivalry game will stay firmly in the running for a top-four seeding in the Pac-12 tournament and the accompanying first-round bye. The Bruins may be without junior guard Prince Ali for a third consecutive game because of plantar fasciitis in his left foot. Freshman guard David Singleton has averaged seven points and three assists during two starts in Ali’s absence.