UCLA Goes South Up North

Lazeric Jones

UCLA plays one of its best halves of the season, and then it all goes south in the second half with the Bruins losing to Oregon, 75-68. And it's not hard to analyze what contributed to the crash...

It's not rocket science analyzing UCLA's loss to Oregon, 75-68, Saturday.

The Main Contributing Factors:

• The Bruins aren't very talented.
• They were on the road.
• Ben Howland got out-coached.
• The use of UCLA's personnel.

It's over-kill to again discuss UCLA's talent level. It's well-documented and, at this point, painful to rehash.

Suffice it to say this UCLA team's talent level compares with some of the least talented UCLA teams of the last 25 years. And the buck stops with Howland, obviously. You can't really make an excuse for the coach – saying things like: "Well, he's doing the best he can with the talent he has" – because he's the one responsible for the talent he has.

So, we'll leave it at that.

Howland did get out-coached. Oregon's Dana Altman made some adjustments in the second half, doing a few little subtle things defensively to alter UCLA's offensive sets just a bit – enough to get a few stops to start the second half. The Ducks then executed their offense better in the first several minutes of the second half than they did the entire first half. That shift in play basically won the game for Oregon. And even if all of it wasn't due to tactical changes made by Altman, at least some of it has to be attributed to Altman having his players ready to play the second half and Howland not.

Criticism of Howland's use of personnel could also fall under the category of getting out-coached in the game, but it deserves its own special attention. One of the major contributions to UCLA's very good first half against the Ducks was the play of Anthony Stover. He blocked shots, altered shots, blocked out and executed the offense so well that, with scoring just two points in the first-half Bruin run, you could still say he was the primary catalyst. There are games, perhaps, when certain match-ups might not lend itself well to Stover getting more minutes, but in this game it clearly did. His length and athleticism negated the Ducks' center Tony Woods like no other UCLA big could, his presence in the paint definitely was a boost to UCLA's help defense, and just his energy on the court seemed to spill over to his teammates. It would have been evident enough even if Josh Smith had been playing well, but it was that much more pronounced since Smith was, to be blunt, horrible. It was simply one of the worst games he's ever had as a Bruin. He's not exactly Mr. Quick, but he was particularly slow, particularly on defense; he was particularly unfocused, which is saying something because he's usually fairly unfocused, which leads to most of his silly fouls; and he was particularly clumsy in the post, even moreso than his usual clumsiness. So Smith's performance made the advantage of having Stover on the court that much more, well, obvious. It's shocking, then, that the second half starts with so many of these same symptoms of a Stover-less UCLA team: easy penetration and no challenge inside, very little help defense, and Woods' athleticism dominating the other UCLA bigs. At this point it seemed clear, coming off that first half, that Stover was the #1 option to save the day. UCLA led at halftime 37-24 predominantly because it was one of the best defensive halves they had played all season, and mostly due to Stover getting extended minutes. But Oregon comes out hot in the second half and Howland goes to Smith instead of Stover, because that's his rigid substitution plan. Smith messes up the game even more, unable to guard anyone, committing more stupid fouls, turning over the ball and playing very poor defense – all in slow motion. Oregon now climbs to within one point at 40-39. So, it's pretty evident that UCLA needs a little bit more Stove. But Stover doesn't make an appearance in the second half until about the 13-minute mark, and when he does he stabilizes the Bruins, blocking a shot immediately and locking down the middle defensively, blocking out and getting a couple of offensive rebounds. UCLA, not coincidentally, looks potentially like it's averted disaster, regaining a 46-40 lead and repossessing the momentum from the Ducks. So, now at this point, it's blatantly obvious that Stover is the answer, because there's just too much evidence clearly right in front of you. But, uncannily, Howland subs Smith back in, Stover out, the energy is sucked out of the Bruins, the momentum is lost, and so is the game.

Now, of course, there were many other elements of this game that contributed to the loss, but the predominant one really was the mis-use of Stover. We're not even saying UCLA would have won the game with Stover playing more minutes, but it certainly seemed to just about any observer that Stover definitely gave UCLA the best chance against the Ducks on this day.

We're not advocating completely giving up on Smith (even though we're getting close to that point). We still feel that his potential to be dominating might be the only thing that could set UCLA apart on a team of pedestrian talent playing in a mediocre conference. But it was clear —on this day, in this game -- Smith needed to sit and Stover needed to play. In this game Stover was the game-changer. But Howland has his set plan for his rotation, and it seems like he's incapable of diverting from that plan. It doesn't seem like Howland can change in-game from the rotation he has set in his mind. Or it's a matter that the rotation he has set in his mind is so set in his mind that it takes overwhelming evidence, like many many games, for him to change course. Howland's a good coach, so he must see it, so it has to be a case of him being stubbornly set in his ways and he needs a huge amount of evidence to convince him otherwise.

In that same heading of the misuse of personnel was the fact that, in the last 10 minutes of the game, the Bruins were gassed. Travis Wear and David Wear had played hard for the majority of the game, and their energy was a big contributing factor to the excellent first half. But it was easy to see they weren't the same in the last ten minutes of the game. They were unable to block out Oregon on the boards and standing straight up and down on defense, too tired to even get in a stance. Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones both were clearly fatigued, a step slower in trying to stay with their man than they were in the first half. The fatigue had its biggest impact on the boards; in the first half UCLA dominated rebounding, 29-15, but then they couldn't buy a rebound in the last 10 minutes, with Oregon commonly getting two or three offensive rebounds per possession, and thus three or four shots per possession and a continually re-setting shot clock.

Howland's in-game management clearly wasn't stellar in this game, of course in terms of timeouts and adjustments, but if he had just managed his personnel a bit better, perhaps given the Wears, Anderson and Jones longer breathers before the last 10 minutes of the game, UCLA might very well have still prevailed. Those four not fatigued would probably have been good enough to pull out the win, even with Smith on the floor with them.

With all of these factors contributing, it's astounding that Stover only played 11 minutes, Norman Powell 15, and Brendan Lane 2. Travis Wear's 35 minutes tied his season high (he also played that much against Kansas).

What really was so tragic about this game was that UCLA truly played one of its best halves of the season in the first half. It was a beautiful thing. The Bruins combined their good offensive execution with a more energetic and focused defense (again, bolstered by Stover). UCLA shot 51% from the field in the first half, and limited Oregon to 23%. It dominated the boards. Anderson and Jones were the better backcourt, both playing within themselves and limiting their usual pitfalls. Anderson was making the smart offensive plays, and Jones did a good job being the guy who mostly defended Oregon's leading scorer, Devoe Joseph. The Wears dominated Oregon's bigs, mostly by being so active on both ends of the court.

But then the wheels came off, tragically.

And the wheels of the season are wobbling. So much was riding on this weekend's road trip. The Bruins had improved, and they wanted to prove they weren't the same team that had gotten swept on their last road trip, to the Bay Area. With UCLA's record and its remaining schedule, this Oregon trip truly loomed as a make-or-break for the season. With a successful two games UCLA could have catapulted itself into contention for the Pac-12 race. We said going into this weekend that this would decide the season. It's looking rather dubious that it didn't in fact do just that.

And the implications of the two losses gets worse, if it can. Just when you were starting to think that this team would avert a losing season, it now seems completely reasonable. The Bruins are currently 10-9 overall, and in looking at the schedule a scernario in which they lose more than they win is entirely plausible.

And there aren't too many scenarios you can imagine in which this UCLA team does put the wheels back on cart. As we said after the Oregon State game Thursday, this is about the most you can expect from this team, with this personnel. At this point it would take a near-miracle, and a few bold changes by the coach, to get the wheels back on and kick-start the Bruin cart.

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