UCLA almost got over the hump and beat the #1 Arizona Wildcats Thursday night in Pauley Pavilion, losing 79-75.
It was a great game to watch, for entertainment value, but also if you wanted to get a good snapshot of these Bruins as they really are, in their real habitat, not in the Land of Cupcakes.
And that means there were definitely some positives and negatives.
Big positive: UCLA didn't roll over in the second half like it had against its other two non-cupcake opponents, Missouri and Duke. It kept scrapping until the end, and was even in a position to win the game, leading 70-69 with 1:44 left, having come back from a 13-point deficit just five minutes before.
That 13-point run, which tied the game at 68-68, was due mostly to the defensive lightbulb turning on for a couple of minutes. UCLA got a number of stops in that stretch in which they played defense with intensity and focus, and maintained it for the entire shot clock. That stretch right there was the most watchable five minutes of the season so far. Yes, the Bruins have shown flashes of defensive focus at other times during the season, but those were against Southwest Technical School, not the #1 team in the country.
Those two things, right there, even with UCLA playing pretty badly for long stretches in this game, made it easily UCLA's best game of the season.
It kind of gives you goose bumps a bit to imagine this team playing that kind of defense for, say, just 30 minutes a game (we're not greedy). They truly could be competitive with just about anyone in the country, clearly, if that got them to the brink of beating the #1 Wildcats.
Those are the big positives. The negatives? Well, they were really the same that we've seen for the majority of the season, in terms of the team and individual players, but just more pronounced since it was against Arizona.
The team played pretty poor defense for most of the game. There were so many defensive possessions that were highlighted by pure defensive laziness. There's really no other way to describe it. Now, we are going to give the freshmen – Bryce Alford and Zach LaVine – a defensive pass. There just aren't too many freshmen that come into college basketball that are immediately great defenders. Arron Afflalo was a freak and it's almost not fair to hold up any other freshman to his standard. Freshmen almost universally don't ever know how to play defense and certainly don't know the intensity and focus that needs to be maintained to do it well throughout a college basketball game. They probably have never done it before. It's like trying to teach a little kid how ride a bike. They have never done anything like it before and they have no reference in their little minds on how to do it.
But sophomores get no pass. They've been in college for a year. And really, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson were tutored defensively by one of the best defensive coaches in the game in Ben Howland. If they didn't get other things from Howland, they certainly went to school in the art of playing defensive basketball. Given that, and given that they are now sophomores, Adams and Anderson are playing frightful defense. Against Arizona, Adams was caught napping or just plain lazy probably a dozen times. The one big showcase of his defensive lapsing was right before UCLA's final run, when it looked like Arizona was putting away the Bruins. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson laid off a nice interior pass to Nick Johnson who was at the top of the key, supposedly being guarded by Adams, but Adams watched as Johnson shot down the middle of the lane for a resounding dunk. Adams was too busy starting to leak out for a break before UCLA had even secured a rebound. Adams overall did a pretty dismal job on Johnson, who had a game leading-22 points. Johnson is Arizona's leading scorer and, despite what Bill Walton says about him, is not the best player in the country. Johnson has some attributes, but he's not very quick, and Adams shouldn't have been overwhelmed by guarding him. But numerous times Johnson was freed up merely because of one simple screen away from the ball that enabled Johnson to curl around it, catch and shoot or drive. The image of Adams half-heartedly trying to stay with Johnson and get around the screen was something you just couldn't watch after the first time.
Anderson wasn't much better defensively. He and Adams tend to reach instead of move their feet. They've been reinforced by occasionally poking away a steal, but, folks, while many times you're happy about that poke it almost does as much bad as it does good. It rewards them for fundamentally bad defense. Anderson is not a great on-ball defender, and he showed his limitations, but it wasn't as much as a lack of athleticism against guys like Hollis-Jefferson (who absolutely schooled Anderson in a post-up in one possession) or Aaron Gordon; it was being exposed for a lack of effort. One ball screen on Anderson and he's done. The effort he shows trying to push through that screen is abysmal. We really like Kyle Anderson and his game -- but maybe a heads up: There were some NBA guys in the crowd Thursday night and they notice things like a lack of defensive effort. If not for playing to win at UCLA, you'd think he might be inspired to play more intently on defense for his NBA stock.
We said that this season, and whether it is successful, could come down to whether Steve Alford can get this team to play defense. We recognize that it's a tough thing to do when you come into a program and are saddled with players that aren't "your guys," and you have to try to get them to play your style. On one hand, though, that usually applies when a new coach is saddled with a lack of talent in his first year, and that's not the case here. Having said that, to be fair, while Anderson and Adams are good players, Alford was "saddled" a bit with both of them not being great athletes or defenders.
Right now we'll even go as far as to say that this season doesn't just rest on Alford getting his team to play defense, but the two sophomores and team leaders, Anderson and Adams, finding it inside of them, as sophomores with no excuses, to get committed to playing defense. Again, it might go a long way, at the very least, with those NBA scouts you want to impress.
As I said above, this game was a showcase, for this team and individual players, and it was a sharp spotlight on the lack of defensive commitment on the part of Anderson and Adams.
Of course, it also showed the positives and negatives offensively of the team and individuals. This is the way UCLA's offense goes: When they play bad teams they can get out and run and rack up points; When they play against good teams those teams take away UCLA's transition scoring, so the Bruins are forced to produce in their half-court offense; Then it's a crapshoot whether the Bruins are going to execute an offense and pass the ball, which usually leads to easier baskets, or just hand off the ball to each other to take turns going one-on-one. When Anderson has the ball in his hand and is creating for others he's a unique offensive weapon. Against lesser opponents he's able to go one-on-one and easily score without even knowing where he's going with the ball. But when you have an athlete of the caliber of Gordon or Hollis-Jefferson guarding him, it's not nearly as easy. This is when Anderson needs to get really smart in his decision-making, determining when it's right for him to try to score or when it's better to pass. Right now, he's still working through that and developing that talent, and it's not an easy thing to do. There are 10-year NBA veterans who still stink at it. UCLA fell behind in this game not only because of its poor defense but because it was making poor decisions on offense. Arizona's defense was good, and frustrating the Bruins, so that tended to make Anderson – and the entire team – go one-on-one. But in that comeback stretch, when UCLA got some stops on the defensive end, Anderson controlled a couple of offensive possessions with maturity and poise. When he had the shot he took it, instead of forcing it regardless, and he found his teammates for easier shots.
Adams didn't fare as well. He had a few-minute stretch in the second half when he found some intensity, and he aggressively went after offensive boards and got some putbacks. He had the one big three that tied the game at 68-68. But for the rest of the game, both defensively and offensively, for the most part he struggled. He doesn't look like he's in very good shape, only able to play with energy for short spurts (which doesn't seem to deserve 34 minutes), and he doesn't get that he can't do what he does against cupcakes when he plays against real teams. Dribbling to nowhere to try to draw a foul against good defenders is going to get your shot blocked or result in a charge more often than sending you to the line.
It's about knowing who you are, what you can do and what your limits are.
Bryce Alford, too, is susceptible to not realizing who he is and not playing within himself. To his credit, he was a spark during UCLA's comeback. He hit a nice three-pointer in rhythm that brought UCLA to trail by only 8, and then hit two big free throws to bring the Bruins to within 6, at a time when it seemed no one else on the team could hit a free throw. He definitely has seemingly inherited his dad's trait to be cool in the clutch. But, like Adams, he tends to try to do too much. It just has to be said – Alford just shouldn't ever really take the ball to the basket unless it's a completely open lane. His dribble drives and prayers just aren't going to be productive against good teams, but end up being turnovers. Walton, in his one moment of clarity, after Arizona fouled Alford on the dribble as he was driving to the basket, asked why they would do that because he certainly wouldn't be able to score against Arizona's frontline. Alford definitely has a role to play on this team and in this program going forward; it's a matter of whether he realizes his limitations and optimizes his positives and contributions.
It was a stark contrast when you watched Adams try to take his man off the dribble in this game and then watched Norman Powell is his first-half power-dribble to the basket that resulted in a huge slam. Powell's dribble-slam was an NBA move, it was Russell Westbrook-esque. Powell might be the guy you need to play because he's the one with the true upside, but Powell only played 13 minutes. He got into foul trouble in the first half, collecting two quick fouls, so he sat, but he sat for the remaining 15 minutes of the half. He then collected a couple of fouls in the second half and sat, for a long time. It seems that Alford has his subbing pattern, when he brings in Alford and LaVine at the 15-minute mark of the first half, but then gets a bit lost in being able to sub off the fly for the remainder of the game. Powell was UCLA's perimeter player that had a chance to make a true difference in this game – the guy who could actually get around his defender with his athleticism and get to the rim. When your offense isn't producing in transition and you need to convert in the halfcourt that would have been highly valuable.
The other guy is LaVine. He's the other real NBA prospect, with NBA athleticism, and we give him a bit of a pass offensively, too, since he's a freshman, but he settling far too often for jumpshots. He needs to challenge defenses off the dribble, mostly because he's a very good passer while doing it. It's the dimension of his offensive game he needs to exploit that he hasn't yet, probably because he still lacks a little confidence in asserting himself to do it.
The other guy who made an impact on the game was Tony Parker. Arizona, with its big frontline that has dominated opponents' frontlines so far this season, only had a 37-36 edge in rebounding. Parker had 8 rebounds in 21 minutes, while David Wear and Travis Wear combined for 4 rebounds in 40 minutes. He's the one post player on the team that will play physically and can even somewhat match up against good frontcourt players. It seems that Alford is starting to get it, too, increasing Parker's minutes as the Wear minutes get reduced.
Maybe we're just crazy, and living in the past when college basketball was actually good, but if Arizona is the #1 team in the nation than this nation stinks. The Wildcats definitely have some talent, but they're not close to the two Florida teams UCLA faced in the Final Four. Man, if only the Love/Westbrook/Collison/Mbah a Moute team were playing college basketball this season. Perhaps it's the dawning of a new era in college basketball, with so many defections to the NBA and the talent down, teams don't have to be nearly as good as they used to be to be "good." While it's regrettable for college basketball fans, it's promising for UCLA fans, in a way; they might not have to expect so much out of the program to be among the top 10 teams in the country every year. Heck, the current team, with all of its issues, were a minute and a half away from beating the nation's #1 team.
In doing so, UCLA found some heart and didn't roll over in the second half, and some real defensive intensity that shut down the nation's #1 team for a significant stretch. The question is clearly Is it possible that the light bulb will, indeed, go on as a result? If it does, then we have ourselves a team and a season, and that game, even though UCLA lost it, will, indeed, be remembered as the most important of the year.