UCLA Does Less Wrong to Win

Jordan Adams

The Bruins and Huskies didn't play very well, but UCLA played a little less badly, enough to pull away in the second half and win...

It's ironic – and fitting – that a day after a discussion on the BRO message board about how college basketball is barely watchable now, UCLA and Washington turn in a barely-watchable game Thursday, with the Bruins ultimately doing less wrong to win, 91-82.

Now, for some, possibly, they see the 91-82 score and notice that Washington shot 55% for the game and UCLA 54% and would come away thinking this was an exciting game, especially with Bill Walton on ESPN ranting about what a great offensive display it was.

Oy.

That was a mess of a game, from both the UCLA and Washington perspective. If we have to point to one factor that tipped the game toward UCLA it could easily be pinpointed to Washington making more unforced errors in the second half, probably because they ultimately didn't care much about the game. With only a half-filled Hec-Ed Arena, and the Huskies really not playing for an NCAA Tournament berth, their lack of focus was evident. On just about every possession in the last 10 minutes of the game, when it could have gone either way, Washington consistently made some foolish decisions – which were purely their own doing and little to do with anything UCLA did.

In fact, UCLA was right there with Washington in making some bad decisions itself in crunch time, but just fewer.

It's tough-to-watch basketball when basically the team that wins did so merely because it didn't make as many unforced errors as its opponent.

Luckily Jordan Adams had a great offensive night, scoring a career-high 31 points. Adams himself was guilty of at least a few bad, lazy mistakes, particularly on defense, but this was definitely a case where his scoring overwhelmingly offset his deficiencies in other areas.

Really, he might have been the only player on the floor that you could make that claim about.

Kyle Anderson had one of his poorer games of the season, seeming a bit unfocused. His usual drives into the lane had a feeling of wildness Thursday. He shot just 5 of 13, didn't make a three-pointer, and committed four turnovers against just five assists.

UCLA owes at least some of the win to Washington's Justin Wilcox, its leading scorer, who essentially took himself out of the game in the second half when he committed two careless fouls. Lorenzo Romar sat him since he had three fouls (which is a questionable decision), and Washington's offense had a few possessions in which they clearly were out of sync, and were looking for someone to shoot it. UCLA put together a mini-surge on Washington without Wilcox. UCLA's best defense, essentially, was Wilcox being out of the game.

But then couple that with Washington taking some really horrible shots in the second half, in critical possessions, with the game very much in the balance, and you have a winner. The showcase possession was, in semi-transition, when a Washington guard threw perhaps the worst alley-oop in the history of mankind. Usually bad alley-oops go about 10 feet over the backboard; this one went to the chest of a grounded Travis Wear.

But that wasn't even enough, because UCLA's own carelessness and lack of focus kept Washington in the game for too long. UCLA consistently was out-of-it on defense, and UCLA's two freshmen, Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford, then contributed their own bad-shot-selection-in-crunch-time moments, and that kept Washington close enough down the stretch. Luckily the two of them did a few things of their own to offset it, with LaVine stepping up in a crunch-time sequence and Alford hitting a big three-pointer to give UCLA's its biggest lead at the time, 75-66, with about 7:30 left, to pretty much ice the don't-care-much Huskies.

Heck, did either team really want this game? It didn't appear so.

There were so many times the game appeared more like an AAU game or a local pick-up game than a high-major D-1 college game. UCLA's transition defense might have been its worst in two months, giving up 10 points in transition in the first half when a Washington player literally dribbled the length of the court for a lay-up or an easy dish. UCLA's help defense looked like it was being executed by some old guys in a rec league, mostly punctuated by confusion and laziness.

Washington's defense didn't look any younger or less confused.

UCLA moved between a man and zone defense for most of the game. There were only a few minutes when UCLA actually played man when Bryce Alford was in the game, clearly because it needs to play zone to mask his defensive deficiencies. Romar, though, targeted Alford in the zone, employing an interesting tactical move – conventionally flashing a man to the high post, but most of the time with the intent to set a back screen on Alford. Once screened, Alford was done, and it allowed the ball-handling Washington guard to get some room that either led to an open lane and easy shot or ball rotation that found a wide-open shooter. You can't attribute all of UCLA's defensive deficiencies to this one tactical move, because UCLA's defenders, not just Alford, were pretty poor throughout the game. But the back screen on Alford was responsible for getting Washington a good amount of scoring throughout the night.

One of the consistent questions we bring up in these reviews and previews is whether UCLA is going to bring effort and focus to a specific game. That issue, at this point in the season, is becoming moot. We assume because at times they showed focus and intensity for longer periods in certain games that they're not bringing it every time on the floor. But perhaps the inconsistency of effort is really the best this team can muster. Perhaps its intensity ceiling is to merely play hard in spurts.

It might be something UCLA fans just have to resign themselves to with this year's team.

Fans also clamor for some tactical and personnel changes, but it seems unlikely this late in the season. It's pretty clear that Tony Parker, despite his issues, brings some qualities to the court that UCLA is sorely missing. He showed against Washington that his offensive post game is developing into a weapon, converting on three nice moves in the paint. That element, of an actual post presence on offense, could potentially give UCLA's offense more dimension. When the hope of UCLA's defense really developing, at this point in the season, is pretty much a long shot, making UCLA's offense even better might be its best answer. And, of course, Parker is the team's best post rebounder, and rebounding is the most pronounced deficiency for UCLA this season. With Parker it seems UCLA could get more defensive rebounds – force more one-shot-and-out possessions, and more chances at transition offense. And it's just not about Parker getting 10 points and four rebounds in 17 minutes while the Wear brothers combine for six points and seven rebounds in 45 minutes against Washington. Parker provides a different role that complements the more perimeter-oriented Wears well. In fact, the offensive styles of Parker and the Wears should actually help each other, with Parker's inside presence perhaps opening up a Wear for a face-up jumper, and vice-versa. But it appears the subbing and player combinations are pretty much entrenched at this point in the season.

If you get the bigger perspective on the Washington game, you tend to give UCLA credit anytime it can go into Seattle and get a win. Far better UCLA teams than this one haven't been able to do it. Of course, they were playing against far better Washington teams in an era when the Husky program had some buzz and Romar wasn't on the verge of being fired.

For the Bruin optimists, On Monday they'll probably look at this weekend as the one in which UCLA finally got a road trip sweep and helped its NCAA Tournament profile. The Bruin pessimists might look at it as another showcase of this UCLA team's limitations, and that this team is pretty much locked in to what it is and there's little chance of changing it.

Traditionally, UCLA never shows well in its last road trip to the Washington schools before the Pac-12 Tournament. It only sometimes has been an indicator of how UCLA will do in the Pac-12 and NCAA Tournament. It always feels like the team is tired at this stage, but there have been seasons when the Bruins have bounced back from the Washington road trip and looked like a different team after it.

One positive we can say about the quality of college basketball not nearly being what it was just five years ago: There is a decent chance that UCLA's remaining opponents this season will be mistake-prone, like the Huskies, and that UCLA just has to allow them to hurt themselves enough to lose.

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