At least, when the fear came true Saturday night, it was still at the beginning of the season and not in a critical Pac-10 game, and UCLA ultimately ended up winning, 69-66 in overtime, against Loyola Marymount.
This game started out very similar to both the Vermont and Riverside games – but then the second half wasn't different this time.
Much of that can probably be attributed to UCLA losing Michael Fey for the second half, Fey leaving the game near the end of the first half with a scratched eye. He was taken to the UCLA hospital and head coach Ben Howland, in his post-game comments, said he had yet to hear word about Fey's condition.
Without Fey, UCLA's struggling offense continued to struggle without any kind of inside scoring threat. UCLA was perimeter oriented all night. And when you're perimeter oriented and you shoot 24% from the field, this is the type of game you get.
The good news is that, with the return of freshman star Trevor Ariza, the anticipated return of senior power forward T.J. Cummings, and if Fey turns out to be okay, UCLA might not experience this same type of problem – at least to this degree – for the remainder of the season.
The bad news is that this – UCLA's inability to get the ball inside on offense and convert it into points – is now shaping up as this team's particular Achilles Heel.
On offense, UCLA either shot the ball from the outside or forced penetration, which led to sloppy passing and a whopping 21 turnovers.
With UCLA unable to get out of its first-half funk throughout the second half, the Bruins did manage to distance itself from Loyola Marymount, grinding out a 55-41 lead with 5:17 left in the game. While it had been ugly up to that point, and not a game you'd want to particularly remember, it was good to see that UCLA could overcome a very poor performance and still win by double figures over a clearly over-matched opponent.
Signs that UCLA overmatched LMU were clear. The Bruins out-rebounded the Lions 35-11 in the first half, and ended with a 54-37 advantage.
Then, the collapse came. LMU went on a 19-5 run that tied the game at 60 with thirty seconds left, when pesky reserve guard Charles Brown made a 24-foot three pointer.
It was strange, though. Since UCLA was obviously the better team, even when they were down by four points with 3:30 left in overtime, you still felt the Bruins would win the game. And when Cedric Bozeman caught a fumbled ball off an Ariza penetration (In the post-game press conference Ariza said it was a pass, with a grin), and knocked down a three pointer to go up by the final score of 69-66 with two second left, you knew the shot was going in when Bozeman released it.
And that complacency, that acceptance that UCLA would still win, seemed to also be adopted by the team itself in the last five minutes of the game when LMU made their run. LMU kept getting stops against the Bruins, and kept getting points on the other end, and the Bruins seemed to be sleep-walking through LMU's comeback. You could also look at it, as Howland did, that the team not "losing its composure." Note to Howland, since he's new to this: This team, after what it's been through the last few years, would need quite a bit more than to get down by four points in overtime to LMU to lose its composure. This ain't nothing.
UCLA's first half funk was deep. It was, once again, the proverbial excuse that "there is a lid on the basket." UCLA came out dominating on the glass, got open looks, and could only convert it into 7 points through the first six minutes of the game. With how many opportunities and clear looks the Bruins had at the basket early on, UCLA should have been up 18-0.
Junior forward Dijon Thompson had one of his worst games as a Bruin, shooting 2 for 14, missing all four of his three-point attempts, and committing 9 turnovers. He repeatedly made bad decisions, driving into traffic and turning the ball over, while also making lazy, errant passes. Thompson, so far this season, has been probably the most disappointing player on the team. Even though he's leading the team in scoring, he's shooting only 38% from the field, and 25% from three. He's taking the ball to the hole without authority, repeatedly getting his drives either blocked or getting forced into turnovers. Thompson finished with 15 points and, to his credit, 8 rebounds. He also showed poised at the free-throw line, hitting 11 of 12 free throws. One thing is pretty clear, though: If UCLA hopes to make a decent run this season, and is going to attempt to make the NCAA tournament, they'll need better performances from Thompson than those he's given in his first four games. If not, UCLA will have to look elsewhere for an offensive leader.
Where the team might look is to Ariza. After sitting out the first three games with a partially collapsed lung, Ariza was supposed to get only limited minutes Saturday night. Those limited minutes ballooned to 32. Ariza admitted in his post-game interview that he was winded toward the end of the game. But as Ariza gets his stamina back, you might see more of the offensive responsibilities shifting to the precocious freshman. Ariza is clearly the best player on the squad, and this game displayed it clearly. When Ariza was first inserted into the game at about the 16-minute mark in the first half, the team offensively took on a whole new dimension. He made a couple of nice passes immediately, one a great look from the top of the key to anticipate a post-up by Fey on the baseline. Ariza scored easily when he drew his defender away from the basket and took him off the dribble. Even with Ariza only shooting 5 for 13, and missing his three three-point attempts, he showed some much offensive potential. He started the second half in lieu of Fey, and when he threw down a tomahawk off an alley oop from Brian Morrison in a set play, it was among the few times in the game you felt the offense was running with some purpose and energy. He finished with 14 points and 7 rebounds, and some of the best offensive plays of the game. Hopefully as Ariza gets back completely in the swing of things, and gets more comfortable as the season goes on, since he's just a freshman, more of the offensive spark will come from him.
Besides Thompson, UCLA's other outside threat, guard Brian Morrison, also struggled, shooting 2 of 11 and 1 of 8 from three. He did so with mostly wide open looks at the basket. So many of his shots were close to going down that, if not for just a cumulative few inches, Morrison could have had 20 points, but ended up with just eight for the game. With the kind of shooter Morrison has seemingly shown us to be in his first three games, shooting 2 of 11 in this game could be thought of as an aberration. But then, there is the worry that the 6 of 8 three-point shooting we saw against UC Riverside might be the aberration. I think it's probably more accurately somewhere in the middle. Morrison, it's probably safe to say, will be streaky throughout the season.
That's why, when you have Morrison and Thompson, your two designated outside shooters who are proving themselves to be streaky, go a combined 4 of 25 from the field, you definitely know you need some go-to inside scoring.
Ryan Hollins didn't seem to be the option Saturday night for getting that inside scoring. He didn't touch the ball in the post, which is some fault of his teammates not getting him the ball, but also stems from his inability to carve out space to post up. He only had one shot from the field for the night. Without Fey's ability to get position inside offensively, this really hurt the Bruins for the night. Hollins, though, did have a very nice defensive game, perhaps his best in his two years at UCLA. He played very good post defense against LMU's 6-10 center Chris Ayer, with Ayer missing his first six shots due to Hollins' athleticism defensively. Hollins had nine rebounds, and obviously responded to Howland's calling him out this week on blocked shots, getting three very nice big-time swats.
Point guard Bozeman had an average game for him, even though he did hit the game winner. He had only 2 assists, against 4 turnovers, and seemed to be looking to score more than setting up his teammates, which he might have thought he needed to do given how the rest of his teammates were shooting. He led UCLA with 16 points. It's well accepted that he's – to put it diplomatically – a spotty shooter. But if Bozeman is the guy responsible for two of only three three-pointers for the entire game, you know UCLA's outside shooting is particularly poor. One excellent sign: When Howland said a couple of weeks ago he wanted to see Cedric Bozeman emphasize his ability to rebound, what he got against LMU was probably what Howland intended. Bozeman was the leading rebounder in the game, with 10. The downside to the excellent sign: With Bozeman hanging around the basket for rebounds, he's less able to get out on leading the break, and it diminishes UCLA's chances at transition baskets.
Speaking of transition baskets, where are they? UCLA hasn't shown the ability to get points off breaks, or even in semi-transition. In fact, in this game, a few potential breaks became disasters, with fumbled passes when UCLA had numbers. A number of times passes were made to UCLA's big men on breaks when they were still merely halfway down the court, which forced them to have to awkwardly handle the ball, which led to turnovers. UCLA will have to get more points off its transition, or develop a far more efficient half-court offense if it's going to be successful in putting up more points than its opponents for the remainder of the season.
UCLA's bench provided solid minutes Saturday. Perhaps the best came from Josiah Johnson, who is proving to be a very good positional rebounder. He had 9 boards in just reserve 15 minutes. Ryan Walcott played 6 error-free minutes in relief of Bozeman at point guard. With his improved shot, it was a shame he missed a wide open three. But then again, the lid was on the basket for the entire squad. John Hoffart, the walk-on center, was forced into action after Fey took his trip to the hospital and Hollins was in foul trouble, and Hoffart played respectable. He played solid defense and had a lay up for his first basket of the year.
UCLA, overall, turned in another good performance defensively. LMU's shooters had only a few open looks from the outside all night, and its interior players were continually frustrated by UCLA's interior defense. As UCLA's efforts on the offensive end became pretty frustrating in the second half, its energy on defense started to wane, which was understandable. But the Bruins held LMU to just 39% from the field. It's allowing opponents to shoot just 37% total in its first four games, which is stunning, and leading the Pac-10 (and has to be among the leaders in the nation). Get used to it, Bruin fans: UCLA is going to be known as a defensive team.
It's hard to determine, though, exactly what the LMU game tells us. With UCLA struggling with its offense in its first three games, you could take this game now as an alarming sign that the offense isn't just working out some early kinks, but has some definite problems, mostly in getting points from its inside players. Or you could point to the fact that UCLA was losing its two best interior scorers in Fey and T.J. Cummings as the reason they couldn't get any points from the paint. Either way, it's now pretty clear in UCLA's first four games that, with UCLA's streaky shooters, UCLA can't depend on having a perimeter-oriented offense. It's going to have to work its offense from the inside out, that is – look for points first from its interior scorers, as it proved in the second half of the Vermont and UC Riverside games. It seems like the team tends to lose sight of that, and tends to get tunnel-visioned in working its offense predominantly on the perimeter. With hopefully Fey's injury not serious, the return of Cummings, and Ariza providing more of an offensive spark, the offense will have more inside scoring and overall scoring options.
It creates a great deal of anticipation to see this team finally at full strength, with Cummings back on the team, for the game Wednesday against UC Santa Barbara...