The Year of Living Dangerously

The Horse Shot

The 2007-2008 season is the Year of Living Dangerously for the UCLA Bruins, winning another come-from-behind game when it beat Cal Saturday on some last-minute, unbelievable play, 81-80. Is UCLA running out of lives? And how does it all bode for the post-season?

You have to admit. You thought UCLA was going to lose this one.

After recently pulling some games out of its arse, you thought it just wasn't possible again, that the odds were against the Bruins.

But then all those years of Josh Shipp playing Horse paid off, and UCLA beat Cal on a circus shot, 81-80, to preserve its chance at a #1 NCAA seed.

On one hand, you can say UCLA is living on borrowed time, that the come-from-behind victories, the last-minute heroics, are all just based on luck and fortuitous referee calls.

On the other hand, as we've always said, if you're going to win a national championship, you need some luck. And heck, UCLA is living under a lucky star right now.

Is this a Team of Destiny – or a Team Destined-To-Run-Out-Of-Luck?

While there has been a great deal of luck that played a factor in UCLA pulling out victories over Stanford Thursday and then Cal Saturday, UCLA, though, is creating a great deal of its own luck.

As we said in our review of the Stanford game, UCLA is a tough team, that knows how to win. The players are Final Four-tested, and you can see in their eyes that, no matter how bleak it looks down the stretch of games, they truly think they're going to win.

Heck, at this point, why wouldn't they?

That moxie goes a long way in the NCAA Tournament. UCLA has an element to it going into the post-season that is vital to winning championships.

But to be balanced, we also have to look at some of the worrisome aspects, the factors in this game that cause some concern.

First, this was a very unusual game for UCLA under Howland. It was a game where the defense was straight-out poor, and Howland's Bruins had to win despite its defense.

It allowed 80 points, while allowing only 57 per game for the season. It allowed Cal to shoot a mind-blowing 56% from the field, while it's allowed just 42% for the season.

You could, then, make a case, that this game was an aberration, that it's not so much a continuing trend why UCLA has come close to losing and had to come from behind in many of its recent games, but that this one, in particular, was different than the rest and just happened to come in a string of games where UCLA, unluckily, had a few things going against it that it had to compensate for.

UCLA's defense, admittedly, wasn't good. But also, Cal shot out of its mind. Jamal Boykin had a career game, with 18 points, 8 for 12 from the field, while hitting a three-pointer (which was only his fourth of the season). In fact, Cal might have, in its last game of the regular season, found a more potent offensive line-up. With Ryan Anderson often times being guarded by Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, that meant Love had to match up with Boykin. At 6-6 and being an undersized power-forward, Boykin was too quick for Love. It's not that Boykin is quick, in regards to his size, but he is compared to centers. He went around Love continually in this game to score on lay-ins. With Anderson such an unusual offensive threat, at 6-10 being able to step out and hit threes and also post up, it makes Boykin (as opposed to Devon Hardin, the 6-9 center who sat out the game due to injury) have to be guarded by a bigger, slower defender. It's almost too bad for Cal that Ben Braun only stumbled onto this with Hardin hurt at the end of the season.

So, on one hand, Cal shot really well, and on the other hand, UCLA's defense wasn't good. The main issue is the hedge off the ball screen and the rotation as a result. There were 11 possessions by Cal where they used a ball screen and scored because of a poor UCLA hedge or rotation. That's 22 points. If you're a future UCLA opponent you would use this game as a training video on how to beat UCLA's hedge.

While we have been effusive in our praise of Kevin Love all season, and believe him to be one of the best players in college basketball, we can't absolve him from culpability on this issue. He clearly doesn't hedge well, not stepping out far enough, or allowing the ballhandler to step inside him, and then not hustling back to pick up a man. There is a clear difference in UCLA's defense, and not just on hedges, when Lorenzo Mata-Real is in the game.

Obviously, you're not going to play Mata-Real over Love because of this. Love just brings too much to the court. But Love has to step up his defensive effort in March if UCLA is going to make a significant run in the NCAA Tournament. Heck, the Pac-10 Tournament.

It's not just Love. Mbah a Moute's hedges were also poor. James Keefe, who is usually one of the best hedgers, also had a bad one in this game.

Then, the rotation after the hedge has been remarkably poor, for quite a long time, and that is pretty much every player's fault. In this game, just about every player was guilty of slow or lazy rotations, leaving a Cal player wide open for an easy lay-in. It's almost as if it was UCLA's first time rotating off a hedge.

UCLA's defense is going to need a major overhaul – a return to the drawing board. And while they can definitely improve on transition defense, and on-ball defense, truly the primary issue is the hedge and rotation. You'd almost rather that they just switched on the screen, and allowed the mis-match; at least they'd then have a man on everyone and make the ballhandler have to beat someone off the dribble rather than making easy passes to wide open teammates on the block.

While many fans are still blaming UCLA's offense, UCLA struggled to win this game clearly because of its defense, not its offense. The offense scored 81 points, and made 7 threes. Are there some issues with the offense? Sure. It's certainly not perfect. But it was easily productive enough in this one for UCLA to win this game. If UCLA only allowed half of the points off hedges it did in this game, it wins 81-70.

If we're going to nitpick about the offense, it would be about shot selection and screening. UCLA has a tendency to get rushed when another team runs the game at a fast tempo, and Cal got UCLA revved up to take too-quick of shots. Also, when Cal went to its zone, they packed it in pretty tight, not defending beyond the three-point line, and UCLA passed up open threes for penetration, which is okay, but you'd still like to see UCLA knock down open threes. Against Cal's man defense, as has been the case recently, UCLA's shooters weren't getting generally enough space when they catch the ball. UCLA's screeners are doing a lackluster job setting screens and, again, not to beat him up, but Love is probably the primary culprit. His baseline screens, with a shooter coming around them, aren't strong enough, allowing defenders to trail the shooter down the baseline far too easily.

It's also a matter that opposing teams, especially Pac-10 teams, have UCLA scouted really well. They know UCLA's plays; they know where the shooter is supposed to catch the ball. A number of times in this game, when the shooter ran the baseline and came around the baseline screens, the trailer let him go, and another defender was already at the spot where the shooter was supposed to catch the ball.

This, if you remember, has been something UCLA has dealt with the last couple of seasons. By the second half of Pac-10 play, UCLA was struggling a bit since opposing Pac-10 coaching staffs were very familiar with UCLA's offense, and defense. Then, when the Bruins got into the tournament, their opposition didn't have the Bruins nearly as well scouted. It will be interesting to see if this occurs again.

In the Cal game, UCLA's defense simply didn't get enough stops. Cal built leads because UCLA's offense couldn't convert but then UCLA's D couldn't get a stop for long periods. In the second half, UCLA's offense was better, but it was trading baskets with Cal for a long time since the defense couldn't string together a couple of stops.

UCLA managed, though, to get more chances through rebounding margin and turnover margin. UCLA out-rebounded Cal, 33-27, and had 14 offensive rebounds to Cal's four. UCLA also had just 9 turnovers to Cal's 12. Between offensive rebounds and turnovers, that's 13 more offensive chances UCLA got. Without that, when Cal's shooting the lights and UCLA's hedging and rotation are really slack, UCLA would have easily have lost this game.

Give credit to Mbah a Moute. While he, at times, has been slow on his defensive rotation, he had 10 big rebounds, and four offensive rebounds. He finished with another double-double, getting 12 points. He really has stepped up his rebounding recently, looking more like the freshman version of Mbah a Moute, and has seen it pay off with many weakside putbacks for scores.

In our opinion, there is far too much being made of the reffing (which, of course, many anticipate since this is a UCLA site). Howland made a good point – that you can't just judge the calls as one-sided by looking at the last couple of minutes of the game – when calls have been going the other direction for the first 35 minutes.

There isn't enough that can be said about Shipp's Horse shot and, the forgotten shot, Love's double-clutch three-pointer. If Shipp hadn't made his circus shot Love's shot would be hailed as the big one. In regard to Shipp's shot – you see, kids, screwing around and trying to come up with tricky Horse shots does pay off. When Shipp found himself behind the backboard he didn't hesitate to take that shot, like it was second nature.

So, where does UCLA go from here? It is truly the Year of Living Dangerously. And you have to wonder just how many lives UCLA has left.

Much of UCLA's risky performances lately have been because UCLA hasn't played well, but also the result of every team playing their best for UCLA, and a few fateful things happening, like some lucky Duck bouncing balls or Cal shooting out of its mind.

But the Bruins have weathered it all. Are they winning games like a #1 NCAA should right now? Probably not. Are they showing the moxie a #1 seed would need to go all the way? Certainly.

While fans tend to cite UCLA's offense as the problem, it truly hasn't been the issue. UCLA needs to get back to playing its signature defense. It's what carried UCLA to two Final Fours in the last two years.

And if UCLA wants to win that national championship, we all know how the saying goes: Defense wins them.

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