It's plainly evident that UCLA isn't a very good team, and for it to lose one of its "cupcake" games it just needed to run into a cupcake that actually wasn't made of fluff, but actually could play.
Cal Poly is a decent team that had a great night, and that's easily good enough to beat the Bruins in the state they're in, 70-68.
Everything that we've been saying here at Bruin Report Online came to fruition on Nell and John Wooden Court Sunday night. The Bruins aren't very athletic, they aren't getting enough offense from their Early Offense and were unable to out-score Cal Poly, and the defense is, for the most part, slack and lacks intensity.
Up until now, UCLA hadn't faced a good mid- or low-major team -- until Sunday. As soon as Cal Poly took the court you could tell, first, that they executed their halfcourt offense efficiently, and their defense -- a mixture of different kinds of zones and man -- was well-conceived and executed. In fact, if Caly Poly had shot better than 32% in the first half, when it missed so many open shots, they would have won this pretty handily.
UCLA, still, is a better team. They're not good. But they're a better team that Cal Poly. They're not that much more athletic, mind you, but they have more overall talent. So, when the Bruins actually started playing some decent defense, from a few minutes left in the second half, to just about the 12-minute mark of the second half, the world was the way it was supposed to be. Cal Poly was getting stifled on every possession, unable to get a good look, often times having to resort to an end-of-the-clock desperate heave, and as a result UCLA was getting some easy points on the other end in semi-transition. It's stunning to think that UCLA was up by 18 points -- 51-33 -- with 12:21 left in the game.
For those 10 or so minutes, the Earth was firmly on its axis and the college basketball ecosystem was balanced and in place.
How did UCLA create that run?
Well, of course, by our old friend, defense.
The Bruins actually started playing with inspiration and energy on defense. It started at the end of the second half, when it seemed like the Bruins got a bit inspired after Cal Poly made a run to actually take the lead a couple of minutes before halftime. It then carried over into the beginning of the half, perhaps because of what Howland stressed to the team at halftime. Cal Poly went 13 minutes making only two baskets, with UCLA out-scoring them 26-6 in that time. Again, this isn't a good UCLA team, but it showed in that span what it can do if it actually played with energy on defense. The difference was palpable, with UCLA defenders being far more active in their on-ball defense, but also pushing through screens better -- on the ball and away from the ball -- to keep Cal Poly from executing its offense. I was writing notes during the game, and I actually wrote that UCLA's defense clearly made strides during that period, playing strong defense against a good-executing offensive team.
Little did I know.
It's not some radical theory here. We've been repeating the mantra since Howland took UCLA to three Final Fours. It's all about the defense. Not only for just Howland, but we think in all of college basketball. But especially for Howland. No matter how much he tries to institute a break and get some easy points, or loosen up his offense, his offense is pretty much his offense. It could possibly change into a fastbreak offense if he had recruited a team-full of athletes, but we know that story. No, Howland's only chance, as we've been stressing for so long, is that his Bruin teams must return to playing the type of defense that took them to those FFs. They aren't athletic or talented enough to play defense at that level, but they can at least play defense well enough to shut down Cal Poly, as we saw.
But after that 13 minutes, in which UCLA played good defense and built an 18-point lead, the Bruin defense fell of a cliff.
It was a combination of things that led to it. It was clear UCLA slacked off in its defensive intensity. That might have been because of fatigue, but also a lack of a killer instinct, and we would suspect this team is capable of both. For one thing, Shabazz Muhammad is clearly out of shape, and the Wears tend to wear down in most second halves and lose their legs. They're in pretty good shape, but they're just not physically built to play 34 minutes a game, like Travis Wear did Sunday. Then, on top of it all, Cal Poly, who had been executing its offense deep into every shot clock, began taking more of its outside looks early in the shot clock -- and making them.
It wasn't exactly a Perfect Storm, because that implies it's a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of factors. This is something that could happen quite often this season unless this team can somehow sustain its defensive intensity for the majority of 40 minutes.
If we're second-guessing, as we tend to do, when Cal Poly started to get back in the game, cutting the lead to about 7 points with 10 minutes left, it would have been really interesting if UCLA had gone to its zone at the time. UCLA's man defense was losing energy, especially chasing around all of Cal Poly's cutters and having to push through all of their screens. It would have, at least for a possession or two, perhaps disoriented Cal Poly.
On the other hand, it doesn't seem like it's too much to expect a UCLA team to be good enough to maintain a decent amount of defensive intensity for the last 12 minutes of the game to finish off Cal Poly.
Perhaps the image of Cal Poly celebrating after the game in the middle of the new Pauley Pavilion will inspire them for the rest of the season.
The significant element for this team, too, that we haven't mentioned yet but is also clearly evident: the team looks miserable. Not only because they lost this game, but in playing basketball. They clearly aren't having fun. And they don't look like they're engaged at all in what Ben Howland is trying to accomplish. At this point, right now, Howland looks like he's lost the players.
So much of the season will hinge on whether he can get them back.