The Bruins Win the Pac-12
After a season that included two transfers, several miserable losses, and constant questioning of the head coach's job status, UCLA beat Washington 61-54 on Saturday, clinching the outright Pac-12 championship moments later when Oregon lost to Utah. Just the way we drew it up, right? Despite a season full of twists, turns, and unmitigated disasters, the Bruins won the conference at 13-5, thanks to Oregon falling apart this week and California proving unable to match Stanford's intensity. The Bruins and Ben Howland exorcised their Hec Edmundson demons by clinching the title on Washington's home floor, a venue where UCLA hadn't won since Howland's first season at UCLA. Saturday's game, however, was not a culmination for the Bruins in the sense that it represented a higher level of play than they'd shown the rest of the year. In fact, the greatest testament to the quality of the Pac-12 this year is that UCLA won the conference without ever really kicking into an extra gear. The team at the end of the conference season resembled, largely, the same team that started play against Cal and Stanford in December: still exhibiting poor effort on defense and relying primarily on an at times explosive offense. UCLA played, overall, pretty mediocre defense against Washington on Saturday, with the three freshmen Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson, and Shabazz Muhammad in particular having tremendous difficulties staying in front of the ball. Rotations were frequently slow. The trick against Washington was that the Huskies played a wildly undisciplined game, turning the ball over 19 times. If you can say nothing else positive about UCLA's defense, you can at least say that it is opportunistic, perhaps more so than any Howland-coached team here. Credit has to be given to Larry Drew, who played some extremely active defense, frequently leaving his own man to disrupt passing lanes and at one point dropping down to the post to steal the ball away from one of the Huskies big men. He had only a couple of breakdowns, one of which led to a Washington three off of a dribble handoff, but it was a much more consistent effort from him on that end. Offensively, aside from a couple of instances where he slipped on the floor, he kept control of the offense and generally made good decisions. Travis Wear, who has suffered two sprains in the last two weeks on his foot, helped UCLA stay in it through the first 10 minutes while they floundered through some poor rebounding to start the game. You have to credit him for being able to play 31 minutes on the foot, considering it sidelined him for much of the game against Washington State. He struggled with keeping Aziz N'diaye off the glass, but given the drop off between he and his brother, it was important that he was able to play as many minutes as he was. Shabazz Muhammad was much more effective on Saturday scoring the ball, even if you'd love to see him throw a pass once in a while just to keep the other team guessing. His defense was lackluster throughout the first half, but there was a better overall effort from him than against Washington State, and he didn't leak out as much. In the second half, he was a force on offense, and showed exactly how active he can be, rebounding his own misses and playing with tremendous energy. Among much of the nonsense that Doug Gottlieb spewed on Saturday, there was one nugget of interesting data that seems to fit what we've seen this year: on catch and shoot opportunities, Shabazz Muhammad is scoring about 1.2 points per possession. On post ups and one dribble pull ups, he's at about .6. Some of that is skewed by the fact that many of his catch and shoot opportunities are three point attempts, but it paints an interesting picture about his game. Jordan Adams played some pretty awful defense through the first 10 minutes of the game when he was taken off the dribble at will and also rotated very slowly. It looked like he was stuck in mud. He played much better in the second half on defense, which was probably fueled by playing much better on offense. One thing you have to like about his offensive game is the versatility he has with his shot. On those first few shots in the second half, he noted the length of the Washington defenders and shot those rainbow jumpers. With continued work on his body, there's little doubt that he will be one of the major focal points of UCLA's offense next year. Speaking of Adams, but really the entire team, one of the most interesting departures between this team and previous UCLA teams is the de-emphasis of positional defense in favor of steals. It makes sense, of course, given that UCLA is much more focused on scoring easy baskets now, but it's interesting. A lack of steals commensurate to the defensive intensity used to be a hallmark of Howland's defense. Kyle Anderson played, overall, pretty poorly, and just looked a little out of sync. The thing you have to like about Anderson, though, is that even when he's not playing well on offense, he still tries to rebound, which can be said for literally not another player on the team. Much like with Adams, if he can spend an offseason refining his body (getting stronger and hopefully a bit faster), he's going to be a unique force in the Pac-12. David Wear rebounded pretty well for his minutes, but did have one pretty awful step back three point attempt after his sole offensive rebound. Norman Powell, who didn't look horrible against Washington State, struggled once again. He looks like he's lost confidence, especially on offense. In this game, it even affected his normally solid defense. So, now, UCLA gets the one seed for the Pac-12 Tournament and will face, if I'm doing the math correctly, the winner of ASU and Stanford. The Bruins have sewn up an NCAA Tournament bid at this point, and will be playing for seeding. If the Bruins can rattle off three wins, and if those wins can include victories over Arizona and Oregon/California, there's even an outside chance that UCLA could still get within range of a protected seed in the West, since the Bruins will have gone 10-2 over their last 12, with two top-50 RPI wins. Odds are, though, that even a Pac-12 Tournament sweep would still have UCLA staring at a 4 or 5 seed, given the losses against ASU, WSU, USC, and Cal Poly this year.