Digging Deeper Into the UCLA Game

I decided to take the time Monday night to plow through the tape of Saturday's UCLA loss in search of some answers. Though the number of three-pointers has been widely lamented, I have a slightly more complex commentary on the offensive options. But defense played a key role in this loss, which happened in a far more compact period of time than you may think...

To the eight-minute timeout in the first half, Stanford was already jacking up a lot of three's. I sensed in Maples that the offense was moving further away from the rim already, but it's hard to be alarmed when Stanford was leading 28-26. To that point, every three-point shot had been a good one. They were all open, created either off the break or passing around until a lapse in the zone was found. The fact that Stanford had hit 50% (6 of 12) to that point was why they were in the game. The strategy to take open shots, which are good shots, later wasn't necessarily a failing. The shots just didn't go down. The reason Stanford wasn't up more with that strong early shooting was that UCLA was getting too many easy looks, and winning on the boards. But more on that later...

Stanford opened the second half penetrating and attacking the zone on the first possession, which resulted in 2 for Jacobsen. The next possession saw Julius Barnes miss a driving lay-up in the fast break. Then, the string of three-point attempts ensued. The next five possessions were a three-point shot and done. The first two went down, closing an eleven-point gap to five. The next three bombs missed, with no Stanford rebound and a chance for UCLA to run. Julius missed a long two next, but then it was back to the treys. The UCLA zone was honestly not very good, and sagged way off Stanford shooters time after time. Again, you feel good about taking shots when they're that open for Julius, Teyo and Casey (twice), but four in a row missed. Julius ended the the drought with a deuce just inside the three-point, which was again a good shot... but didn't help the three-point stat that jumps out from this game. Back to the threes, next was Lottich, Teyo and Julius - all misses. Julius shot a running floating jumper to follow, which went down, but also got him an offensive foul.

Incredibly, after Stanford opened up with two made threes, they missed their next ten, with only two 2-point field goal attempts in a ten-minute stretch. Watching the tape, I can defend every one of the shots, though. A shooter was open and took a good shot. Maybe more interesting, though, was the fact that the 11-point lead was down a hair to just 9 points. The offense for Stanford shifted a little bit, with Hernandez and Barnes attacking the zone more, but when the ball was dished out to a wide-open shooter... four more straight missed three-pointers. Fourteen straight misses from long-distance.

Where Stanford had been able to keep from losing ground before, now UCLA started putting up points to pull away. The 9-point deficit expanded to 20 as the Bruins went on a 11-0 run over 4 minutes. On defense, Stanford started some full-court pressure, which didn't do a bit of good. Despite the successes in the final desperation minutes of this game, I do not head into this week with the notion that Stanford has proved it can be a pressing team. Surely not against UCLA, should we meet again at Staples, who has a height advantage at four positions and can pass over a lot of traps. But the greater point is that a surprisingly competitive game slipped away during 4 minutes of mistakes:

UCLA and Cedric Bozeman ran the shot clock down all the way on the first possession in this stretch, when Bozeman took the ball at Hernandez in the final seconds. Chris, to his credit, stayed in front of him from outside the arc to the basket. But Bozeman pulled up instead of taking it all the way, which gave him a bank shot off the glass for two with just two seconds left on the shot clock. Chris didn't anticipate this, and his body kept moving back with no chance at all to contest the shot.

Curtis Borchardt went to the line and missed both free throws.

UCLA ball, and Rico Hines is guarded on the perimeter by Julius Barnes. As happens too often, Julius lunges at the ball, allowing Hines to take the ball the opposite direction and drive the lane parallel to the baseline. Julius recovers pretty well against the slower Hines, but for some strange reason keeps his body a step behind Hines. Rico keeps moving, and starts to break toward the basket when he realized Julius is not in front of him. Finger roll for two more points. The lead is now up to thirteen.

One and done for Stanford, as a Gadzooks rebound gives UCLA the ball. The Bruins again take the shot clock under ten seconds. They come away with no points, but are making the game move faster while they have the sizable lead. Stanford has the ball, and Hernandez drives into the zone, drawing the entire UCLA defense. Borchardt has nobody between him and the basket, and receives the Hernandez feed. I thought in real-time that the pass was low, but it hits Curtis in the hands chest-high and bounces right off them. That allows the entire defense to collapse on him, forcing him to pass outside. Rotate the ball to a wide-WIDE-open Childress, who can't hit the baseline three.

After the timeout, Stanford starts the press. It's a 3-2 press with Chris, Julius and Casey providing the ball-pressure. The UCLA in-bounds man runs up the court after he brings the ball in, which provides a Stanford advantage in the backcourt. That of course leaves two Cardinal players to defend three Bruins down the court, which is where you get burned. The problem is that when Bozeman (Julius-defended) passes the ball to Hines (Casey-defended), Hernandez starts moving up the court instead of collapsing on Hines. That forces Julius to run to Hines, leaving Bozeman unguarded to easily receive the pass and bring it across the halfcourt line. The press was broken due to poor execution, but Stanford still kept the pressure across the line. That left a short distance between the 3-2 matchup and the 2-3 matchup, which spells disaster. As the ball passed out of that trap, Stanford lost assignments, and chaos broke out. Josh had to yo-yo between Knight under the basket and Kapono outside the three-point line. Hernandez came at Kapono, but lunged at him and flew right past him. Kapono had to take just one dribble to get the easy open jumper, which mercifully saw one foot on the line. Fifteen-point game. That possession had so many disasters, it turns your stomach.

Stanford has the ball next, but Casey misses a little running jumper off the glass, and Curtis gets an offensive foul when he's tangled up with Gadzuric on the rebound.

On defense, Stanford tries full-court pressure again. UCLA has an even easier time getting the ball across the line this time. The half-court defense is set, which is now a 3-2 zone. The ball swings over to Kapono, who is 26-feet away from the basket. He sets like he's going to shoot, which draws Hernandez to again lunge and jump at him. Kapono again doesn't have to even rush with Hernandez so far out of position. One dribble, and a shot - this time behind the arc for three. Eighteen point lead.

Stanford swings the ball around briefly on offense and takes what is the thirteenth straight missed three-pointer. No rebound, and UCLA is on the offensive.

Monty switches back to man-defense, which works OK. Kapono gives it to Cummings, who pumps and then shoots a very long two-pointer. That's a shot Stanford feels is one they'll give much of the time, and sure enough, Childress backs off to defend the penetration rather than the shot. Cummings hits it, though, and the lead is up to twenty.

Stanford finally misses the last of the stretch of fourteen long-distance doinks.

Over these four minutes, Stanford only took 6 shots, and missed them all. Also missed two of two free throws. UCLA also takes just 6 shots, but hits 5 of them for 11 points. Stanford again took good shots on offense, though points were taken off the board by missed FTs and fumbling the ball deep in the paint. The defense broke down for easily its worst stretch of the game, which UCLA seized. This run killed the Cardinal. Even though it seemed like 35 minutes of the netherworld, the game was lost in these four minutes. The other 36 minutes, Stanford outscored UCLA by 8. Note that the same five guys were on the floor for this entire stretch, and all of them contributed mistakes. The bench deserves some fire for throwing the press out there, which looked poorly prepared. Of course, I don't want to see Stanford eat up practices these next few weeks working on the press, but it helped create a disadvantageous defensive position for two of these key UCLA possessions, and led to five Bruin points.

One other stat to note from this stretch is that UCLA was never fouled defensively. Any time they pushed the ball toward the basket, no defender really put a body on them. This was a problem throughout the game, and signals a systemic defensive problem. Note that UCLA scored 49 points in the first half, but was fouled just 5 times by Stanford. And I know that one was for a loose ball (Casey and Kapono both diving for it) and one was under the offensive basket (Curtis' phantom second call). So we're looking at three fouls defending against 49 UCLA points? That's indicative of a style of play completely antithetical to Stanford basketball. This team used to be about playing tough, physical basketball. There's nothing physical about that ratio, though, and I think you would be hard-pressed to find another such half in recent Stanford years. In the second half, Stanford committed just five fouls in the first fifteen minutes (but one was Monty's T and three were offensive), against UCLA's 38 points. Just 4 defensive fouls in the first 35 minutes of play while UCLA threw down 75 points?!?! Fouls may have been as abundant as the fair-weather fans pouring out of Maples in the final five minutes, but that was a desperation mode where the clock had to be stopped and Stanford had to do anything to get the ball. So while the offense didn't click in this game, UCLA was allowed to shot 57% from the field against an atypical Stanford defensive style for the 20-point lead after fifteen minutes. And again, the mistakes on defense were the dominant contributor to the four-minute stretch where this game was lost.

To be clear, though, I don't just advocate a brutally physical style of play. Being physical is about contact and strength, not about hitting. The benefit of physical play, particularly early in the game, is that you set the tone for what an offensive player can and can't get away with. If a guard is allowed to drive on you without you putting a hard body on him, he mentally prepares himself to go there all game long. I think that happened with Cedric Bozeman, who had one his best games of the year. I don't think it was so much about matchups, as the message he received early in the game. For a guy who is big and relatively slow to learn that he can take it to a guard without getting knocked, he's in good shape. When you consider that Bozeman has a huge height advantage over other point guards and can do his greatest damage when he gets closer to the hoops, he's in really good shape. Though when you consider that Bozeman shoots some 26% from the free throw line, but Stanford doesn't once put him on the stripe in that nearly 2.5 hour game, he's in the land of unbridled milk and honey. Ced knew early that he could drive toward the basket to score or dish to Gadzuric, without any knocks and without going to the free throw line of his doom. He's an extreme case, but a very poignant one in this game. UCLA was supremely confident in running its offense as the game wore on because there wasn't any demonstration of a serious physical impediment to what they wanted to take. Fouls aren't something you are proud of, but they are a good proxy of how tough you're going to play your man. Especially given the touch-call refs in this conference.

Still, I don't think anyone wants to ask for a defensive gameplan that can win a ballgame in the midst of a 14 for 42 three-point shooting affair. Something has to be addressed about the offense. Here's my take: it is not incorrect to say that 30 three-point shots through the first 35 minutes is OK, provided that they're all good shots given to you by a slack zone defense. Watching the tape, I'd question at most two of those shots, and I'm not convinced they were really bad either. Still, Stanford ended the game shooting 33%. And yes, they turned it up many notches in those final five minutes, where they hit 6 of their last 11 threes for the game. But when you remember that Stanford started the game 6 of 12 from outside, it's not so improbable. Moreover, the three-point shots were open late in the game, just as through the middle and early going. The overall percentage was what it was. And for a team shooting 35% from that distance this entire season, it was awfully typical. Maybe it wasn't a cold shooting day for Stanford - maybe it was typical of a cold shooting year for a team that lags recent Stanford assassin clips. The last two seasons, when Stanford reached those lofty #1 heights, the team shot 40.0% and 42.9%.

That forces this question: if you previously held that open three-point looks were good shots, with no questions asked, does that hold with this team? On average, the answer may be no. Stanford's top three chuckers (as measured by attempts) are Casey, Julius and Josh. They're averaging 38.5%, 31.8% and 31.7%. The collectively pretty much define this team's three-point shooting. They can shoot much hotter, or much colder than their averages, which could lead to a either a torrid offense or horrid offense. Are you willing, if you're Monty, to look at that variability and let that dictate perhaps your Ws and Ls? I think it's a pretty core question to this offense right now, given that the book is out on how to defend Stanford. They aren't the sharpshooters of yore, and you can have decent-to-good success if you zone up most of the game. Bibby had Lavin have both looked like geniuses, and Lute will do this without question. A zone also helps him given his shallow and young roster. He lacks depth all over the court, and can protect his guys from foul trouble with a zone... and force Stanford into a losing offense to boot!

In summary, I think I'd easily defend putting up 42 three-pointers, if they're open, against UCLA's zone if I had last year's Stanford team on the floor. But on a very predictable and average night of 2001-2002 Stanford three-point shooting, the zone couldn't be busted.

That says you have to find something else to do to attack the zone. Actually, you must go find an answer, since you know that's the defense Stanford will face the rest of this year. You'd like to find a way to pound it inside, but owning the paint has been excruciatingly difficult to do with Justin Davis hurt this past week. And passing into a zone requires real precision. I think a combination of three options can help: penetration to the basket, drive to the mid-range pull-up, and penetrate and dish to the low-post. I think the first of those three is the least likely to work, though. A good zone should collapse and surround your guard, including a couple of trees. Casey actually is a good bet, though. Casey and Julius have both shown they can do the second option, with Casey usually looking to draw the foul. The third option is part of the offense, but requires special spacing. And more often, the penetrating guard has been dishing out to the perimeter, rather than to the low-post. Regardless of what options you come up with, or how well the above work, you do still shoot some of those open threes, and you still do work an inside-outside game. It just can't be 60-70% of how you run your zone offense with this year's team.

And now for some et cetera thoughts:

  • While I'm looking at the UCLA game, here's some terse analysis of the U$C fiasco. There were many more failings in that game, but at the core, it was really frustrating to watch Bibby get all the benefits of his press (whatever its shape and form at the time) without paying for it. When $C ran the full-court press to start the game, which was the same press they smoked Stanford with in El Lay, Stanford broke it in textbook fashion. They did actually push the ball up to get numbers and punish the Trojenz. And it's notable that Stanford held even on the scoreboard during this early going. But when $C changed to a three-quarters and half-court trapping press, Stanford seemingly went into its shell. There are two reasons why: 1) Going from memory (I deleted this game from my TiVo post-haste), Stanford had four big mistakes in a row when they tried to push it. A slip, a travel, a ball bounced off a leg, and two missed free throws when fouled. That had to rock the confidence of the guys that they could pull it off offensively. 2) Stanford had practiced and the coaches had emphasized how important it was to push the ball against the full-court press, but that message wasn't delivered as strongly in the second version of Bibby's press. That direction should have been emphasized a little better in practice, and definitely should have been pushed down the players' throats during the game. Whether reason #1 or reason #2 dominated in the result of the press-us-and-we-won't-punish-you offense, I don't know. Both were real, though.
  • I've been concerned about Josh Childress' confidence, and this was a rough game for him (though he needs to see that it was a rough game for a lot of guys, including two All-Americans). But it's noteworthy that even with his perimeter shots not going in, he kept shooting. Furthermore, there is a specific glimpse at his learning curve I'd like to highlight. At the 11:10 mark in the first half, Josh received a long pass on the wing from Chris Hernandez on the break. Josh had a lot of hardwood in front of him, and four UCLA defenders completely out of position to contest a charge to the hoop. So he put the ball on the floor and attacked the basket, where Rico Hines (who was the one guy under the rim) came out on him. Josh changed direction, left his feet and ended up with a traveling call before he could get rid of the ball. As he headed down the court to get set on defense, he faced the bench and signaled that it was his fault, and he should have taken the open shot. Lesson: his instincts told him to charge the basket, but he took himself out of a good shot and didn't create a new one any better, much less equal. Later, on an in-bounds play at the 8:49 mark in the first half, Kapono (a poor defender) had Josh but let him come all the way around the key to receive the in-bounds pass from Casey Jake. Josh set his feet and started to lean his body toward the wide open space in front of him. But he pulled himself back and squared up for the open three-point shot. He canned it, with nothing but net, to tie the game at 26. It was unfortunately the only shot he made in the game, and that's what sticks with him, but it represented maturation and a real high point for him - regardless of the result of the shot.
  • For the record, the 42 three-pointers obliterated Stanford's team single-game record. That was previously held by Brevin's senior year squad at Maples against the Beavs. That game saw "just" 34 Stanford trey attempts.
  • I'm hearing that Casey is taking a markedly active role of late on the vocal leadership front, both on the floor and in the locker room. It doesn't come naturally for Casey, and that wasn't the role he was brought up to play. But Stanford's All-American is pushing now in this direction. Here is one man's applause and gratitude. Keep it up, Jake.
  • How bad is Dave Libbey? After a UCLA made basket late in the first half, Dijon Thompson defended Josh Childress inbounding the ball. The ball took a while to gather, and UCLA had batted it away to help give time to set up the pressure. Josh got his two feet behind the endline and bent over to pick up the ball. By the time he had grabbed it, Libbey was already two seconds deep in his five second count. Unbelievable. In watching the tape of the broadcast, it was mildly comforting to hear Billy Packer take the officiating to task on so many bad calls. I also wonder if the Pac-10 keeps track of the number of reversed calls in a game by members of a crew. Libbey has to be high on such a chart...
  • I drew a little heat for my criticism of Jason Kapono's play in Saturday's game, with a focus on how much he pushes and pulls to get space or to get to the ball. One classic example came with 2:26 left in the first half. Gadzuric shoots a turnaround shot off the glass over Joe Kirchofer, which comes off too strong and rolls off the rim. Kapono is a good six feet away from the rim, while Teyo Johnson is in great position underneath for the rebound. As Teyo starts to jump, Kapono pushes with both hands right in the small of Teyo's back and sends him flying out of bounds. The ball falls right to the beloved Headband Boy, who gets a chippie all alone for two points. No whistle.
  • Anybody else notice how Rico Hines twice jumped deep and dramatically out of bounds for loose balls which he had zero chance of getting a finger on? That's not hustle; there's something wrong...

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