An Immoral Victory at ASU

UCLA gets the opposite of a moral victory in barely edging last place Arizona State in overtime, 73-72, Saturday. What's most distressing is that it appears that, instead of UCLA's defense getting better, its effort and focus appears to be eroding...

It's a tough job having to write about a game like this for a UCLA website.

UCLA beat Arizona State, 73-72, luckily escaping with a victory in overtime.

You've heard of moral victories? They're the ones when your team loses but perhaps they played well and there is some satisfaction and solace. This was the opposite of a moral victory. It was an immoral victory.

It was an all-around bad college basketball game, played by one untalented basketball team, and one that doesn't seem to care much.

Really, if UCLA showed up mentally for this game and played just with decent effort, it should beat this average mid-major-level ASU team by at least 20.

But UCLA's lack of effort and intensity is the ultimate equalizer. If you like your games exciting, this is four you, since it can make any game exciting at the end, just as it sent this game into overtime. But if you like your basketball played well, look away.

Again, it's not even about forced errors. We can tolerate Tyler Honeycutt missing a lay-up close to the end of regulation. But it's tough to tolerate the six or so times when Sun Devils drove around him for easy baskets and he didn't seem to put much effort into staying in front of them.

This game was the equivalent of a Defensive Effort Meter. When UCLA put in some effort defensively, their lead went up. When they mailed it in defensively, their lead went down – to the point where it didn't exist for a while.

UCLA allowed a bad ASU team to score 42 points in the second half and get back in it. This is a team that should feel fortunate if it scores 42 points in a game.

Robert Carpentier, the writer who does the game previews for BRO, keeps trying to make educated guesses on which UCLA team will show up for each game – the team that plays hard or the one that doesn't. Well, it's now getting easier for him to anticipate because the UCLA-team-that-doesn't-play-hard is taking over the Bruin multiple-personality brain. At the beginning of the season it seemed like the UCLA-team-that-played-hard showed its personality more often than it does now. And UCLA fans kept believing (or hoping) that, as the season went on, this young and immature UCLA team would learn how to sustain effort and intensity, but it appears like they're going the other direction. It looks like they're playing with less effort and intensity as the season progresses.

We also said at the beginning of the season that this team had a front-runner mentality, being the type of team that would play harder when they were winning, and give up when they were losing. We were talking about game by game, but it now appears that we were right in terms of the overall season, too. It seems that this team has realized the season isn't really a clearly successful one, and it's looking more like a team that has given up.

Yes, many positive-thinking Bruin fans will consider this analysis a bit harsh, citing the fact that UCLA won the game, its 14-7, in third place in the Pac-10 and on the bubble for an NCAA tournament bid.

Regardless of whether the team is winning, or whether it makes the NCAA tournament, really, what determines if this season was a success, in the minds of most sophisticated observers, is whether the team played up to its ability. Right now, you'd have to say it's not.

There were just too many examples of poor effort in this game to laundry list. Honeycutt's lack of a block out on free throw, allowing Trent Lockett to tip the ball back in and tie the game at 61 with 20 seconds to go in regulation, might top the list.

Perhaps the most perplexing development is the issue UCLA's defense has with defending screens. Ben Howland has always had his bigs hedge, but not only was Josh Smith picking up fouls doing it, many of his bigs didn't do it with much effort. If you're going to hedge, and you do it with minimal effort, it's really just about the worst thing you can do against a screen. So, UCLA's bigs started plugging – that is, instead of stepping way out to hedge, it's merely sliding to the side and taking away the open lane for the dribble driver. But there were also some times they'd switch with their teammate, too. When asked in a recent press conference what dictates what his defenders will do against a screen, he said it depended on whom they were defending. So, now we're at the point that UCLA's defenders look completely confused about what to do against a screen and whom to do it against. There were too many times in this game to mention when UCLA's bigs switched or plugged – while UCLA's other defender went on top of the screen. It commonly left two Bruins guarding one man and a Sun Devil wide open and rolling to the basket.

We have to believe that Howland has gone over this in practice, like we said in the Arizona game interview. It's just merely a matter that his players are giving too little effort and focus to be successful at it. While, of course, it's the fault of the players for playing with a lack of effort, you have to conclude, too, that when you have a team whose #1 issue is defensive effort and focus, it's not smart to provide them a means to not show effort or focus. What it's done, more than anything, is give UCLA's defenders an even bigger opportunity to play with little effort.

Again, this game analysis stuff is easy. This UCLA team will not be successful this season, and that is, play up to its capability, if it continues to play with such little effort and focus on defense.

We're not going to single out a player who is the key to this, but in the last two games it doesn't seem coincidental that UCLA plays better defensively and with generally more effort and focus when Tyler Lamb is on the court. You wouldn't call him a "glue guy," because that has a connotation that his intangibles help maintain good chemistry. But Lamb provides quality on the court; he's just one more player that plays with intelligence, vision and defensive quality, and many times it seems to make UCLA reach critical mass in terms of well-played basketball, and make the Bruins a much better basketball team.

We should just probably stop focusing on defense ourselves, since the Bruins have, and just concentrate on who produces the most on offense in order for UCLA to win games.

So, here goes...

Lazeric Jones scored a game-high 18 points, hitting some big shots, one three-pointer in overtime. He has to look for his shot, as he did in this game, and like he didn't do in Arizona game Thursday. He also had 6 rebound and four assists.

Reeves Nelson was, again, UCLA's main offensive threat, many times forcing a basket when UCLA needed one, finishing with 15 points and 12 rebounds.

Honeycutt hit a couple of key shots and finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Jerime Anderson had just 5 points, but also hit a big three in overtime, and had three assists, but also really helped to make the offense flow and execute better.

Malcolm Lee had 12 points and 5 assists (but four turnovers). He got called for two very bad charging calls in the first five minutes, which he seemed to be recovering from for the remainder of the game. He did, though, hit a big three in overtime himself.

Josh Smith had 10 points in 21 minutes, and even though he should have been even more dominating against an ASU team that has really struggled to defend high-scoring bigs, he did look like he was making more effort to take the ball strong to the basket, especially on one violent dunk. It was an interesting, and a bit perplexing, move to opt for the three guards instead of Smith in the second half, when he seemed like such an integral part of the UCLA lineup that was playing well, and especially when ASU didn't really have much of an answer for him.

Now, back to your usual programming...

At this point, with the way the team is playing, the season is really a crap shoot. If it continues to degrade in terms of defensive effort, you can expect the rest of the season to be either games against good teams in which UCLA struggles and loses, or games against bad teams in which UCLA struggles and wins.

Perhaps, Bruin fans, you shouldn't give up complete hope that UCLA will somehow find some answers – particularly how to defend a screen and how to play with more effort and focus defensively. Perhaps there is a right combination of players that might propagate it. Perhaps Lamb is a key.

If you are of the brave ilk, and are determined to hang in for the rest of the season, be prepared to watch some bad, but awkwardly exciting, basketball.

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