I thought about his suggestion seriously. I contemplated whether there was really anything new or fresh to say about UCLA turning in perhaps their worst performance of the season.
I was just about to turn off my computer but then I knew that there really was something new and fresh that needed to be said in regard to this severely disappointing loss.
Most of the time UCLA Coach Ben Howland is right. In the post-game press conference, he said that this loss was entirely on him, and we have to admit, Howland is again correct in this instance. This isn't just an act of falling on his sword. The loss and the way UCLA matched up against Oregon, really, was mostly a result of poor strategy and tactics.
UCLA does have superior talent over Oregon. But it's not necessarily superior in every facet. And Howland failed to take advantage of the aspects of his talent that were superior to Oregon and to try to minimize the aspects where UCLA is at a disadvantage. Howland has a habit of trying to fit every square peg into his round hole – run his offensive sets regardless of advantageous one-on-one match-ups on offense, for instance. And, most inflexible of them all: play man defense even when a game and match-up are screaming for a zone.
Oregon coach Dana Altman had two things to his advantage. First, the type of offense and defense he prefers to utilize happen to be chinks in UCLA's armor. And then, secondly, Altman adapted it to exploit UCLA's weaknesses even further.
Let's take the match-up of Oregon's offense versus UCLA's defense. UCLA, like I said, has better talent man for man, but defensively there isn't great team speed or quickness, but good length and shot-blocking ability. So, anyone with a little bit of basketball acumen would recognize that UCLA's personnel is better suited for a zone. Now, Howland, of course, has been trying to fit this peg into his defensive round hole of man-to-man for the season, and you have to generally give him credit: UCLA's defense for the year has been decent and had looked like it had improved. Howland has done a notable job getting these players to be better man defenders. But there's still no denying that having a zone as at least an option is something that you would think should be in the program's repertoire. And it was never more evident against Oregon Thursday. Altman spread out his offense, and utilized screen after screen, on-ball screens and screens away from the ball, to try to free up an open shot or a lay-up. UCLA, for the most part, defended decently in the first half, holding Oregon to 42% shooting. But Oregon kept at it, and it exploited all of UCLA's defensive weaknesses: 1) being able to stay in front of the ball, 2) being able to effectively defend against screens and 3) help defense. You could see UCLA's defenders getting fatigued in the second half chasing the spread-out Ducks through all of those screens and crisp ball movement.
Altman also exploited the fact that UCLA's best on-ball defender, Malcolm Lee, would probably be slowed by a knee injury.
It was the perfect offensive strategy and approach against UCLA. And, to its credit, Oregon executed it very well.
Howland went to a zone for a few minutes in one game this season. You would think that, in the second half of this game, with his defense fatigued, Lee on the bench obviously trying to manage his injured knee, and Oregon slicing up his defense and continuing to build a lead, that it could be time to resort to the zone. But Howland didn't budge. Square peg – round hole.
It would have been very interesting to see how Oregon would have done against a UCLA zone. Admittedly, UCLA's zone, when it appeared for a brief time this season, wasn't very good. But it was effective since it, at least, made the offense have to adjust. UCLA would have benefitted from making Oregon adjust its entire offensive scheme to a zone offense and the screens wouldn't have been salient. UCLA's bigs might not have been huffing and puffing trying to stay with their man or when switched out on a guard, and there would have been a much more plugged-up lane and natural help defense around the basket.
We're not saying a zone would have won the game, or possibly even changed the outcome. But this was a situation that was begging for it and it's amazing that we didn't even see one possession of it.
On offense, it was also a matter of getting in a rut. Oregon, for the most part, played a zone, trying to keep UCLA's bigs from touching the ball inside, collapsing down on them to prevent a feed, and then doubling when they did touch it. It was very effective. Reeves Nelson had just 7 points and Josh Smith 5. At the outset of the game, Oregon was defending the block effectively, and UCLA then got in a rut of not trying to look inside enough. That established a mindset that continued mostly throughout the game – of UCLA settling for outside shots instead of trying to get the ball inside. UCLA briefly did well offensively, in the first few minutes of the second half, when it, not coincidentally, forced the ball down low to Nelson and Smith. Obviously that was the directive given to the team by Howland at halftime. But for whatever reason, that directive got lost in the first half and then in the second half after that short stint. The way to break down Oregon's zone was to exploit UCLA's size inside and to keep wearing down the Ducks. Altman even admitted that's what happened in the first two match-ups between the two teams. Oregon, in both of those games, went up by double-digits just as it did in this game, but UCLA's bigs wore down Oregon's smaller frontline. In those two games it wasn't even a matter of UCLA's posts putting up big scoring numbers, but getting the ball down low tired Oregon's bigs, made the UCLA offense flow and also propagated offensive rebounds and second chances.
In this game, Oregon, with its small frontline, scored 36 points in the paint, while UCLA had just 22.
Oregon's defense established the direction of the match-up and, instead of UCLA wrestling it away, it succumbed. Howland went to a smaller line-up to try to match-up against the smaller Ducks, instead of staying with two bigs and establishing the size mismatch and making Oregon have to adapt, which it really couldn't because it wouldn't have had two bigs who could match up with Nelson and Smith consistently on the floor at the same time. Nelson played a very low 28 minutes for him, and Smith just 20, with neither in foul trouble.
Howland also is using a new offensive set, one in which Nelson will function at the top of the arc. In the entire Howland era there have been offensive sets that he's instituted that I, at least, understand their intention. This one baffles me. Why pull Nelson 25 feet away from the basket against a zone? He's not a threat to shoot and isn't looking for it. So, essentially, you're providing the defense another man to defend inside, to double and provide help in the paint, because he certainly doesn't have to match up out of the zone and go out and defend Nelson. I could maybe understand it against a man defense, trying to pull Nelson's defender away from the paint and give Smith more room to operate, but not against a zone. We've been seeing this set in recent game and, really, it was just about the worst offensive set you could run against Oregon, too, since it then took away UCLA's advantage of two bigs – Nelson and Smith – on the block, and Oregon's inability to physically match up with both of them at the same time. Square peg, round hole.
UCLA's lack of insistence on getting the ball inside to Nelson and Smith also clearly came from the two not always fighting for position inside – which probably resulted from the two getting fatigued having to play man defense and chasing their man all over against Oregon's spread offense. Offense and defense contribute to each other; if UCLA had gone to a zone, Nelson and Smith probably wouldn't have become so fatigued on defense and then had more energy to keep trying to get position in the post on offense.
There have been plenty of instances over Howland's tenure at UCLA, and this season, when Howland clearly out-coached his opposing colleague. But in this instance, you'd have to give this one to Altman.
Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of this game is that Altman just provided a complete blueprint on both offense and defense on how to beat the Bruins and exploit Howland's stubbornness. Luckily, though, in our experience with college coaches, most of them are just as stubborn as Howland. UCLA's first-round opponent in the NCAA Tournament won't probably exploit UCLA's weaknesses as well as Oregon did, with their coach probably stubbornly trying to cram his own square peg into his round hole.