What a Shame

It wasn't only a shame that UCLA lost a game it should have won at Washington, 71-69, but you got a glimpse at what an engaged Josh Smith can do, and what he could have been doing all season...

UCLA losing to Washington, 71-69, in Seattle Thursday was a true shame.

For many reasons.

• UCLA earned the win. They played fairly well, especially on offense, and suffered that crippling collapse at the end that gave the game to the Huskies.

• The Bruins were the better team, the one that played good, well-coached basketball. UCLA executed, and played fundamentally sound, while Washington, for the most part, didn't, tending to jack up bad shots and make bad decisions.

Josh Smith had The Awakening. It might very well have been he woke up because he was playing in front of the hometown crowd. Perhaps UCLA should look into flying a decent chunk of Washington fans to every UCLA game so Smith will score 24 points, pull down 9 rebounds and play the kind of game he should have every time out this season.

• It's not often we cite officiating, but it has to be done here. The homecooking really helped to hand the game to Washington.

• A win at Washington, something UCLA hasn't done in 8 years, would have given UCLA a little bit of salvation in a lost season.

A true shame.

But using the word "shame" also kind of implies it was something that occurred that you couldn't help or couldn't change. And that isn't necessarily the case. UCLA could help or change this game, and it doesn't take an incredibly brilliant analysis to pinpoint how. UCLA Coach Ben Howland made some mistakes at the end of this game that profoundly affected its outcome. It's a shame, actually, because Howland coached a good game up until the last 6 minutes. UCLA led 65-57 with 5:33 left and up until that point, had pretty much been executing very well offensively against Washington's slack man-to-man defense. But then Washington went into a 2-3 zone, to go along with its pressing fullcourt. This did a couple of things: The press made a presumably fatigued UCLA team have to work to get the ball to the halfcourt, and then also made UCLA start its halfcourt offense with only 25 seconds left on the shot clock. Then the 2-3 zone literally made UCLA's offense seize up.

But UCLA's tactical approach at this critical juncture greatly contributed to that ineffectiveness. Howland clearly decided to hold the ball against the zone, trying to milk the clock and not really initiate any kind of attack of the basket until about 7-10 seconds left on the shot clock. There is so much wrong with this, especially if you have a good sense of your own personnel. You clearly don't have a Darren Collison out there, who would be able to make some big individual plays as a shot clock is about to expire. No, this team, as we've seen all season, doesn't have one offensive star who you can give the ball to down the stretch. What it does do well is execute Howland's offense, and it needs more than 7-10 seconds to do it.

So, the question has to be asked: Was it truly a bad tactical error by Howland or did he just freeze up in crunch time? In watching the game over, and repeatedly watching those last 5 ½ minutes closely, you get the feeling that this wasn't a matter of Howland freezing, but this was, in fact, the tactic of choice. But then the question has to be asked: Why didn't Howland use his last timeout? He, at the very least, could have used it to set up the last play of the game: UCLA having possession of the ball with 26 seconds left, down 69-71. So, if the last 5 ½ minutes were a matter of tactical choice, it leads you to believe that not using the timeout was also a tactical choice, but that makes no logical sense since there's absolutely no reason to not utilize that timeout. UCLA's offense was clearly struggling, it had one more possession to tie the game in regulation; it was screaming out for a timeout. But when you watch UCLA's last 8 possessions and watch them give away 7 of them, Howland was fairly calm on the sideline, as if the team were doing what he intended for them to do. If they weren't, you'd think he'd be freaking out, and you'd think he would have at least used that last timeout in one of those bad 7 possessions in the last 5 ½ minutes to re-set the offense. Or perhaps he was calm because he was, in fact, freezing up.

It's difficult to determine, really, what were the coaching intentions in those last 5 ½ minutes. But it's very clear that, either if it were by design or breakdown, the coaching failed.

Again, it was a shame, too, since Howland's coaching was clearly superior in this game, in terms of his overall development of this team and specific preparation for this game. In the first 34 minutes, UCLA was clearly the better-coached team, executing its offensive sets well and more consistently than Washington. Both of these teams didn't play well defensively, and really aren't good defensive teams. So, in the second half, UCLA built a 63-53 lead with 7 minutes remaining on a 23-11 run that was based mostly on UCLA executing smartly on the offensive end while Washington took and missed a number of hurried, bad shots. While both teams weren't great on the defensive end, UCLA was clearly the more disciplined on the offensive end, and that's a testament to Howland's coaching.

The difference in that run, too, was the play of Josh Smith. Lazeric Jones hit a couple of big three-pointers, like he's apt to do. Jerime Anderson hit a three, like he's also apt to do. But the difference was Smith's play. He converted a couple of catches in the post, and also was very active defensively, and on the boards, particularly on the defensive boards when he allowed Washington just one shot because of a strong defensive rebound. As we've been maintaining all season, Smith has more upside than anyone on the team. It was getting to the point, though, that he was a detriment on the court, that playing Anthony Stover was by far more of a positive-sum game, even though Stover has almost no offense. That potential came together for Smith against Washington, and it was clear because he was engaged and energized – a completely different player than he had been at any other time during the season. You can't actually believe he suddenly had a breakthrough in terms of his development. You can only surmise that playing against the hometown crowd inspired him and, at this time of the season, with UCLA 12-10 and 5-5, it's more disheartening than it is uplifting – because it makes you realize that Smith clearly hasn't played hard all year. And it makes you wonder where this team would be and how good would it be if Smith got 24 and 9 just about every night out. So many pundits and observers have tried to pin it on Smith being over weight and out of shape. And that certainly has something to do with it. But Smith was in better shape at the beginning of this season than he was at the end of last season. He's really in no marked better shape now than he was in December. The difference in this game was: He just played like he cared. Perhaps you have to give the kid a break, since he is only 19 years old. Perhaps this game, and now understanding what it takes to play a game like you care, will be the turning point in his career. If so, it's a shame UCLA couldn't have come up with some excuse about why it needed to schedule the game at Washington in November.

Again, a shame. And that pretty much sums up the season.

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