UCLA Wins in Obscurity

It was a pretty fitting reflection on the season that UCLA beat a bad ASU team, 66-57, in a poorly played, uninspired game, one in which most fans couldn't even watch...

UCLA beat Arizona State, 66-57, and it was such a meaningless, poorly-played game you could call it unwatchable.

For many, it was unwatchable, since it wasn't on television and the FoxSportsArizona.com feed went in and out for most of the night.

If you're a type of person that looks at the positive side of things, however, you'd say if there was a game that you would choose not to be able to see on television this would be it.

Again, don't let anyone ever claim that we don't spin things positively here at Bruin Report Online.

It truly wasn't a game that you would subject anyone to watch.

It was a case of both teams just not being very good, and really showing that, at this time of the season, neither really care much. And it was entirely appropriate that many fans couldn't see it because it's completely understandable that the fans don't care anymore either.

So, it was a bad game, played by two pretty bad teams, that wasn't on television, with most fans struggling to get a flickering online stream to see.

This is what the UCLA season, and its program, have been reduced to.

UCLA didn't pull away from one of the worst teams in Division 1 until late in the second half, when it opened a 12-point lead with about 6 minutes remaining. The game was plagued with sloppy, uninspired play, on both sides of the court.

It was this bad: ASU didn't score for almost 8 minutes in the first half, and scored just 5 points in almost 11 minutes, but UCLA ended the first half leading the Sun Devils by just a point, 25-24.

Arizona State's offense is plainly horrendous, lacking any real standout scoring threat and anyone who can handle the ball (witness the 18 turnovers). If you watched the UCLA/USC game last week, it was pretty much the same, with the Sun Devils looking pretty much just like the Trojans, right down to the same colors. UCLA's defense was decent, which it should be against a team like this, even though there were many defensive breakdowns by UCLA that kept ASU hanging in throughout the second half.

UCLA's zone offense, against the ASU match-up zone, wasn't very good. It was out-of-sync and struggled for most of the night to execute. Without much athleticism to create off the dribble, and with just decent outside shooting and a very inconsistent inside scoring threat, the Bruins' zone offense isn't very good. It's taken the rest of the Pac-12 until just about the end of the season to realize that you need to zone the Bruins, since UCLA was showing great execution against the man D for most of the season. But ever since Washington pulled out its zone down the stretch of the game in Seattle three weeks ago to come from behind and beat the Bruins -- and kick UCLA's season into the ditch -- it's been plainly obvious that UCLA's offense struggles against a zone.

In this game, it took some hot shooting by Lazeric Jones to stretch the lead in the second half. And it wasn't necessarily because the zone offense was executing well, but merely that ASU looked fatigued and its zone D was slowing down, so Jones had some open looks, which he hit. Josh Smith, too, converted a few inside and got to the line. Jones scored 13 of his game-high 20 points and Smith 8 of his 10 in the second half.

But again, that was what it took to get the lead to double digits against a horrible team. UCLA should, in a typical year, be torching a team like the one ASU put on the court. Smith, from a talent and physical standpoint, is so superior to any post player ASU has he should have gotten 35 points against the Sun Devils. But even against ASU, Smith showed the same characteristics he has all season -- that of an immature, undisciplined player that hasn't developed. He had two quick fouls and only played two minutes in the first half. Against practically no one who could defend him, when he caught the ball in the post, he'd put the ball on the floor, hurry his footwork, lunge and fall over as he was putting up a weak scoop shot. It's just not acceptable for Smith, at the end of his sophomore season, to be this undeveloped, especially against a team like ASU that has no one that could defend him. Again, against a bad ASU team, one in which he should be the dominant force on the court, he played just 13 minutes, had 10 points and 3 rebounds.

If you're analyzing the factors that went into UCLA's highly disappointing season, most of the signs point to Smith and his lack of development. UCLA was picked to finish first in the Pac-12 conference (man, that seems like a long time ago), mostly based on the projection UCLA would have a dominating frontcourt with Smith and Reeves Nelson. But even with the loss of Nelson, which hurt UCLA's chances, Smith's lack of development and clear regression has been the season's central story. All the other players -- Jones, Jerime Anderson, Tyler Lamb, David Wear and Travis Wear -- have performed just about up to their expectation. But it's been Smith's lack of effectiveness that has held back the Bruins, in a league that lacks talent in the frontcourt and one that Smith should absolutely dominate. Coming to the end of the season, and the likeliness of Smith's light coming on dwindling, if you wanted to narrow down Ben Howland's failure for the season to one primary factor it would be his inability to develop Smith this season.

It was never more apparent Thursday night, in a game that Smith should have been completely dominant, to end with that kind of stat line.

If you did happen to see a bit of the game -- if you were one of the lucky (or unlucky) ones that had the streaming feed work for you -- it was very apparent that UCLA lacked energy and, particularly, mental focus. They had a good amount of careless turnovers and some mental breakdowns defensively. The team's overall energy and body language, too, was indicative of a team going through the motions. Perhaps it's a matter of having to get up for a bad ASU team and looking past that game to Arizona on Saturday. Or perhaps it's a matter of the Bruins starting to fold up the tent of a deflating season. The type of game they play Saturday will be a big indication of either one.

Never under-estimate what a bad conference can do for you, however. Right now, even playing the way UCLA is, and being where they are (15-12, 8-6), it's uncanny that, looking ahead to the Pac-12 conference, the Bruins could have a chance. If you project them to be the sixth seed, they'd have to play the first day of the tournament (by not finishing in the top four of the conference), but they'd match up with the #11 seed, which looks to be Utah, a team UCLA beat in Los Angeles by 27 points. In the second round, then, they'd probably play the #3 seed, which looks to be Colorado, a team UCLA beat by 17 points in Los Angeles. Because of how bad the Pac-12 is, UCLA could very well make it to Friday's conference semi-final, where it very likely could play #2 seed Washington, which it showed it could compete with in Seattle (and we'll see how UCLA does against them in L.A. next week). Amazingly, it's not a stretch to see this pretty mediocre UCLA team, with all of its issues this season, one that looks like it's ready to roll over, actually make it to the final of the Pac-12 conference tournament.

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