You can point to many things that have contributed to making this a highly disappointing season for the Bruins. But you could simply, too, attribute it to not being able to close out winnable games on the road.
• UCLA was up by 10 against Washington in Seattle in the second half.
• Up by 3 against Oregon State in the second half.
• Up by 15 in the first half and 8 in the second half in Eugene against the Ducks.
• Lost by 1 to Stanford in Palo Alto.
• And then, today, up by 6 in the second half.
If UCLA closes out all of those games, they're 21-8, and 14-2 in the Pac-12. Heck, they just close out three of those games, and they're 19-10 and 12-5.
You can say that it's just random chance that UCLA didn't win any of those close, winnable road games. Or you could say there are some very good reasons why the odds were against the Bruins in winning those games.
It's probably a little bit of both, but we'd have nothing to write about it if we just chalked up everything to random chance.
So, what's making these Bruins not be able to close out winnable road games?
-- Fatigue. Easily a big factor. Take Travis Wear and David Wear in today's game. They were, for the first 30 minutes or so, the biggest factors in UCLA being ahead of Arizona. Their hustle, attention to detail and, especially, size were the difference in the game. But then they clearly fell off the cliff in terms of energy in the last 10 minutes. When they weren't tired they were helping on defense, cutting off driving lanes, providing good man post D, and making most of their open shots. But it's been a long season for the twins, with both of them playing extended minutes, especially in the last couple of weeks, and you can see that their energy level hasn't been the same in the last 10 minutes of recent games. Today they stopped sliding over to help on penetration, allowing Arizona a few easy lay-ups. They just weren't generally as active as they were at the beginning of the game.
-- Composure. This team just doesn't have a player – or players – who have the composure to control a game down the stretch. In fact, UCLA has a number of players that are often erratic down the stretch – like Lazeric Jones, Jerime Anderson and Tyler Lamb. It doesn't help, too, that the most erratic players on the team are your three guards. And they were at the top of their erratic game against the Wildcats, committing numerous inopportune turnovers and making many bad decisions. The only one among the three that really redeemed himself slightly was Anderson, who led the team in scoring with 20 points, but he still badly lacked composure in crunch time when the team needed it.
-- Josh Smith. As we've said all season, and it was the same in this game: He was UCLA's overwhelming match-up advantage against Arizona. But he negated that by getting into foul trouble. Keeping him in the game and available in the last few minutes of the game might have been the advantage UCLA needed.
-- Personnel usage. UCLA made a 9-2 run to go up by 6, 45-39 in the second half, with Anthony Stover in the game. UCLA's interior defense was, actually, exceptional, with Stover and the Wears plugging the middle and providing help that pretty much shut down the paint for Arizona. With Stover and one of the Wears it really was the best defensive look: If Solomon Hill or Jessie Perry got around a Wear, there was Stover to hold him up. Stover also stifled Perry one-on-one. Stover's presence made Hill and Perry have to take more time to try to get some separation, which gave a Wear time to come over and help. It was that little subtle contribution that made all the difference. Stover is then taken out at the 10-minute mark, and within a couple of minutes Arizona got three straight lay-ups, and the Wildcats are on their way.
It was, at least, a suspenseful game to watch, with it coming down to the wire. That was key to making it watchtable because, overall, this was a poorly played game, pitting two mediocre teams against each other. You probably have to give both teams a bit of credit for playing generally solid defense – but you could also attribute that to both teams really struggling offensively.
And that's a curious thing, too: Where has UCLA's great-executing offense gone? We had really attributed it to many recent opponents playing mostly zone, but the Wildcats were exclusively man and UCLA really was out-of-sync offensively for most of the game. UCLA did hit some big shots, which greatly contributed to keeping them in the game, but the man offense just isn't executing like it was a few weeks ago. You have to think that, like it's been since Ben Howland has been UCLA's coach, by the second round of conference play opponents are catching on to Howland's offensive sets. They've also learned little things to get Smith fouled out or riled up, rendering him ineffective either way, like isolating Perry on him to drive him and draw a foul. And then there's the fatigue again: The Bruins, in the last 10 minutes of the second half, are tired, and they're cutting corners on many of the details of Howland's offense, and that's all it takes to shut it down. If you remember during the Final Four years, many times in the last 10 minutes of the second half of games UCLA's offense had broken down and was ineffective, and it took an Arron Afflalo or Darren Collison to make a big shot, more often than not off a single ball screen.
This loss was, actually, a considerable blow for the Bruins. Well, a blow if you're still looking for a slight chance at a silver lining for the season. The loss makes UCLA fall to 9-7 in the conference, tied with Stanford for sixth, and a game and a half behind Oregon and Colorado (both play tomorrow, at Oregon State and against Cal). Getting the #4 seed in the conference tournament is the mini-brass ring right now (Hey, we're looking for every positive here), and UCLA, with a win, would essentially have been tied for fourth. Looking at the remaining schedules of Colorado, Oregon, and Stanford, all of those teams will have to lose some games you'd expect them to win, and UCLA would have to sweep its two home games against the Washington schools next week, for the Bruins to have a chance at that #4 seed.