Let's face it: This was a disastrous season. The team didn't live up to pre-season expectations, had plenty on-the-court issues, and combined those with some of the most tumultuous off-the-court issues ever experienced in one season by the UCLA basketball program.
As I wrote in the analysis of the win over USC in the first round of the tournament – while of course every Bruin fan was hoping for UCLA to make a four-game run through the Tourney, win it and get the automatic NCAA Tournament bid, there was probably just as much sentiment to put this season out of its misery.
It was a miserable season, and that's how it fittingly ended.
The game was a microcosm for the season, at least on the court. There were the same pesky issues that just wouldn't go away. And the team, really, ultimately, under-achieved, against an Arizona team they had shown in the two previous meeting this season that they were probably superior to and had match-up advantages against.
The Bruins had a marked size advantage inside, which they had worked in the team's two previous meetings to a marked advantage. But in this game, the size differential worked against UCLA; in other words, Arizona's coaching brain trust had figured out how to turn around the match-up and make it advantageous for the Wildcats. Instead of UCLA pounding it inside and using its bulk to overpower the smaller Wildcats, the game was played – and won and lost – with the smaller Wildcats getting one-on-one match-ups outside against the bigger, slower Bruins. It's amazingly ironic that, if you had to point to one prevailing aspect of this game, it was the one that we all started the season with – whether David Wear could actually defend the three spot. We were skeptical before the season, when Ben Howland told the media that D. Wear would probably be doing it. Then everyone was skeptical when Howland tried it at the beginning of the season, to resounding failure, with D. Wear just not quick enough to defend true small forwards. Howland, then, for the most part, seemed to scheme around the issue, to his credit, for the bulk of the season. But then the issue reared an exceedingly ugly head Thursday, in UCLA's final game of the season, and it was blatantly obvious and head-scratching (as so much of this season was) that Howland didn't seem to remember how ineffective the match-up is, and how it could lose you games.
Arizona's true small forward, Solomon Hill, has to play a bit of a power forward spot, which, in man-to-man, makes him match up against UCLA with D. Wear. Arizona's 6-7 center, Jesse Perry, too, has a quickness advantage over either Travis Wear or Josh Smith. UCLA avoided these match-ups generally in the first two games against Arizona because, really, Arizona coach Sean Miller failed to exploit them. His backcourt, in those games, over-handled and over-shot the ball and didn't get it into the hands of either Hill or Perry enough to take the Wears one-on-one. But not in this one. This time Hill completely exploited D. Wear. And I guess UCLA's strategy was just to hope that Miller wouldn't try to put the ball in the hands of Hill for a third game, because all Howland had was D. Wear to defend him (Actually, Norman Powell did match up against Hill a couple of times, and had the athleticism to stay in front of him. But that seemed more like a random switch than anything designed).
And perhaps even just as significant was how the Wears, matching up against Perry and Hill on UCLA's offensive end, were more or less ineffective compared to their performances in the first two UCLA-Arizona games. In UCLA's first game against the Wildcats at the Honda Center, the twins combined for 34 points in a total of 44 minutes, and really out-muscled the smaller Arizona frontline inside. This time, they had just 14 points (and 15 rebounds) in a whopping 66 minutes. It's said that it's tough to beat a team three times, and you can probably chalk this up to Miller and his staff finally cluing in to how to defend the Wears, allowing them to catch the ball away from the basket to take that no-man's-land 16-footer (not close enough of a shot to make it a gimme, and not a few feet further to make it worth it as a three), instead of exploiting their size difference inside. The Wears aren't great at muscling for space in the post and they tend to not want to do it, preferring to take those face-up jumpers. And Arizona clogged the middle, overplayed the entry pass and denying the Wears the ball in the post, making it tough sledding inside, which kind of enticed them into it.
It was very fitting that Howland, who really chose to live or die by the Wears this season, did it in this game and, well, died. Again, it bears repeating: The Wears played 66 minutes.
To the twins' credit, they have improved over the course of the season, and perhaps there was the element of fatigue that came into play for this game. And again, this is not really a knock on the Wears at all – they are what they are, and they play hard. It's the strange use of them by Howland that's the issue. We had talked about the Twin Effect earlier in the season, and we don't want to get in-depth with it again now. But it definitely is a factor here, how if you played the Wears the equivalent of one player of their caliber, say like 20 minutes per game, they'd more than likely be a very productive component to a team. But, like in the Arizona game, it's like playing one player, with athletic limitations, 66 minutes; it dramatically impacts the team's athleticism and limits its capability of doing some things on both ends of the court.
But as I said, at least the Wears are laying it all out on the court. Josh Smith, on the other hand, ended his pitiful season – pitifully. He was in foul trouble most of the way so he played just 9 minutes, scored 7 points and had 3 rebounds (but, FYI, if you work that out to how much that would be if you had two Josh Smith's playing Wear-type minutes, it would be 51 points and 22 rebounds). And, as was most fitting, he sulked around the court and on the bench for most of the game. A couple of times he caught the ball in the post it was clear he was UCLA's big talent advantage on the floor, but the problem is keeping him on the floor. Again, it was apropo that this is the way Smith ended his season, with a complete whimper and not a bang.
Here's some very telling statistics on Smith, provided by a UCLA Message Board denizen, shipwreckcrew. Smith played 512 minutes total this season, committing 99 personal fouls. That averages to a foul every 5.17 minutes, and a pace of nearly 8 per game.
And as we've said all season, his fouling and overall ineffectiveness is less about his conditioning and more about his immaturity. Many observers are making the point that Smith better do the work in the off-season to get in shape. More importantly he better do the work in the off-season to grow up. He has a crossroads in front of him: he can either go down the Russell-Westbrook/Arron-Afflalo highway or the Reeves Nelson turnoff.
And then, that leads you again to the question how UCLA might have been able to keep Smith on the floor longer, and wouldn't that logically be a zone? Wouldn't a zone have possibly worked well in keeping Hill from isolating against D. Wear? At least, wouldn't it make sense just to attempt it for a few possessions, see how it goes, and at the very least make Arizona have to adapt and perhaps get them a little bit out of their offensive rhythm for a few possessions?
I told you we were going to be re-hashing all the same issues we have been throughout the season in analyzing this game, because this game screamed out for them.
Lazeric Jones's game against Arizona was, truly, a microcosm of his career. He led the team in scoring with 17, and hit some big shots when UCLA needed them. He also, for a long stretch in the first half, was out of control, taking many ill-advised shots that was the primary factor in Arizona jumping off to a 21-11 lead (well, that and Hill exploiting D. Wear one-on-one). But Jones, as he has been prone to do, put it back together, got under control and finished the game on a good note.
It's also fitting (are we over-using that word?) that the random Wheel of Chance when it comes to determining the quality of play of Jerime Anderson and Tyler Lamb game to game landed on: Anderson good, Lamb bad. Anderson (probably) ended his UCLA career with 14 points and 4 assists against just 1 turnover, and played solidly for most of the game. Lamb, however, after he had been putting together a few good light-bulb-could-be-turning-on games, regressed here, shooting 2 for 6 and committing 5 turnovers. He was, truly, a turnover machine, trying to do too much.
Anthony Stover played just 3 minutes and didn't get in the flow of the game. To be candid, he has looked out of sorts in the last couple of weeks, perhaps the weight of the season and not getting a decent amount of playing time – and the SI Article – weighing on him a bit.
Norman Powell played 18 minutes and had a fairly typical game for him – flashing the potential and athleticism, but generally looking lost, making the easy perimeter, rotational pass every time. He has struggled clearly to get acclimated into Howland's offense, looking mostly like a deer-in-the-headlights for most of the season, and it will be a question of whether he decides to stick with it, continue on in Howland's program with the light possibly turning on, or go somewhere else, like San Diego State or UNLV, where he could unleash his natural talent without having to think so much. In the long run, staying at UCLA will almost assuredly make him a better player, and more prepared for the NBA, but he won't get gaudy numbers and, probably most importantly, have as much fun as he would playing elsewhere.
And then there is Howland. This nightmare of a season for Howland generally ended (presumably) on a poor note. He had completely out-coached Miller in the first UCLA/Arizona match-up, but Miller got the best of him in this one, and Arizona showed that it had come a bit further than UCLA in the intervening two months. The loss kind of emphasized the long-held theory that Howland isn't as good game-planning for the second game in a multi-game stretch (and what has possibly limited Howland's UCLA teams in past conference tournaments). It displayed many of the head-scratching issues this team has had since November.
Even though Howland is a fighter and a tough competitor, I'm sure, just like with many UCLA fans, there's a part of him, too, that is grateful the season is over.