We've been saying that the Pac-12 is pretty bad, but we made a big mistake in vastly underestimating just how bad it is. Stanford might not finish in the top five of the Big West. Losing to Stanford would probably be worse than losing to Cal Poly.
Stanford actually did a good scouting of the Bruins, prepared well and tactically had the right idea in how to beat UCLA. Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins matched up his personnel defensively in a way that definitely slowed down the high-scoring Bruins. His team rotated back quickly on defense and prevented UCLA from getting any substantial points in transition, which has been a key to UCLA averaging 80 points per game so far this year. UCLA scored just 68 points and shot 41%, which is among its lowest totals in those two categories all season. The Cardinal, too, had many opportunities offensively, with plenty of open looks.
But this game came down mostly to one simple thing: Stanford can't shoot.
Ben Howland also had a good game plan for Stanford: collapse his defense, clog the paint with many Bruins cheating over to help even before the penetration. There were a number of defensive possessions where Jordan Adams, on the weak side, was in the paint, while his man was literally beyond the three-point line. This gave Stanford a considerable amount of open looks from the outside, which they simply couldn't make. When Stanford didn't convert a possession, one of three things happened with Stanford's offense: they'd try to penetrate through three Bruins manning the key and turn the ball over, or force up a shot that one of the three Bruins would easily rebound, or they'd kick out to an open shooter who'd miss the shot. You have to think that Howland knew this and Stanford performed exactly like he expected.
We've been maintaining that UCLA would do better playing a zone, and early on this season their man defense kind of resembled one. Howland went back more to it in this game a bit and Stanford couldn't shoot its way out of it.
There were a number of key sequences in this game when, on a Stanford possession, a Cardinal would miss an open shot, and UCLA would get the rebound, bring the ball up quickly and then hit a fairly off-balance shot.
That was the difference in the game.
We've been saying that Howland has been recruiting for shooters in the last few years, and in this game, his better-shooting team was the difference.
You would think, looking at the statistics, that UCLA played a good defensive game. But they really didn't. We've pointed out recently that UCLA goes through some lulls in defensive intensity during games, but the defensive lull was more the norm in this game. It just benefitted from a very good defensive scout on Stanford.
If you thought UCLA's defense looked better in this game – specifically its help defense – it's because it was cheating over from the weakside all game. If Stanford had hit most of the open looks that resulted from it, and actually made some of its open gimmes, you would have concluded that UCLA's defense was pretty poor.
Again, lucky that Stanford is just plainly bad. Throughout the game it was shooting in the 25% to 28% range, and finished shooting 34%, only because it made some late-game lay-ups.
Heck, if Stanford had even shot well from the free-throw line this would have been a different game. The Cardinal made just 56% on free throws, 9 of 16.
Looking at the Pac-12, then, what are the teams that could give UCLA some problems? What teams actually shoot well, drive and kick, and have a good three-point shooting percentage? Next weekend, UCLA will face the team with the second-best shooting percentage from the field (47%, second to UCLA at 48%) and from three (40%) in the conference, Colorado. If you've watched Colorado, they run the now-common college basketball offense of drive-and-kick or drive-and-handoff. It should definitely be more of a challenge and a test than the Cardinal, who are dead last in the conference in shooting percentage (41%) and three-point shooting percentage (29%).
Also, just to put it in perspective: California is second to last in three-point shooting percentage at 29%.
Utah, actually, which is the team UCLA gets next Thursday in its first conference road game, will probably be far more challenging for UCLA's defense, with Utah shooting threes at a decent clip (36%) and leading the Pac-12 in field goal percentage defense (35%).
Can UCLA adjust its defense to adapt to Utah and Colorado, since the pseudo-zone, packed-in version of its man defense probably won't match up well? The version of the defense we saw against Stanford is best suited for UCLA's personnel, since it just plainly isn't good in its on-ball defense, and struggles with its help defense when it doesn't cheat over so excessively. Stanford, then, was the ideal match-up for UCLA's defense.
What's curious, though, is we're starting to come to the conclusion that UCLA's bad on-ball defense is by far more a result of the Bruins merely not wanting to put in the effort than being capable of doing it. Larry Drew, every once in a while, will display some great defensive energy and harass his man so much he denies the opposing point guard the ball. Adams tends to pick up his defensive intensity in the last five minutes of recent games, being far more active with both his feet and his hands. You have to give him some credit for having that competitiveness of wanting to put away a team and turning up his effort level, but it does present the question: Where is that intensity the rest of the game? We're no longer letting this team off the hook by saying it's not inherently a good defensive team; they just simply don't care enough to play hard on defense. We can maybe excuse Adams, since he's just a freshman and probably never has been asked to sustain energy on the defensive end in his life. But what's Drew's excuse?
On offense, UCLA struggled. If you take away UCLA's transition game, and then you have enough athletes to play tight on-ball defense in the halfcourt against the Bruins they're going to be taken out of their offensive rhythm. Stanford matched up the athletic, 6-7 Josh Huestis against Muhammad, and even though Muhammad scored 23 points through sheer will, Huestis did limit Muhammad for a fairly sizeable portion of the game. Stanford matched up the bigger, longer Andy Brown on Jordan Adams, who isn't any quicker, but the length and size limited Adams. Travis Wear and David Wear had to pull the weight early for UCLA's offense, scoring the team's first 15 points, but once Stanford's bigs began getting up and closing out on the Wears it took them out of their shooting rhythm. The Wears, who again lost their effectiveness because of fatigue, basically were then complete non-factors offensively the rest of the game.
Muhammad's sheer will to score ultimately salvaged UCLA's offense. He played perhaps his most complete game against Stanford, finishing with a double-double of 23 points and 10 rebounds, attacking both the defensive and offensive glass (three offensive rebounds). His defense was about what it's been, but it was perhaps his best game because of the added rebounding dimension, and his passing, dropping off a few nice dishes to his teammates.
About halfway through the first quarter, a poster on the message board said that he could anticipate this review, that the first thing mentioned would be how bad Stanford is. He was right – it was the first thing mentioned, and deservedly mentioned throughout. Just because we have to keep mentioning it, since it is so relevant, remember, doesn't mean it isn't true. Understand this – a good UCLA team should have beaten this Stanford team by 25 points. These two teams this weekend – Cal and Stanford – were just plain bad. Try to remember back in the mid-2000s when the Pac-10 was loaded with NBA talent, and how difficult it was to play against Cal, Stanford, Washington, Washington State, etc.
On one hand, you have to recognize how bad each opponent is to put this UCLA team in perspective. On the other hand, if almost every one of UCLA's opponents aren't very good (as has been the case this season, and will continue to be the case with how bad the Pac-12 is), then you have to give these Bruins a chance since they can still eke out an 8-point win when they don't play well against a bad team that is typical of the conference.