Bruins Blown Out in the Desert

UCLA, without Travis Wear, gets blown out by ASU, and was unable to get into a rhythm offensively or stop ASU's devastating dribble penetration...

Just this morning, Tracy posted on the message board, in reference to UCLA's style of play this year, that fans might have to prepare themselves for the idea that, given the way the Bruins rely on offense, there might be one or two times this year where UCLA gets blown out by just some random team.

Well, this is the first.

Coming off arguably its best game of the season in beating Arizona rather handily on Thursday, UCLA undoubtedly played one of its worst games of the year on Saturday, losing badly to Arizona State 78-60. In terms of the score differential, it was the worst defeat for UCLA this year, and probably is only exceeded by Cal Poly in terms of the overall feeling of the loss.

Many may pin some of the loss on Travis Wear being unavailable due to concussion, but, honestly, we have a hard time seeing how he would have changed the outcome of the game significantly. Yes, David Wear missed several open jumpers, couldn't hedge effectively, and was bad on interior defense, but his brother is significantly better in just one of those areas (and marginally better at hedging). With the way that the entire ASU team was able to penetrate against UCLA's poor on ball defense, the addition of any post player who isn't a significant shot blocking presence (such as the dearly departed Anthony Stover) wouldn't have made much difference.

Many may say that ASU was a very good team, but we'd say the Sun Devils are probably just slightly above average in a down year for college basketball. They have some nice pieces, but this game hinged more on some considerably bad matchups for the Bruins than an overall talent advantage for the Sun Devils.

UCLA was simply unable to keep ASU from penetrating inside. Larry Drew really struggled to stay in front of Jahii Carson and wasn't helped by David Wear's inability to hedge effectively. There were a couple times where Carson would hit Wear's hedge, which wouldn't extend far enough, and then explode around the edge to either dish or drive to the basket. Drew frequently goes under the screen rather than fight through it, and against a player as quick as Carson around the edge, it was particularly devastating. Carson was also able to split Drew and whichever post came out twice, and generally just had his way with UCLA's defenders. With UCLA's inherent quickness and athletic limitations, which cause difficulty when the defense breaks down, it's almost impossible for the Bruins to recover when the defense is broken down from the first screen.

David Wear also struggled in the post against Jordan Bachynski, obviously, but that would have been the case for anyone thrown in there, including Tony Parker, who got 13 minutes. Bachynski was able to score over both with ease, and it was really strange that the coaching staff didn't try to front Bachynski in the post and at least attempt some ball denial. Another issue was that Bachynski, who played 30 minutes, was frequently beating Wear down the court in transition. With a guy as big as that, going up against one of the supposedly best conditioned athletes on the team, that shouldn't happen.

Shabazz Muhammad certainly scored on offense, but his defense was abysmal, both in terms of his on ball defense and his defensive rebounding. He had at least two plays where he leaked out early from his man because he thought Kyle Anderson was going to rebound the ball, only to have Carrick Felix get the ball and the basket. In a lot of ways, Felix showed the effort that you'd like to see from Muhammad on both ends of the court, with a good motor throughout. Muhammad, for all that we'd heard and seen of his competitive fire during his high school career, has yet to show that level of commitment and competitive drive on the defensive end in college. In a lot of ways, he made it very easy for Felix to have a very big night.

Larry Drew was an offensive non-factor for much of the game, with Carson playing about eight feet off of Drew, limiting his ability to drive. Drew finally started to shoot late, and actually finished with a decent stat line, but most of his points came when the game was more or less out of reach. The real issue is that the way ASU chose to play Drew completely threw off the flow of UCLA's offense. Carson was effectively able to kind of zone from the top of the key, limiting Drew's penetration and any real slicing of the defense from the top of the key.

Kyle Anderson and David Wear also got the dare-to-shoot treatment, as ASU's defense was keyed more on Jordan Adams and Muhammad. Anderson and Wear both had probably their worst shooting nights in a very long time. Wear, early on, seemed like he was trying to shoulder the load of the offense, and hoisted quite a few jumpers that he would have been better off holstering. You almost have to feel for him though--it was clear by the end of the game that he had completely lost confidence in his shot, missing a layup at the rim, and then shooting what Chris Roberts would term an air bank on a three late.

Howland's allocation of minutes were a bit suspect, with Norman Powell actually getting just 18 minutes in this game, with a seven man rotation, which is five minutes and change below his season average. He didn't play particularly well in those 18 minutes, but then, hey, no one played particularly well on Saturday. In a game where you had to figure the players would be fatigued, especially after playing with a short rotation in the second half of Thursday's game, it was an interesting choice to ride each of the starters for 30+ minutes on Saturday.

Tony Parker obviously didn't play well in his 13 minutes but it's not really about the minutes he's getting at this point. Parker's time for development was earlier in the season, when the Bruins were playing patsies in the non-conference schedule. A combination of injuries and the idiosyncrasies of Ben Howland combined to prevent him from getting more time, and this is what we're left with. It's not that the case that we know he'd be better than he is right now—but if he'd averaged, say, 12 minutes per game to this point, and if he received those minutes regularly throughout the season, it'd be interesting to see where he would be in his development right now.

UCLA struggled to rebound, but that's been the norm for much of this year. In this game, the differential was egregious, and you can probably attribute that to the ability of Bachynski to just go over the back of UCLA's players without fouling, and the effort of Felix (or lack thereof of Muhammad). This is, without a doubt, one of the worst rebounding teams of the Howland era, and it's very doubtful that having Travis Wear for this game would have changed anything significantly on the glass.

Not having that reliable third scoring option he provides certainly limited what UCLA could do offensively. Like Tracy said, though, when your team relies on offense to win games, there's greater variance—you'll win some games you shouldn't, when you have a great shooting night, and you'll lose some games to some lesser-talented teams when you shoot poorly. It's why a defense-first mentality was a really refreshing aspect of Howland's early years at UCLA—defense, although requiring athleticism, is much more controlled by the effort of the players than offense, and thus can be more consistent over the long haul of a season.

Really, though, the main story of this game was UCLA's inability to handle dribble penetration, and it's just a fundamental issue with the lack of athleticism on UCLA's defense. Muhammad couldn't stay in front of Felix, Drew couldn't stay in front of Carson, and Wear couldn't hedge or recover from his hedge effectively. The defense was generally forced into scramble mode fairly early in the shot clock. While we're long since past the point where a zone defense would or should even be considered, it'd be interesting to see where the zone would be in its development this season. This game was obviously one that was crying out for a zone, with UCLA's inability to stop dribble penetration, the pick and roll, or inside scoring. While UCLA's man defense is much improved from where it was at the beginning of the year, it's obviously not good. At its high end, it's about average, with decent team defense helping to compensate for the overall lack of athleticism in on ball defense. The zone, though, might have been considerably more advanced by this point of the season.

Or it might not have. We don't have any evidence that Howland can effectively teach and install a zone, and, more to the point, we do have evidence that he likely wouldn't have ever felt comfortable committing fully to it. Whatever the case, though, with the new look Bruins, we suspect that games like this will rear their heads with a bit more frequency.

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