To be perfectly honest, it should have been apparent to everyone that UCLA would lose on Wednesday. After all, the Bruins were ranked, were coming off of a big win over Arizona, were looking forward to a game against Washington on Saturday for, potentially, the conference title, and were playing on the home court of a team they had beaten 19 straight times in that venue.
Given what we know about this UCLA team, we not only should have predicted the loss, we probably should have predicted a blowout.
As has been the blueprint for most of UCLA's losses this year, the Bruins got in a hole due to some extremely poor shooting and didn't have the defensive wherewithal to pull out a victory. Again, as Tracy pointed out prior to the ASU blowout earlier this season, the way the Bruins play, they have the potential to play with nearly anyone when they're shooting well, and they have the potential to get blown out by anyone when they're not shooting well.
The losses this year demonstrate precisely why the early years of Ben Howland at UCLA worked so well. If you rely on offense—specifically jump shots—at the expense of defense, as the Bruins do this year, then there's potential to suffer some pretty egregious losses throughout the season. If, on the other hand, you rely on defense—and recruit players who can play your brand of man defense—you will stay in most games, and much more rarely have these kinds of blowouts. Since good defense is, to a large extent, a function of effort, it's much easier to maintain it night in and night out than offense.
In any case, Wednesday's 73-61 loss to the Cougars was another ugly loss in a season that has had too many. The Bruins were blown out in the first ten minutes, and spent the rest of the game trying to claw back in. Much more than Howland's old teams, this UCLA squad clearly uses offense to fuel its defense rather than vice versa, which leads to nights like last night where the Bruins open extremely cold from the field and then play lackadaisical defense that compounds the problem.
The team's rebounding deficiencies were on full display against the Cougars, and once again it was poor effort that did them in. The coaches and players like to say that poor shooting is why UCLA gets outrebounded (i.e. missing shots allows the other team more defensive rebounds) but it's a specious excuse. UCLA shot 22 of 57 in this game for 38%. If the Bruins had had four more makes, they would have been around their season average for shooting percentage and STILL would have been outrebounded by 16.
In any case, the Bruins refused to block out, and the worst culprits were David Wear and Shabazz Muhammad, both of whom showed little effort on the defensive glass. Muhammad, in particular, spent much of the game leaking out on defense long before the possession was over, and played some of the worst man defense we've seen from him this entire year. Given how little he's brought to the table in other facets of the game this season—poor rebounding, poor defense, and poor passing—when he's not shooting well, he doesn't affect the team positively.
David Wear, starting in place of his brother, was abysmal on both ends, failing to rebound on either end and playing some truly terrible defense. He doesn't give the best effort on the defensive end, but he also has poor instincts. On one play, a Cougar player was driving into the paint and faked ever so slightly that he was going to pass. Wear, who was standing directly between him and the basket, gave up the paint to guard his man, allowing the driving player a clean, uncontested layup.
Larry Drew, who had put together a nice string of games prior to this, had one of his worst on Wednesday, repeatedly struggling to stay in front of Royce Woolridge on defense. Woolridge scored 19 points, and was able to break down UCLA's defense off the dribble, which created opportunities for other players, like Brock Motum.
Tony Parker, naturally, played one minute, despite Travis Wear aggravating his ankle injury early in the second half. Norman Powell, who has clearly seen his confidence go down the tubes this season, actually didn't play too badly but got yanked repeatedly for things which shouldn't get a player yanked—aggressive turnovers, actually rotating on defense, which somehow looks bad when no one else rotates. Given how no one else on the team gets pulled for playing poor defense, not blocking out, and taking poor shots, it's astounding that Powell's leash is as short as it is.
UCLA's help defense has been a problem throughout the entire season, but it was particularly devastating in this game. When Muhammad was getting destroyed by simple screens in the early going, no one was rotating to pick up his man. It's no wonder that Ben Howland went to a zone starting midway through the first half—the only wonder is that it took him so long to go there, and that he didn't play much of it in the second half after it helped get UCLA back in the game.
We should remember that UCLA beat this Washington State team by 14 just a month ago in Pauley Pavilion, and the game actually wasn't even that close. To then have a 26 point swing, where the Bruins actually lose to Washington State, is an indictment of the focus level, talent, and effort of this year's UCLA team. Whether they were looking ahead to Washington, distracted by the big win over Arizona, or just resting because they had beaten the Cougars so badly last time, the Bruins proved on Wednesday that they've solved none of their major issues. Whether they make a run in the tournament or not will be dependent entirely on their ability to shoot a high percentage.
So UCLA faces Washington on Saturday, and depending on what happens with Oregon tonight, it could very well be for the conference title, believe it or not. Given what we know of this team, the Bruins will most likely win, this game being in the spotlight. Travis Wear will likely be out, which should allow Parker to play some valuable minutes. Muhammad, Jordan Adams, and Kyle Anderson will all likely play better than they did on Wednesday, at least on offense. If the Bruins win, they'll clinch at least a two seed in the Pac-12 Tournament, and still have a chance to win the conference outright. And somehow, in a wild season for UCLA, that's the craziest thing.
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