Now I know how it feels to suffer through a Pyrrhic victory. I am admittedly stealing this line from a BRO subscriber who posted it last night, after one of the most satisfying (as a fan) victories the UCLA men's basketball team achieved this season. The Bruins won their Pac 12 Tournament semifinal with a rousing 66-64 conquest of Arizona, completing the three-game season sweep of the Wildcats. The Bruins may have won the game but lost the season, hence the quote about Pyrrhic victories. That's because freshmen Jordan Adams broke a bone in his foot on the final play of the game and is now out for the rest of the season.
For those who don't know, the term "Pyrrhic victory" is in reference to a military leader from the ancient world, Pyrrhus of Epirus. Epirus was an area that was located in modern-day Greece and Albania. Anyway, Pyrrhus was a mercenary general who fought against the Roman Republic. He achieved many victories against the Romans, perhaps more than even the famous Carthaginian general, Hannibal. However, Pyrrhus lost so many men in each engagement that, though he may have won many battles, he ended up losing the war, thus the saying, "Pyrrhic victory". The Bruins may have won the Arizona game but may have doomed the rest of their season with Adams' injury…Pyrrhic victory.
While the Bruins were not going to win the NCAA Tournament, they were starting to be fun to watch. Now, in spite of the fact that the Bruins will play Saturday night (8 PM PDST from the MGM Garden Arena and televised nationally on ESPN) for the Pac 12 Conference Tournament title, there is just a glum feeling surrounding the team going forward. However, the Bruins haven't played a game since news of the injury, and while it seems unlikely that UCLA will be able to reasonably overcome this injury, both because of what Adams brought to the team and because of the now (at best) seven-man rotation, one never knows what could happen.
The Bruins will face Oregon in the title game after the Ducks easily dispatched the Runnin' Utes of Utah in the second game on Friday night. The Ducks and Coach Dana Altman defeated the Bruins in their one meeting with them in January at Pauley Pavilion. Altman and his charges know exactly what Coach Ben Howland and the Bruins are going through, having lost starting point guard, freshman Dominic Artis (6'1" 185 lbs.) for multiple weeks with a foot injury in the second half of the season. That injury coincided with Oregon's fall from the top of the Pac 12 to an eventual second place finish going into the conference tourney. It's more than a little ironic that Artis was a one-time UCLA verbal commit and more than likely changed his mind on his college destination because, among other reasons, he believed he wouldn't get minutes this season in Los Angeles.
Unlike almost every other game preview I've ever written, this won't be about match-ups or the opponent, but rather what UCLA can do to try and mitigate the loss of Adams both today and going into the NCAA Tournament next week.
Adams had an impact at both ends of the floor. Offensively he was obviously key because he was UCLA's second-leading scorer, and while his shooting percentage didn't show it, his quick trigger allowed him to become one of the Bruins' most feared three-point shooters because he got his shot off so quickly and could go on a scoring run at any moment. For an example of this, just watch the video of the second half of last night's game against the Cats. However, Adams was and is so much more than that. He has an uncanny way of getting into the lane and scoring out of nothing. Again, look to last night when he scored a tying bucket with an under the basket, over the head shot when the game was in crunch time. He also draws contact better than any of his teammates and his ability to do that last night got the Bruins some easy points. Lastly, he is UCLA's best free throw shooter and was often the man with the ball in his hands at the end of games when the Bruins looked to close things out. Finally, he just had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Just look to the final two minutes of the game against Texas to see him do this at his best.
Defensively, Adams had come a long way since November. He wasn't a lockdown defender by any stretch, but his ability to use his quick hands to tip the ball away from the man he's guarding or in help defense was immense. On a team that thrives more on turnovers than on defensive stops, his ability to cause them was a key component.
Quite frankly, Adams put on such a performance last night that he actually had an example of the things he brings to the floor for the Bruins in every area. It's almost as if the basketball gods allowed Adams to say "here's what I can do" and then turned it into "here's what you'll be missing".
The Bruins don't have much time to emotionally get over the shock of losing Adams, which is made that much worse by finding out right after the win over Arizona. Now the college basketball world is going to see if these Bruins truly are "tough" as many pundits have been writing this past week.
Norman Powell is the obvious replacement for Adams in the starting line-up. Powell is nowhere near the offensive player that Adams has shown. Powell doesn't have the shooting touch of Adams or, perhaps more importantly, the basketball sense that allows Adams to do the little things that helps UCLA get points. The key for Powell is going to be playing within himself and not feeling as if he has to make up all of Adams' 15 PPG. There are qualities that Powell has that Adams does not, most significantly athleticism. If Powell gets himself to not settle for jump shots, but rather attacks the rim from time-to-time he'll both be playing to his strengths and growing his confidence. The confidence issue is a big one for Powell right now. It is pretty obvious that his confidence was pretty low the past several months, going all the way back to when he lost his starting spot to Adams early in the season. Powell had a 27-point game early in the year against James Madison (who is in the NCAA Tournament, by the way) so he has offensive capability. Again, though, the key is playing within himself.
The key for the Bruins, at least on offense, to reducing the loss of Adams may very well be Kyle Anderson. Teams are now going to game plan for taking away Shabazz Muhammad as UCLA's best offensive option. Arizona did a good job of it last night when Solomon Hill made life very difficult for he UCLA star. Now Muhammad can expect to see two and even three defenders running at him whenever he touches the ball. That means other players are going to be open and will have to produce. Larry Drew II is playing about as well as he can, as is Travis Wear. Powell will get some looks, but of all the players capable of getting close to Adams' point production, Anderson would make the most sense. In reality, at least on offense, it's probably going to take a combination of several players elevating their games to offset the offensive loss of Adams.
Defensively is where Powell can make an impact. While he may not be as adept at poking the ball loose and reading the other team's offensive plays as Adams, he is quite simply a better on-ball defender. This is an area where Powell's lack of confidence has affected his game. Powell has shown flashes of being a true defensive stopper at times this season. However, more than any other Bruin, his mental make-up in a particular game goes a long way to determining whether or not he will be effective on defense. This is, quite simply, an area where Howland must step up. He has less than 24 hours to instill in Powell that he is playing regardless of mistakes; to instill in him his confidence as a coach in Powell. To a lesser extent Powell's teammates will have to show him they have confidence in him. The players have shown this year that they have the ability to lift each other's games. Howland's ability to do so is more of a question mark and that aspect may be the difference between UCLA's season lasting more than the next week or so or ending as early as this Thursday.
Speaking of Howland, he is going to have to make some tactical adjustments for not just Saturday's game against Oregon, but for the rest of the season, however long that may be. The rotation is now down to seven players, and that's assuming Howland plays Tony Parker more than a few minutes. That rotation includes only two true guards, Drew and Powell, and one other true wing player in Muhammad. The Bruins are now clearly in the danger zone when it comes to in-game decisions as fatigue, foul trouble, or even another injury are now front and center issues for this team. In order to mitigate all of those, or at least the first two, Howland is going to have to allow his charges to play zone for portions of the remaining games. I'm not talking about for a few possessions, but rather 30-40% of UCLA's defensive possessions. Howland has proven to be pretty stubborn, but this may force his hand. It's ironic that as many BRO posters have been clamoring for both a zone defense all season and increased minutes for Tony Parker, they may get both because of Adams' injury. If that is indeed the case then this situation would be exhibit A for "be careful what you wish for".
On to Saturday's championship game; Oregon is certainly going to try and exploit UCLA by using dribble penetration on offense and forcing someone other than Muhammad to beat the Ducks. The issues for the Bruins are the same as they've been for most of their games this year. The game may come down to two issues. The first is whether Altman, who has been able to outcoach Howland multiple times in his short tenure in Eugene, will be ready for the emergency tactical changes that Howland may employ, namely a zone defense. The other, and perhaps more important, may be the mental state of the Bruins. One of two things is going to happen, at least for this game; either the Bruins are going to feel sorry for themselves and for Adams and basically give a "mail it in" effort, or they are going to come out of the gates fired up to pick up their individual games to support their teammate and show the college basketball world that they can indeed be successful in spite of adversity. Apparently the four freshmen on the Bruins have grown quite close to each other and it is easy to see the Bruins playing as if they are on a mission.
Now, if Howland decides to go down with the proverbial ship and play strictly man defense and barely use Parker, then it really won't matter what kind of effort the Bruins give; they'll simply run out of gas. However, if the coach changes because of the extreme circumstances the Bruins are facing then I can reasonably see the Bruins coming out and having their emotion and fire carry them to the victory.
This game has now taken on added importance for the NCAA Tourney. As many BROs know, injuries, especially season-enders, are taken into account for seeding purposes. CBS Sports' Jerry Palm, generally acknowledged as the best NCAA bracket prognosticator, currently projects the Bruins as a 7-seed, clearly taking into account Adams' injury despite UCLA's win last night. UCLA has to be competitive against the Ducks. A bad loss on the scoreboard, because of Adams being lost for the season, could see UCLA's seed drop precipitously. It's a tough situation because the Bruins have a single game to prove to the selection committee that, in spite of Adams' loss, they deserve a high seed. That means the Bruins must at least keep tonight's game competitive. If the Bruins do that, then their seed shouldn't suffer much when the brackets are announced on Sunday. If the Bruins win, then there is every reason to believe that they will be seeded as if Adams' injury is relatively meaningless (which we all know isn't true, but that doesn't mean those on the committee in Indianapolis know the same thing).
Okay, time for the "homer" pick. Let's just do it; the Bruins, riding the emotion of picking up their teammate and themselves are going to play with an energy that will shock all of us. Howland is going to play Tony Parker at least 15 minutes and surprisingly is going to show Oregon a 2-3 zone on about 1/3 of the Ducks' possessions. Muhammad is going to make it a personal mission to carry the team, Powell is going shut down the man he's guarding and play with a renewed confidence on offense and Kyle Anderson is going to statistically step up his game across the board. The Bruins may not go far in the NCAAs because of the injury and associated depth issues, but just for tonight they are going to shock the college basketball world.
Pac-12 Tournament: Oregon Preview
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