While you never want to lose any game, this loss feels like one that UCLA actually needed. The eight previous wins, against mostly bad teams, had come way too easily. The Bruins got a lot of uncontested jump shots, they had easy points in transition, their lax defense that went unpunished and the victories came all too easily. It wasn't difficult to see that the Bruins were probably getting a false sense of themselves after winning while barely breaking a sweat. There were plenty of times in those eight games when the Bruins didn't move their feet on defense, or were slow getting back in transition, or missed box outs on rebounds. The difference was those eight teams weren't good enough to make the Bruins pay for their transgressions. Missouri exposed the Bruin weaknesses in a big way.
The Bruins built their lead in the first half with the same formula that propelled them in their first eight games. They had good ball movement, knocked down jump shots and forced some turnovers that led to easy transition buckets. Missouri helped the UCLA cause by taking some out of rhythm threes and also with some unforced turnovers. When Bryce Alford and Zach LaVine came off the bench the Bruin lead went from 12-11 to 30-17. Alford had a three and a couple steals, while LaVine was throwing down highlight-reel dunks in transition. Norman Powell had a couple of nice drives for baskets and Jordan Adams was scoring in a variety of ways. The Bruins were playing loose and easy, while Missouri was taking ill-advised shots and committing some careless turnovers. The UCLA three quarter court press, while falling back into a zone, bothered the Tigers and it looked like the Bruins were in good shape with an eight point lead at the half.
The second half, though, was a different story. The Tigers stepped up their energy level and UCLA wilted in the face of that pressure. Missouri started attacking the basket more frequently and, when they missed, they pounded the glass. If you were paying attention in the first eight games, you may have noticed that the Bruins are much more energetic offensive rebounders than they are defensive rebounders. That doesn't matter much when you're playing Morehead State and you're going to win regardless. But against athletic, energetic high major athletes, in a hostile environment, that matters a great deal. Quite simply, Missouri just wanted it more. Yes, they are more athletic than the Bruins. But often it was just about who was tougher and wanted it more. There were way too many plays where the Bruins were standing and watching, not getting a body on guys, and giving the Tigers easy second chance points. Kyle Anderson, Tony Parker and the Wear brothers all struggled badly at times trying to secure defensive rebounds.
Interior play, at both ends of the court, was an issue for the Bruins. The lack of an inside presence has hurt the Bruins all season. It hadn't cost them any games due to the poor competition, but it definitely hurt them in this game. When you don't have a low-post threat at the offensive end, and your transition game is slowed down (as it was in the second half), then you become overly reliant on jump shots. When your opponent goes on a run, and the crowd is going nuts, and you start to tighten up just a bit…those jump shots don't fall as easily as they did against Chattanooga. UCLA had one stretch in the second half when they went eight and a half minutes without a field goal. The Bruins also hurt themselves when they lost their poise a bit down the stretch. They took some quick, ill-advised threes and made it easier on the Tiger defense.
Kyle Anderson has been arguably UCLA's best player this season, but he struggled a bit in this game. His lack of athleticism isn't a big issue when he's being defended by a low major guard that's six inches shorter than him. It's a different story when, not only is he being defended by athletes with some size, but he has to defend those guys at the other end. There were a couple times when Tiger players got in transition and Anderson could only wave at them as they blew by him. Adams and Alford, at times, also had trouble staying with the Tigers superior athletes. When Missouri got in transition, or got some space in the half court, it reminded me of watching Bruin football players (pre-Mora) trying to defend in space against superior athletes. It was a mismatch. For those fans confused about why we aren't real high on the pro prospects of Anderson or Adams, watch some of those open court plays again. Yes, they're both very skilled and terrific players at the college level. And that's the level they should be playing at for the next couple years.
The Bruin frontline contributed very little, as UCLA got a total of seven points and seven rebounds from Travis Wear, David Wear and Tony Parker combined. Missouri's Jonathan Williams III, a freshman averaging six points and eight rebounds for the year, got 10 points and 15 rebounds by himself. Frankly, the Bruin big men should be embarrassed by this performance. This wasn't a freshman Anthony Davis at Kentucky destroying you on national television. This was a no-name freshman more than doubling the rebound totals, by himself, of two fifth-year seniors and a highly rated sophomore. The Wears and Parker obviously have some limitations. They're not big-time athletes or great low-post scorers. But that shouldn't stop them from being physical, putting a body on someone and getting a rebound. Quite simply, they need to play a lot better if UCLA is going to do anything meaningful this season.
At one point, the announcers were talking about the stereotype of the tough, physical Midwestern team going against the skilled, soft West Coast team. And while I wouldn't call this Bruin team soft, I do think this game perfectly illustrated some of the major challenges facing them. Yes, you don't have great low post players in the Wears, Parker or Bail (who barely played). But that doesn't mean that, as a team, you can't play with toughness, box out, move your feet on defense, contest all shots, help each other in rotations…in other words, do all the difficult stuff that leads to wins. You're not going to shoot threes and lob dunk your way to wins against good teams. You have to do the tough stuff. And you have to play smart and with poise, especially on the road in a tough environment. The Bruins weren't quite prepared to do that in Missouri. Hopefully this game will be a wake-up call and learning experience.