UCLA started out in somewhat encouraging fashion, playing with fairly good energy early and jumping out to an 11-2 lead. They were playing decent defense, taking care of the ball and getting high quality shots at will (admittedly, Prairie View was offering almost no resistance). The Bruins looked like a team that had suffered a bad loss on the road and, after a week to think about it, they were ready to take out their frustration on their next opponent. However, as has happened all too often this year during the cupcake games, the Bruins started to relax and you saw some familiar bad habits start to show up again. The rotations started to get slower, they had a couple weak closeouts on shooters and a few times Prairie View drove right by Bruin defenders that were nowhere close to a defensive stance. Prairie View didn't necessarily score on all those plays, but that's only because the Panthers are a really bad team.
The first half overall, though, was a fairly good one for UCLA. They did a good job of sharing the ball, they got high quality shots most times down the court and their defense and rebounding was decent. They couldn't sustain the energy and focus that they showed in the early minutes of the game, but at least they were engaged enough to build a 50-24 lead at the half. If you saw the earlier Bruin wins in the cupcake games, you can probably imagine what the first half looked like in this game. The Bruins get a lot of wide open threes, a few transition dunks, but play at somewhere around 60-75% of their maximum energy level. And that's good enough for a team with the offensive firepower of UCLA to build a 26-point lead on a team like Prairie View.
The second half, though, was a different story. If I were writing this game review in the manner that UCLA played the game – and we just started the second half of the review – then this would be the last sentence I'd write. I just wouldn't show up for the rest of the review. Or, maybe more accurately, I'd start writing something approximating the gibberish put out by the sign language "interpreter" during President Obama's speech at Nelson Mandela's memorial service. I'd still be typing away – just as the Bruins kept running up and down the court in the second half – but reading the words might prove to be difficult. That was one ugly, and very difficult to watch, half of basketball.
I know some fans may think I'm being a little hard on the Bruins. After all, they were up by thirty-something points and the outcome was never in doubt. And it's true that it can be difficult to maintain your focus and defensive intensity when you're facing an opponent that's so clearly out-classed. The problem for the Bruins, though, is that they never sustain their focus, energy and defensive intensity. They don't do it for ten minutes straight, let alone forty. And in the second half of this game, the Bruins played no defense, they gave up offensive rebounds and they even got sloppy at the offensive end (where they're usually pretty good). When you see a team like Prairie View -- which I may have mentioned is a really BAD team -- getting multiple uncontested lay-ups against the Bruins half court defense…that's a problem.
Coach Alford, in his postgame press conference, said the word "habits" at last half a dozen times. And that's a key word. Basketball is a game of habits and UCLA has developed a number of really bad habits in the first 10 games of the season. We're almost a third of the way through the season and the Bruins consistently get beat off the dribble (by low to mid major players). They don't rotate to help one another, don't block out on the defensive boards, there are half-assed closeouts on shooters and they generally seem to regard the defensive end as "that place we have to stand for a while before we get to go do the fun stuff." There is no commitment to defense. There is no player on the team, with the possible exception of Norman Powell, that seems to be bothered when his man scores.
The Bruins got nothing out of this game. Yes, they shot 64%, some guys made some threes and there were a few dunks. But you knew that was probably going to happen before they even tipped off. In terms of developing the good habits of playing hard consistently, playing with focus, being committed to defending (individually and as a team) and just playing the game the right way…the Bruins failed in those areas.
Does this mean the Bruins are destined for a loss in Madison Square Garden Thursday night? No, it definitely doesn't mean they'll lose to Duke. For one thing, the Blue Devils have their own issues as a team and they're not firing on all cylinders themselves heading into the game. And the truth is the Bruins have the offensive firepower to play with anyone on a given night. It won't surprise me at all if the Bruins come up with their best effort of the season Thursday night in New York.
However, this game was another missed opportunity for the Bruins to get better. They really haven't improved at all defensively in the first ten games of the season. They're still experiencing the same kind of defensive problems, and the same rebounding lapses, that they had a month ago. The habits that Coach Alford was referring to are not only developed when you play Duke, Arizona and Oregon. They're called habits for a reason. You develop them by consistently playing the right way no matter who the competition might be on a given night. Getting in a defensive stance…playing ball screens properly…moving your feet, and not reaching, on defense…closing out under control and challenging shooters…boxing out…playing with toughness…having vision off the ball…rotating properly…lots of habits that need to be learned.
Good teams are really playing against their own standards -- and not their opponents -- each time they take the court. Unfortunately, this UCLA team hasn't yet learned that lesson. And the poor quality of competition they've faced has allowed them to post a 9-1 record, even though they've rarely played with anything close to maximum effort. But the cupcake portion of the schedule is, for the most part, over now. The Bruins will need to improve quite a bit if they want to challenge for the Pac-12 title and earn a high seed in the NCAA tournament.