The game was similar in rhythm and momentum, actually, to the failed first test, the game at Missouri.
UCLA played with Duke for the first half, like it had against the Tigers, and then collapsed in the second half.
It did so for a few pretty obvious reasons.
First, it has to be said: Duke isn't very good. Let's just make that clear. They have some talent, definitely, but not overwhelming talent like the best Duke teams of the past. And they're plainly poorly coached. It seems that Duke's Mike Krzyzewski has succumbed to AAU-style coaching like the vast majority of college basketball – allowing star players to shoot without conscience and not emphasizing defense. Really, this is now what college basketball is – and it's practically unwatchable. I don't think I've seen a well-played, well-coached game yet this season.
UCLA was only in this game because of Krzyzewski's poor coaching in the first half. UCLA went predictably to its soft, hole-riddled zone and, initially, Duke actually cut it up with some nice penetration and passing. But then Jabari Parker and Co. started taking just about every look from three that was even slightly available. They shot a mind-numbing 19 three-pointers in the first half, sometimes within five seconds of bringing the ball across the halfcourt line. UCLA merely rebounded the bad shots and converted a decent portion of their offensive possessions and they were tied 45-45. The hope was that Krzyzewski would continue his lax coaching in the second half but, alas, Duke made some adjustments. They were far more patient against UCLA's zone, they flashed a man to the high post and passed out of it to their three-point shooters, which gave them significantly better looks in rhythm.
Give Krzyzewsk a little bit of credit, too, for getting his Blue Devils to play generally with more intensity and focus, particularly on defense (again, much like Missouri did in the second half).
But really, the reason UCLA was even in this game was because of Duke's horrific shot selection the first half. Without that, Duke wins this by 30.
The coaching coming from the other side of the floor was worse. There were no adjustments in the second half from Steve Alford. In fact, the only tactical advantage UCLA had going for it was that its poor zone defense was making Duke take really bad shots in the first half, but Alford went for over five minutes to start the second half before he zoned. It's what he does in every game, play man until he brings in Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford, because those two really can't be on the court for a prolonged period of time unless they're in a zone. Like we've said before, perhaps the biggest reason to play both man and zone is the unpredictability of when you're going to be using either, but Alford has taken that unpredictability away, going to his zone at the same time in every half with his predictable substitution pattern. If Alford had, in fact, started the second half with a zone that could have been at least interpreted as an "adjustment."
Duke then turned up its defensive intensity in the second half and UCLA's offense collapsed. When you have such a loose offense that allows for individuals to improvise it will tend to degrade when an opposing defense plays with more commitment and effort. Duke's defense turned it up, and UCLA's offense broke down, reverting to one-on-one, AAU-style basketball. That's the kind of offense that will score 88 points per game against cupcakes but when it needs a halfcourt offense against a real high-major team (that, really, isn't even good defensively) it scores just 63. Jordan Adams looked to go one-on-one at every opportunity, as did Kyle Anderson, with the difference being that Anderson actually is talented enough to score against Duke-level talent. Zach LaVine exposed his immaturity and selfishness, taking some very ill-advised shots out of the flow of the offense, even though there really wasn't a flow when everyone is going one-on-one. Even though the game was probably decided, his missed underneath windmill dunk could have cut the lead to 8 and possibly 6 (after a subsequent Duke turnover). It was an illustration of LaVine going for flash over substance. The Bruins only really executed what looked like an offense a handful of times in the second half. It's why UCLA only scored 26 second-half points.
Every Bruin broke down in the second half. I was about to write in my notes that Bryce Alford was just about the only Bruin who hadn't reverted to selfish play and bad shot selection, but then he joined his teammates with an ill-advised drive and bad outside shot.
Sure, Travis Wear and David Wear didn't match Duke's physicality or athleticism, which resulted in just 8 rebounds between the two of them. But give David some credit; his 16 points and 4-from-4 shooting from three was a big boost compared to, say, the selfish, me-first play of Adams. If you're going to be selfish you better at least be effective doing it.
Anderson showed that he truly is the elite talent on the team, and can match up with Duke's talent. He took super-hyped Blue Devil Jabari Parker off the dribble a few times, which actually isn't that big of a deal because Parker isn't a great defender (he's this era's quintessential college player, one that Dick Vitale can blow completely out of proportion because Vitale can't actually see both sides of the court). But Anderson got out of control too many times in this game, and at critical junctures. When Duke was starting to take control of the game in the second half, UCLA needed its most talented player to try to get control of the game back, but Anderson committed a couple of sloppy, showy turnovers, one on a bad outlet pass and another on a drive to nowhere where he lost control of his dribble.
The team is soft as, well, a cupcake. When good opponents (and so far there have only really been two) turn up their intensity and physicality, these Bruins go soft, both physically and mentally, backing down physically and resorting to selfishness mentally. You could exonerate Alford from blame, saying that this isn't his team or his players but, actually, some of them are, and there is such a team-wide lack of focus and effort – particularly on defense – that he can't be fully exonerated.
In this college basketball era in which lazily-coached teams feature sloppy AAU-style play – just to appeal to today's recruit – every year there are a small handful of teams that emerge that, somehow, find the will to play hard – and play defense. Today, the philosophy of the elite programs – like Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky – is to appeal to the selfish elite prospect and hope you either 1) get enough of them so your team is so vastly talented that you can beat almost anyone or 2) somehow, someway there is some random chemistry of effort and commitment that spontaneously combusts in one serendipitous season.
Or you could just recruit great, tough athletes who show a penchant for wanting to play hard and play defense, and pretty much dominate all the AAU-style teams throughout college basketball.
Just a thought.