Bruins Stumble At Oregon State

The Bruins had a chance Sunday to take sole possession of second place in the conference, as well as improve their potential seeding for the NCAA tournament, but porous defense was a problem once again...

With a chance to gain sole possession of second place in the Pac-12, and possibly climb into contention for the conference title, UCLA stumbled badly in a 71-67 loss at Oregon State Sunday afternoon. It was a particularly disheartening and worrisome loss for the Bruins after winning the first game of the road trip Thursday at Oregon. Disheartening because, frankly, Oregon State is not a good team and worrisome because the problem areas from earlier in the season – defense and rebounding – came back to cost the Bruins a critical game.

In a somewhat surprising development, UCLA opened in a zone defense. Typically this season, UCLA starts out man to man, then goes zone when Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford enter the game. This is only speculation, but one would assume that Coach Alford started out in a zone because was worried about the Bruin big men's ability to defend Eric Moreland and Angus Brandt. As the game went on, it was pretty clear that such worries would have been well founded.

In the beginning of the game, though, Oregon State was settling for a lot of three-point attempts, with varying degrees of success. The Bruin zone defense wasn't very active, giving up several open looks to Roberto Nelson and Hallice Cooke, but the Beavers were also committing a lot of unforced turnovers and showing some questionable shot selection at times. At the offensive end, the Bruins actually had some very good ball movement early and got a couple wide open threes from Travis Wear and David Wear. That ball movement, however, didn't last for long and the Bruin offense would sputter for much of the game.

The Bruins first good run of the game came when Lavine, Alford and Tony Parker checked into the game. After struggling in the earlier conference road games, Alford knocked down a couple three-pointers. Kyle Anderson was also hot from the perimeter and, with the Beavers continuing to turn the ball over repeatedly, the Bruins managed to grab a 27-16 lead.

The Beavers went on their own run 9-0 run, however, and they did it primarily by exploiting the Bruin defense inside. Oregon State stopped settling for deep jump shots, and committing unforced turnovers, and began to get the ball to Moreland and Brandt inside. Both Beaver big men hurt the Bruins inside, but you can't lay all the blame at the feet of the UCLA post players. The zone defense wasn't very active at all and the perimeter players were equally culpable.

Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine both played very poorly in the first half. Adams missed a couple open looks to start the game and then began pressing, taking a couple bad shots early in the shot clock. LaVine also missed a couple open looks early and you could see him pressing as well. It was clear he was thinking too much when he passed up a wide open three from the corner and instead committed a turnover trying to pass to Anderson. With both LaVine and Jordan Adams struggling badly – a combined 0-11 from the field with five turnovers – it was surprising that UCLA still managed to lead 31-29 at the break. The lead felt very tenuous, however, as the Bruins weren't playing very good defense. The Beavers were basically stopping themselves with careless turnovers and some questionable shot selection.

The Bruins opened up the second half in a man to man defense, but the Beavers scored on their first possession and UCLA quickly went back to zone. While it's impossible to know how the Bruins might have fared with more man defense, it was pretty clear that the zone defense wasn't giving Oregon State much trouble. When the Beavers were patient, and didn't throw the ball away or jack up a quick three, they were getting a lot of quality looks.

Jordan Adams is obviously one of the key scorers for this Bruin team, but he's had a tendency to settle for bad shots or ill-advised drives at times. So it was good to see him start the second half looking to pass the ball. He's actually got good vision and instincts when he chooses to pass and he had a couple quick assists early in the second half. This is something that he'll probably need to do more of going forward, as conference opponents would appear to have figured out his game somewhat and are no longer bailing him out with bad fouls when he drives into the lane with his shoulder down.

The Bruins put together a little run once again when LaVine, Alford and Parker came in the game. Alford hit another three-pointer and LaVine became much more active defensively with a steal and a block. LaVine obviously has the length and quickness to be a much better defender than he's been so far this season and it was good to see him active at that end of the court. The Bruin zone, overall, got a little more active and UCLA managed to get a lead at 52-47.

At that point, Kyle Anderson went out of the game and I wrote in my notes "how long can they keep him out?" Not very long, as it turned out. Oregon State went on a quick 6-0 run and Anderson quickly came back into the game. When you see how reliant UCLA's offense is on Anderson, and how quickly it stalls when he's out of the game, it's very worrisome to think about the Bruins next year without him. Alford is capable of getting hot from the perimeter at times, as he did in this game, but he's not someone that can create shots for other players and he's more suited to a back-up role at this level. LaVine actually has some playmaking ability, with good vision and passing ability, but he's played only at the two this season and he may be gone anyway after this year. As encouraging as it was to sign a couple quality high school big men, it's equally worrisome that there is no Pac-12 quality point guard projected for the roster next season.

While Anderson had another good game against the Beavers, finishing with 18 points and nine rebounds, he wasn't able to completely have his way since Moreland has the length and mobility to stay with him. And Moreland's defense helped the next critical Oregon State run, as the Beavers stretched their lead to 61-54 with about three minutes to go. UCLA didn't have much of an inside presence at all, save for a couple nice plays by Tony Parker. The Beavers hurt the Bruins on the offensive glass and they also managed to get a couple huge buckets in transition. The zone defense was doing very little to slow down the Beavers, as Cooke was getting open jump shots and Brandt and Moreland both got easy looks in the paint. As I texted to Tracy at that point in the game, if your zone defense is giving up wide open threes AND lay-ups, you've got problems.

The Beavers stretched their lead out to eleven points with a little more than two minutes remaining and it appeared that the game was over. However, as we mentioned earlier, this isn't a good Oregon State team. The Beavers started committing some laughably bad unforced turnovers, Nelson and Brandt missed four consecutive free throws and, suddenly, UCLA had a look at the game. Down by one with the ball, Adams tried to drive baseline and was called for an offensive foul. It was definitely a debatable call, as it appeared that Brandt didn't get there in time to take a charge. However, the reason that the call likely went against Adams is because he was a bit out of control and he lowered his shoulder. It was a call that might have gone the Bruins' way at Pauley but, to be frank, UCLA didn't really deserve to be bailed out in this game.

While normally we might be writing about the positive of the Bruins showing some resiliency, not quitting, etc., that didn't really apply in this game. UCLA only came back late in this game because the Beavers literally tried to hand them the game. The Bruins didn't play with consistently good energy throughout the game. They played in spurts a few times, but they're not good enough to play with inconsistent energy and win on the road in the Pac-12. Yes, LaVine and Adams had atypically bad shooting nights, but that's going to happen over the course of the season. And Alford had an unusually good shooting night after previously not scoring in conference road games.

So, once again, the story is not the offense. As has been the case all season for the Bruins, their success or failure comes down to rebounding and defense. Oregon State had a 39-32 edge on the boards, with Moreland grabbing a huge 14 rebounds. He's a good rebounder, though, and the Beavers have had some success on the glass at home. So it's not surprising that the Bruins might not win the rebounding battle in this game. The zone defense, though, was pretty sieve-like for most of the game. If the Beavers took care of the ball, and showed a little more patience at times, they might have won the game by double digits.

While it's easy to say that Coach Alford made a mistake in playing zone all game against a team that ended up shooting 48%, we really don't know what happens if the Bruins play man to man. Given Moreland and Brandt's play in the paint, it would appear that Alford was right to be worried about the Oregon State big men. But whether they're in man or zone, the Bruins need to show a lot more energy at the defensive end. They've had a few times this season when they showed a little trap out of the zone and perhaps that's something they could utilize a little more frequently. One of the dangers in playing zone is that your players tend to get passive. And this is a group that doesn't need any reason to get passive. Other than Norman Powell, there isn't a single player on the team that I'd call "aggressive" defensively.

This was a disheartening loss for UCLA; coming one day after Arizona not only dropped a game at Cal, but also lost Brandon Ashley for the season. The Wildcats are still a very good team, but they're extremely thin now and it wouldn't be shocking to see them lose a few more games now this season. With a win, UCLA could have climbed within a game of Arizona and taken over sole possession of second place. As it stands now, UCLA is tied with Cal for second place and only one game ahead of five other teams in the conference.


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