After the victory over California on Wednesday, we said that Saturday's game against Stanford would be another test to see if this UCLA team could make the leap.
Once again -- for the third time this season -- UCLA proved incapable of sustaining the focus necessary to sweep a road trip, which has to raise considerable doubts about the Bruins' ability to sustain any kind of run in the post-season.
Saturday's 83-74 loss to the Cardinal was a near-perfect reproduction of the Oregon State and Utah losses, with UCLA starting the game out with poor intensity, picking up the focus far too late, and falling woefully short in the end.
Many might point to the fact that Stanford shot incredibly well from three, but that was mostly a product of the Bruins' poor defense finally catching up to them. As we pointed out earlier in the week, UCLA gives up an unusual number of three-pointers per game, yet teams are actually shooting below the national average from three. On Saturday, Stanford almost single-handedly made up for the shortcomings of other teams, making 11 of 20, and effectively burying UCLA's chances at the conference championship in just one statistic.
Early on, the game certainly didn't have the tenor that UCLA would have wanted, with Chasson Randle immediately getting open for three threes in the first six minutes. Even still, offensively UCLA was playing fairly well, with Kyle Anderson looking particularly effective slicing through Stanford's defense for assists (he had five within the first 10 minutes of the game). The game was actually tied 18-18 after Tony Parker's layup at the 10:54 mark, and UCLA looked like it could tighten the defense and have a real chance to win the game.
Then, in a move that's becoming increasingly inexplicable as the season winds down, the ball was taken out of Anderson's hands for much of the next 10 minutes, which helped to fuel Stanford's run by taking away UCLA's firepower.
As we wrote earlier in the week, Bryce Alford has limitations as a player at this level, while he has some value as a spot-up shooter. So, in our estimation, since it doesn't appear that Alford's minutes are going to be reduced, when he's in the game with Anderson, he should be playing off the ball, allowing Anderson to create shots for him and the rest of the team. Instead, Alford initiated the offense more often than not when he was in the game, which coincided with some crippling offensive stagnation, as UCLA scored just nine points from the 10:54 mark to the 1:13 mark in the first half.
So that's what we want to see: barring Alford playing fewer minutes as a strict back-up point guard, it would seemingly be more effective if Alford played off the ball when Anderson is also in the game. As we saw Saturday, the offense stagnates when Anderson isn't able to create for others.
UCLA's defense was awful, particularly in the first half, and it didn't appear as if Norman Powell or Jordan Adams were as engaged as they needed to be early on that end. Powell, as has been pointed out, spent much of the first half and early part of the second half helping off of Chasson Randle, which is shocking -- almost as if they were expecting one of the best scorers in the Pac-12 to mimic his 3-of-16 performance from the first meeting between the two. The sagging man defense UCLA started out in was ineffective, and the zone it went to when Alford and Zach LaVine came in was no better, with the entire team struggling, especially Alford, on closeouts.
As has been commonplace in these road-trip losses, UCLA staged a furious comeback in the second half, largely fueled by Parker, who was the best player on the floor (when he was on the floor), scoring 13 points and looking very confident. Unfortunately, Parker only played 18 minutes in the game. Powell also played much better in the second half, seeming to come alive as UCLA surged to within 3 at 60-57 with 9:53 remaining. That was as close as UCLA would get, though, with Stanford then making two three-pointers over the next minute to push the lead back to nine.
Anderson didn't have his best game, but, and perhaps we're mistaken, it did seem as if he was playing off the ball more than he had in previous games. His first ten minutes were good, even with a couple of careless turnovers. He has a knack for making a pass or two every game that provides a "Wow" moment.
Adams was not in sync with the offense, forcing up shots like he was a few weeks ago. His defense early on was also not good. LaVine also didn't seem to be playing within the flow well, but a few of his forced jumpers went in, so there's that. He went on a personal mini-run late in the game that provided a surge for UCLA after the game seemed over, and showed off a little bit of his explosive offensive ability during that stretch.
Travis Wear continued his recent surge of decent play, but David Wear didn't make much of an impact on the game at all. It did seem as if the twins were called for a few ticky-tack fouls early by a whistle-happy referee crew. The refs were generally pretty bad, but they seemed to be mostly fair, mixing in bad calls on both teams at a pretty even rate.
After watching that game, and the previous 26 games this season, we think we have a pretty good feel for this team and what it's capable of this season. It's not a mentally strong team or, at least, hasn't shown any signs of mental strength yet. It's prone to losses of focus and intensity, particularly on the road. That said, it has the ability to be explosive offensively, and when it can establish an early lead, has shown an ability to blow out opponents. Defensively, the team isn't strong, and teams that can shoot reasonably well from three will exploit UCLA significantly. All too often, the team doesn't appear ready to play to start games.
With four games remaining, UCLA likely still has an opportunity for a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament, but it'll take a sweep through the remainder of the regular season and likely a trip to at least the Pac-12 Tournament final to make that happen. Even still, given what we've seen of this team's limitations, especially in terms of consistent focus, it's going to have to make some considerable strides in a number of areas, and in personnel usage, to enable it to make a long post-season run.
Third Time Not a Charm
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