UCLA Deserves Win Against Ducks

UCLA created too big of a deficit early without Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, but a few players found themselves in the second half when UCLA mounted a comeback...

Fans always insist there are no moral victories.

How about constructive losses?

UCLA losing to Oregon, 87-83, in two overtimes, might qualify.

Without its two best players, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, due to a one-game suspension for a violation of team rules, there was much to take away of value from the Bruins loss.

First: UCLA deserved to win. It naturally was out-of-sync in the first 15 minutes of the game without Anderson and Adams, falling behind by as much as 15 points and being down by 12 at half. But once it found its sans-Anderson/Adams legs, about halfway through the second half, it was clear which team was the better one on the floor. The Bruins out-scored Oregon 46-34 in the second half and that wasn't even indicative of how much better UCLA was than the Ducks in the second 20 minutes. It felt like Oregon struggled on just about every offensive possession to get a good look, and UCLA was getting good looks in rhythm.

Now, we have to be balanced here, and point out that Oregon is truly not a good team. How they played Thursday night might have been the worst-played conference game against the Bruins this season. Some of it might have had to do with UCLA's sagging defense having an effect, but most of it, really, was that the Ducks truly weren't good. If Oregon makes the NCAA Tournament we might have to boycott the Dance.

UCLA's defense was about the same as it always is, even without Anderson and Adams (which shows that Anderson and Adams just aren't great defenders). But the various Bruins, offensively, didn't seem to understand their roles for the first 25 minutes or so. UCLA was shooting 30% at the half, and hovered around 28% for most of the game – until about halfway through the second half – when they found themselves offensively.

Bryce Alford became more of a shooting guard, doing what he does best – catching and shooting – and he stepped up and had a career night, scoring 31 points in 49 minutes. What was the most miraculous about his performance was that he seemingly didn't get fatigued in those 49 minutes, and maintained the same level of intensity throughout. Being in such good shape enabled him to remain steady at the free-throw line, where he knocked down an impressive 12 of 13. His energy truly was the driving, steady force of the game.

While Alford was the steady force throughout, Norman Powell really started the resurgence in the second half when he took over the role of slasher, which he does well. UCLA was still lingering around 10 points down but his run of a few offensive possessions in which he penetrated the seam of the (bad) Oregon defense drew UCLA to within striking distance the rest of the way. In the beginning of the game he clearly didn't get it, and didn't understand his role, scoring 1 point in the first half while committing some foolish fouls, but he finished with 14 points on the night.

In terms of finding oneself, the talented freshman Zach LaVine clearly used this game to do it. Having been in a slump for a good month, looking tentative and indecisive offensively, he definitely used the opportunity to play 48 minutes to find himself. He looked so much looser, perhaps because he knew he was going to play extended minutes, and you could see him get his confidence and then try to do things he never would as a 20-minute-a-game sub. Many times in the second half, LaVine was essentially the point guard, doing his Anderson-style break-down of the defense to create a shot opportunity. The thing is: LaVine is explosively quick on the ball. Each Duck defender had to play off him a few feet to be able to keep him in front of them. If he had actually finished a few drives after getting into the lane it would have been a clear NBA-level player going against average college players – and it was anyway. A big key to the rest of the season is how to get LaVine to play this way when he goes back to being a sub. Perhaps make him a starter?

Then there was one of the most spectacular finishes to regulation we've seen yet this season: with less than a second left, Travis Wear threw a ¾-court-length pass to his twin brother David Wear, who calmly hit a 27-foot three-point to tie the game and send it into overtime. The image of David Wear stroking that shot in perfect rhythm was a thing of beauty.

Again, UCLA deserved to win this game.

But perhaps the reason they didn't was rebounding: Oregon 50, UCLA 38. The Bruins were consistently out-worked on the boards. UCLA's sagging man and zone, for the most part, was effective in not allowing Oregon to get good looks, many times having to hold on to the ball the entire shot clock, but Oregon got 17 offensive rebounds, which gave them many second chances after UCLA had taken away that first good look. This was one of those volleyball games, when rebounds just seem to go up in the air and get batted around a few times before settling into someone's hands, and Oregon did a much better job of keeping alive a rebound. The Wears only had 8 rebounds between them in a total of 78 minutes. Travis Wear had two total rebounds in his 43 minutes on the floor. If there was a tactical mistake we'd have to point out it would be playing Tony Parker just 19 minutes, comparatively. Yes, Parker struggled at times offensively, seemingly getting stripped almost every time he touched it, but he had 10 rebounds in those 19 minutes and the boards became the one element of the game in which Oregon clearly had the edge – and they exploited it to ultimately get the win. More minutes from Parker, and more rebounds, might have offset that.

While we're giving some credit to UCLA's defense, too, we have to point out that it probably was the second biggest factor in UCLA losing. As we said, the sagging man and zone worked for a good portion of the game, clogging the middle to keep the ball out of the hands of Oregon's interior players, and taking away driving seams in the lane. But when you live by a tactic, often times you also die by the tactic. The sagging style created many wide-open looks from three, especially in the first half, and UCLA's perimeter players were very poor in their close-outs. Oregon shot 6 of 12 from three in the first half and that was enough to build the lead that UCLA could really never overcome.

It also has to be pointed out that the Bruins got in their first-half deficit because the offense wasn't effective. Alford, who had the game of his life shooting the ball, wasn't effective orchestrating the offense as the point guard. UCLA's offensive game turned in the second half with Powell asserting himself -- but also when LaVine functioned more like a point guard and Alford played off the ball more.

The question has to be asked: If LaVine had been used as the back-up point guard all season, how good would he be right now, and how much better would this team be?

The loss does hurt UCLA in the Pac-12 standings and will probably slightly damage its NCAA Tournament status. But what the Bruins got out of it, the three guys – Alford, LaVine and Powell – finding themselves and defining their roles and capabilities, might ultimately make this game more valuable than how it affects standings or RPIs.

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