The Bruins have developed a habit lately of starting slowly against undermanned opponents at Pauley Pavilion and this game followed a familiar pattern. UCLA played with little purpose or effort in the first half and the Beavers exploited a less than enthusiastic Bruin defense for quality shots in the paint. While it's true that the Beavers have the superior front court, one cannot point to the Wear brothers and Tony Parker as the only problem. The truth is the entire Bruin defense, including the perimeter players, was a step slow and allowed far too much penetration that ultimately led to good shots for Oregon State. When the Beavers didn't turn over the ball, they got quality shot attempts in the first half.
Fortunately for UCLA, those Oregon State turnovers led to some easy baskets in transition for the Bruins. Out of UCLA's first 19 points, 10 of them came off of Beaver turnovers. Those easy transition points were key for the Bruins, as they were struggling with their half court offense. Kyle Anderson made a few nice individual plays, and Zach LaVine hit a couple jumpers early, but the Bruin offense was fairly stagnant for most of the half. Eric Moreland did a great job of intimidating the Bruins inside and UCLA ended up settling for a lot of jump shots early in the shot clock. Bryce Alford and Jordan Adams both showed some questionable shot selection in the first half.
The biggest problem, though, was a general lack of purpose, effort and intensity at both ends of the court. It seems like UCLA approaches these home games against undermanned opponents with the mindset of "let's see how hard we need to play tonight." Instead of coming out with the intention of dominating from the beginning, the Bruins often start with a lackadaisical approach. They are a step slow in their defensive rotations, or they don't match up properly in transition defense, or they take a questionable shot early or they get beat to a loose ball. The Bruins have enough of a talent advantage that they can still win games at Pauley against the likes of Colorado, Utah and Oregon State with this approach. But their inability to play consistently with maximum effort and focus is likely going to keep them from going very far in the NCAA tournament.
After a somewhat slow start early in the second half, the Bruins got it going behind the scoring and overall play of Jordan Adams. When Adams is engaged and into the game, the Bruins are a different team. Adams mirrors the rest of the team in that his offense often leads to better defense. In other words, when he's knocking down shots he typically becomes much more active overall. His defense picks up, he begins to get offensive rebounds and he suddenly starts getting to loose balls that he wasn't getting earlier.
While Adams was a huge part of the UCLA comeback, it really was a team effort and a lot of it came at the defensive end. After allowing the Beavers to get quality looks at the rim in the first half, the UCLA defense tightened up and started forcing Oregon State into more difficult shots. Oregon State freshman guard Hallice Cooke dropped 20 on UCLA in Corvallis, but he shot 1-11 from the field in this game and that was partly due to the Bruin defense forcing him into tougher shots. The Bruins became more active in the second half and didn't allow so many easy post entry passes. That was a big key for UCLA, as the Beaver trio of Eric Moreland, Angus Brandt and Devon Collier had an advantage inside against the Bruin big men. David Wear and Travis Wear both had forgettable games in their final appearance at Pauley Pavilion. Their limitations were exposed big-time in this game, as they grabbed a combined three rebounds in 48 minutes. Fortunately for the Bruins, Kyle Anderson stepped up with a team-leading nine rebounds to keep the Beavers from completely dominating the boards.
Back in December prior to the beginning of conference play, Coach Alford talked about developing proper habits. At that time, he was mainly talking about defensive habits, as the Bruins defense in the early months was abysmal. And while there has definitely been progress in that area, that's really not saying much, as the early season defense was so pathetic that it would have been difficult not to improve. The bigger concern for the Bruins is that they haven't developed the habit of playing with purpose, focus, energy and intensity consistently. It's blatantly obvious when they are engaged and into the game. It's equally obvious when they are not.
I wrote after the Cal game that it would be interesting to see how this team responded after playing the one truly complete game of the season and seeing what they were capable of when completely engaged for 40 minutes. In that game, the Bruins didn't take any possessions off. They didn't settle for questionable shots early in the shot clock. They came out ready to play at the start of the game, didn't let up at any point and ran the Bears out of the gym.
At a similar point in the season, the 2006 Bruins had the experience of seeing what they were capable of when they bought into playing tough defense for 40 minutes. Once they realized that was their formula for success, that team committed to that style of play for the rest of the season. Obviously, this Bruin team doesn't have the talent, or potential, of the 2006 team. I don't see any way that this group goes on a run to the championship game. However, I do believe that this team has the potential to be better than they have been to date. They've played 29 games so far and the game at Cal was arguably their only truly complete game of the season.
Of course, no team is going to hit on all cylinders in every game. There are obviously going to be some games where you have letdowns. But it is disappointing that this team didn't seem to learn anything from that game at Cal. With one more road trip to the Washington schools, and the Pac-12 tournament a week later, the Bruins still have some time to get on a roll heading into the NCAA tournament. Hopefully the bright lights of March will give them a greater sense of urgency than we've seen to date.