When UCLA thoroughly out-played Oregon, 82-63, in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament Thursday, that identity finally revealed itself.
It only took 32 games.
It's not about defense, sorry to say. And transition offense? That's good for blowing out a weaker team you were going to beat anyway.
UCLA put on display what it does best, and what sets it apart, against the Ducks, and that's half-court offensive execution.
The Bruins controlled the game Thursday by executing its offense so superbly, and undisciplined Oregon had no answer. Executing so precisely and efficiently in the half-court completely changed the game, and provided UCLA the dominant factor that its opponent couldn't counter.
When UCLA executes its offense like it did Thursday, a number of things occur. First, it has great shot selection, so its shooting percentage goes way up (57% for the game), and you score a good amount of points (82). With so many shots going in (30 of 53), the opposing team has less chance at rebounds, which negates a UCLA weakness; UCLA actually out-rebounded Oregon 34-29. It takes away the opposing team's penchant for getting transition points itself, which also benefits UCLA since its transition defense is so lacking. It also tends to then make opposing teams speed up, especially those who fancy themselves fast-paced (which is seemingly every program nowadays); disciplined, patient offensive execution tends to psychologically make other teams get impatient on the offensive end themselves, shoot quicker and take more bad shots.
There were a few factors going on in UCLA's decisive win over Oregon Thursday, but this was the predominant force that won it for the Bruins. Give two people immense credit: UCLA coach Steve Alford for a great game plan and UCLA point guard Kyle Anderson for being the type of player, perhaps one of the most unique players in the country, who can effectively pull off this strategy.
The game started a bit ragged, with both teams committing many turnovers (18 between the two teams in the first half). Both teams see themselves as transition teams so they looked challenged to see who could out-run the other. When the dust settled a bit, it looked like that would be Oregon, since UCLA's transition defense was so poor.
UCLA, too, in the first 15 minutes or so, was ragged in their half-court offense. They were pressing and that led to quick, bad shots, early in the shot clock and turnovers. UCLA has a few guys who can be culprits in this way – Jordan Adams, Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford all have a penchant for taking ill-advised shots. Anderson came out of the game, with the starters having yet to establish their offensive execution consistently. Then the subs came in and offensive execution went completely south. Just about everyone on this team seems to have a green light to shoot, which is dangerous when Anderson isn't on the court, and LaVine and Alford are without him. UCLA's offense lost its focus, took some bad shots, Oregon rebounded and then turned it all into transition points, since UCLA's transition defense was so poor.
Anderson, up until this point, hadn't even scored, but he doesn't necessarily have to to be the biggest force on the court, and to be the guy that gives UCLA its edge. He sat from just about the 10-minute mark of the first half to about 5:30 and during that time the game was a complete mess. Bad shots, turnovers, bad transition defense. The game could have gone any direction at that point.
But then Anderson came in and the Bruins found themselves, and the direction of the game.
Anderson put on a show to end the first half, scoring 7 points in 2:20. He not only made the Sports Center highlights with a posteurizing dunk, but he consistently asserted himself in the UCLA half-court offense, and the Bruins got on track. It set a tone for the Bruins – to focus and execute their offense and not allow themselves to get wound up.
That focus and identity then made for what was one of the prettiest second halves this team has played all season. UCLA executed its halfcourt offense better than I can ever remember it doing it for one half. While Oregon was flailing around the court, taking bad, quick shots, UCLA came down in its halfcourt offense possession after possession and showed poised and composure, executing the Ducks off the floor.
It wasn't just Anderson. Give a huge amount of credit to Norman Powell. There were many times when he was the calming influence – pulling the ball out after a transition that didn't result in a good look, insisting a few times to reset the offense and putting the ball back in Anderson's hands, making the smart, easy pass in the offense and that extra pass. Who woulda thunk it but Powell was a good-decision-making force on the team, and between him, Anderson, and David Wear and Travis Wear showing their experience and maturity, UCLA used its offensive execution to put away the Ducks.
Adams is a player that needs to be managed. Like we said he can be on the naughty list of the guys on the team that take quick, ill-advised shots. Leave him to his own devices, he'll shoot you out of a game. But put Anderson, Powell and the Wears around him, and he'll take good shots within the flow of the offense and potentially break the back of the opposition. UCLA came out of the second half with great offensive composure, and then there was a sequence in which it executed its offense so consistently well, possession after possession. UCLA ran the same set a couple of times, where Anderson finds a flashing Wear at the top of the key, and Adams curls around a baseline screen to catch and shoot about a 12-footer. It's UCLA – and Adams – at their best, and UCLA, through offensive execution, had pulled ahead 50-37. From then on it was only a matter of UCLA maintaining its composure and continuing to execute so well offensively and the game was over.
Really, when UCLA is executing its half-court offense like this, it's just a matter of trying to get everyone on that page. LaVine and Alford can be wild and take bad shots, and pretty much negate it all within a few minutes. When they did their usual sub-in in the second half, there was an element of that. UCLA had put together a phenomenal string of very impressive offensive possessions, and then that went kind of spotty with the two of them in. UCLA was consistently up by 15-17 points, and the damage wasn't that significant, and Oregon was already broken, so it didn't really impact the outcome. It appeared, too, that LaVine and Alford tended to calm down also, execute and take better shots, and that led to Lavine making some.
Steve Alford's halfcourt offense, when put in the hands of Anderson, is truly a thing of beauty. It flows so well, gives players the opportunity to improvise a bit but stay within a structure. It clearly makes them very comfortable offensively. The key, obviously, is having someone run it like Anderson. Not only does he set up the offense with his passing, he also gives it a safety net; when the offense doesn't find a good look he can always create one. Oregon kept using much smaller defenders against Anderson, so Alford obviously had Anderson post up. After UCLA had executed so many great offensive possessions in a row in the second half, to then run a possession that gets Anderson posted up against 5-7 Jonathan Loyd is back-breaking for Oregon. The Ducks had to be thinking, "What the heck can we do here?" Again, give Alford credit for his offense and for recognizing and exploiting mis-matches, and at such perfect times in the game.
UCLA's offensive execution clearly wore down Oregon. Midway through the second half they looked fatigued, and a bit annoyed that they had to keep so much focus on their defensive half. "Hey, Bruins, I thought we agreed to run up and down and take crazy, quick shots the entire game." When UCLA ran that same set with a Wear flashing to the key, but this time the other Wear stepped out from the baseline screen, caught a pass and hit the face-up jumper, Oregon looked like they had had enough. The Ducks, then, on the other end of the court, got tired, lazy and desperate, putting up even worse shots. If it weren't for Joseph Young hitting some prayers, UCLA would have beaten the Ducks by 30.
The boxscore is completely indicative of a team that executed its offense well -- with balanced scoring. Five players were in double figures -- Adams 15, T. Wear 14, LaVine 14, D. Wear 11 and Anderson 11 -- and Powell had 9.
When you execute offensively this well, too, a funny thing happens to your defense. First, opposing teams commonly get impatient on their offensive end and take more bad shots, so it takes the burden off your defense, for one. Oregon was so out-of-sync in the second half that UCLA's defense forced the Ducks deep into their shot clock. It also tends to settle down your players on the defensive end; the discipline of executing offensively spills over to the other end of the floor. It all feeds on itself. This UCLA team just doesn't have the individual defenders to ever really be a great team defensively, but it definitely helps UCLA defensively when it doesn't have to rely on transition defense and the opposing team's offense is desperate.
We've talked all season about how today's college basketball is almost unwatchable – because most teams play horrible defense and want to run on every possession. That makes for most college basketball games looking like AAU games. We've maintained that the lack of good defense is the reason, and that's most definitely true. But when a team can execute its offense like UCLA did Thursday, it completely is on the far side of the watchability scale, and satisfies our old-school sensibilities.
That, in fact, was fun to watch.
It's especially encouraging that UCLA showed so much composure after its worst loss of the season, the 18-point debacle in Pullman. It wouldn't have been a stretch for UCLA to look as distracted and desperate as the Ducks Thursday, but give the Bruins, and Alford, credit for re-booting their composure and playing, perhaps, its most efficient and composed game of the season.
So, it's taken almost the entire season, but UCLA might possibly have found its identity. It was hard to find, obviously, but this team's personnel, in this season, might have a unique combination to go far in the post-season. When you combine such a unique player like Anderson, with the experienced Wears, and a maturing Powell, which keeps guys like Adams and LaVine harnessed and playing under control, UCLA's halfcourt offensive execution might be something that has a chance to set them apart, especially if it happens to go up against undisciplined teams like the Ducks.