UCLA's Bench is Too Short

Nov. 26 -- The Bruin starters were better than Oklahoma's, but foul trouble exploited UCLA's limited bench...

You can cite a number of factors that contributed to UCLA losing to Oklahoma, 75-65, in the first round of the Battle For Atlantis tournament.

But if you had to narrow it down to one prevailing factor you’d say UCLA lacked a serviceable bench. In this game, every time UCLA put in its subs, Oklahoma made a run. When UCLA had its starters in the game, it would climb back in. Oklahoma made the game-winning run with about 5 minutes remaining, when Tony Parker and Norman Powell were on the bench nursing four fouls each, and Oklahoma made its final surge.

UCLA, with its starters, was clearly a better team against Oklahoma and its starters. UCLA’s combination of its inside length and athleticism – which means mostly Kevon Looney -- and the scoring ability of Bryce Alford would be enough to beat the Sooners if UCLA hadn’t had to play its bench.

But, alas, it’s clear you need more than five players to win in college basketball.

Looney’s performance was stunning. He had 16 points and 15 rebounds (7 offensive) against the best frontcourt he’s faced, and Oklahoma was clearly out of its league. Without really much refined offense, Looney’s ability to get garbage points, particularly off offensive rebounds, is very unique. He was a force that Oklahoma couldn’t match. It helped that Oklahoma’s frontcourt was pretty mediocre, and brought almost no offense to the floor, but still, Looney’s long arms and pure ability around the basket is impressive. Oklahoma sagged off him, and after he missed some shots he started driving but didn’t convert; we could see, though, those drives converting by the end of the season. Just with that alone and his all-around talent, Looney is living up to the hype, and is on a trajectory to not be at UCLA too long.

Without Bryce Alford on the floor the Bruins would have had almost no offense against Oklahoma, beyond Looney’s putbacks. Alford has developed into a very good scoring guard, having improved his shot considerably, and actually being able to convert some seemingly ill-advised drives with regularity, too. His green light, though, is one of those bulbs that is always on; it’s obvious he has been cleared to shoot at any time, regardless of the game situation or shot clock, and from anywhere on the floor. In this game, it probably worked out okay as much as it didn’t. But it’d make him that much more of an effective offensive player if he could demonstrate a little more selectiveness in his shot choices.

Tony Parker was on his way to having one of his best games, looking very effective and composed in the first half, and having a clear edge over Oklahoma’s posts and exploiting it. But early in the second half he collected two quick, bad fouls, and that composure went out the window. It was a particularly key development in the game – undercutting the overall level of talent UCLA could put on the floor for enough minutes to maintain its second-half lead.

Norman Powell was the other starter in foul trouble for most of the game, picking up his third in the last few minutes of the first half, and it seemed to never allow him to get in a consistently productive groove, even though he played 33 minutes. There were probably 3 more minutes, if he had been on the floor, that probably would have made the difference.

Isaac Hamilton struggled for a great deal of this game, reverting a bit to the type of player he was in high school, looking for his own shot rather than playing within the team concept. When he did look to set up his teammates he completed a few assists that were key in critical situations, and when he took a good shoot in the flow of the offense, he made it. It will be interesting to watch Hamilton this season as he tries to stay under control while trying to subvert his old patterns of play.

UCLA alternated again between zone and man, and had some success with its man defense against Oklahoma, mostly since the sagging man functions essentially like a zone. Both forced Oklahoma to find the majority of its offense from the perimeter, shooting a whopping 38 threes (taking only 26 non-three pointers). Going into the game you wouldn’t have thought that packing it in and clogging lanes, and making Oklahoma shoot threes, would be a good strategy, since Oklahoma had been 40% from three. If you could have foreseen that Oklahoma was going to miss so many open threes in this game, shooting just 26%, you would have said it was a brilliant defensive strategy. So, while you have to question the concept, it essentially worked; Oklahoma got almost no scoring inside, with UCLA’s length and size on the interior keeping a no-shot zone around the basket for the majority of the game. There were times in this game, when UCLA made a run in the first half and then in the second, you could attribute it to getting defensive stops, due to forcing Oklahoma into taking too many threes.

If UCLA, though, is going to use this defensive strategy this season (and actually it’s what it did last season), it’s going to have get much better at closing out on perimeter shots. The effort by Alford and Hamilton to even get a hand up was pretty slack. Also, in its man D, UCLA seemed baffled by simple ball screens, going under them often, or not even attempting to push through. In the second half, Looney actually hedged a screen, which was very effective, so perhaps that might be the solution going forward.

This was a game UCLA should have won; they were the better team. At least, in mostly a ragged game, you could put it this way: there were longer stretches in this game when UCLA looked like the superior team, mostly because of the elite talent of Looney and Alford’s scoring ability. This season, it’s going to be a case in which these Bruins absolutely need to beat teams they are better than, without much room for error in the win/loss column.

It’s clear, too, to do that UCLA will have to stay out of foul trouble and not have to use its bench nearly as much as it did against Oklahoma.

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