It's a Negative Sum Game

Dec. 4 -- UCLA continued to play a style that blows out cupcakes, blowing out Cal State Fullerton Wednesday, 73-45, but does it help the team build good habits for when it plays real competition?

It’s pretty easy to see that the way UCLA plays and with its talent level it certainly can blow out bad teams very efficiently, this time doing it to a pretty bad Cal State Fullerton team, 73-45.

Running up and down and shooting quickly like UCLA does increases the amount of possessions, and if you’re more talented than your opponent it’s logically a good tactic.

So far, UCLA’s bad opponents have obliged, and tried to run with them, instead of attempting to slow down the game, not allow points in transition, limit possessions and try to keep the game close.

Go figure.

It’s kind of similar to UCLA, when it played against a better, running opponent, like North Carolina, and insisted on trying to run with them – giving UNC more possessions and, logically, a tactical advantage.

You think it’s all well and good to get UCLA blowouts against bad opponents, and have the Bruins run up their individual stats. Norman Powell looks great in this kind of game, and was, finishing with 18 points, being too athletic going to the rim in transition against the Titans and hitting his wide-open threes (3 for 4). But playing this style all the time against cupcakes does nothing toward improving UCLA’s chances against the inevitably good opponents they’re going to face this season.

We’re not advocating that UCLA should have slowed it down against Fullerton from the outset. But it would be brilliant to pick some spots in a game like this, such as when the Bruins were up double digits and the game wasn’t in jeopardy, to then work on good possessions, good shot selection, and getting more experience at executing with the shot clock in mind. You know, that value-possession thing. When the game’s outcome isn’t in doubt, running up the score becomes a negative sum game, prone to creating bad habits and – especially – false confidence and hubris.

It’s funny because the UCLA offense under Steve Alford, when it’s actually executed in the halfcourt, is a very pretty thing. There can be great movement, screening and passing to the point that the ball doesn’t touch the floor and there are wide open looks completely in rhythm. In transition, too, there are definitely better situations to push the ball and definitely good shots and bad shots. UCLA, in both the half court and in transition, tends to sometimes force things and take bad shots – but the problem (yes, the problem) is that, against bad teams, they’re uncontested and they quite often go in, only reinforcing the habit of the bad shot. That habit definitely bit UCLA on the ass against North Carolina.

Blowing out Cal State Fullerton and all the other cupcakes probably isn’t a good thing for this team. Against Carolina, when UNC was starting to build a lead, it would have gone a real long way if UCLA had opted for a value-possession game, and really made an effort to execute that nice offense in the halfcourt. It’s the best strategy, too, against upcoming heavyweights like Gonzaga and Kentucky.

The most tragic element here is that UCLA has it in its repertoire. Steve Alford has conceived of this great motion offense which would be the best tactical move against better teams. Not every team that is not as talented as its opponent has this in its arsenal and has no other option but to try to get some easy offense and hope the other team misses its shots running and gunning. But UCLA does.

It’s the thing that probably is going to make or break this team this season, whether it actually executes its offense in a value-possession game against an equally good or better team -- or it doesn’t.

Right now, at this point, it doesn’t seem like it’s thought of as something as valuable as it actually is. If it were, Alford would be going ape crazy on the sideline every time a horrible shot is taken a couple of seconds after UCLA gets across the halfcourt line. Occasionally Alford has pulled some players after a bad shot, but that doesn't seem like it's a message that's getting through. Everyone on this team has a green light, not just Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton. Kevon Looney is green-lighted to take any shot or initiate any drive he likes, and even Noah Allen clearly has a green light to shoot. There have been times in games this season, and there actually was a sequence in the Fullerton game, when UCLA needed a good possession with its offense creating a good look for one of its best offensive players, and Allen then took a bad, contested three.

Perhaps the theory is that this style is good for recruiting. It certainly is, with so many recruits today loving the freedom and seeing it as something they definitely want to play in. So, the theory is to play this style and then hope it attracts enough talent to come to UCLA, and and that eventual surplus of talent will be more talented than all of its opponents -- and disregard that the style, until you get there, is sometimes the wrong tactic against the wrong team. Why not just sell the style but play smart sometimes, too? Heck Arizona’s Sean Miller sells a fast-paced style that his Wildcats almost never play and gets away with it.

At times, UCLA’s style of play so dominates the mindset of its players that the team can’t even adjust to exploit an opponent’s weakness. It was painfully obvious that Fullerton had absolutely no frontcourt. Tony Parker looked the best he ever had early on in this one, getting eight quick points in the first few minutes with some nice baseline jumpers and inside-sealing moves. Kevon Looney also had a quick eight points, doing it mostly on his athleticism and length, mostly because Fullerton had absolutely no answer for either. Parker got just four more points for the rest of the game, finishing with 12 and 9 rebounds, and Looney only scored two more, finishing with 10 points and 13 boards. Thomas Welsh, too, when he subbed in for Parker after five minutes, was literally and figuratively head and shoulders better than Fullerton’s posts, but only touched the ball in the offense a couple of times. When UCLA was running up and down, and running up the score, it actually stopped going to its post players in the halfcourt and settled on outside jumpers – because it just can’t stop itself, and no one else will.

UCLA did make perhaps a little progress in its cupcake series. If we’re comparing cupcake games, you could say that UCLA probably turned in its best cupcake-opponent defensive game against Fullerton, for what that’s worth. It held the Titan to 45 points and 24% shooting, and did it with its usual mix of man and zone. It played mostly man in the first half and zone in the second half, and the man wasn’t half-bad. It probably was because UCLA had more energy and was more engaged early on. It was completely coincidental that UCLA ran up the score while playing mostly zone in the second half, and wasn’t due to the zone but due to Fullerton. The Titans were absolutely awful for a stretch of a few minutes in the second half, which helped expand UCLA's lead into the 20s, with the Titans making unforced turnovers and missing easy lay-ups, but really not as a result of UCLA’s defense. UCLA’s zone, actually, allowed some pretty gaping lanes in the second half but Fullerton couldn’t take advantage.

Perhaps one of the slight takeaways from the Fullerton game was a subtle adjustment in UCLA’s man defense. Alford now seems to be getting a little more confident in it, since he has some considerably intimidating post players clogging the paint. Looney, Parker and Welsh block and alter shots, and don’t allow many easy drives or looks around the basket. It’s the best aspect of UCLA’s defense, and Alford looks like he’s recognized this, and knows he might be able to amp up his man ball pressure, since he has that size and length in the paint to clean up penetrators. In the man, UCLA’s perimeter players were going on top of screens more against Fullerton, at least in the first half, probably because it’s worth it to get a hand in the face of an outside shooter at the risk of allowing penetration against UCLA's posts. There was less of the sagging, pseudo-zone element to the man this time. In a mostly throwaway game against Fullerton, it was the one nuance that was an encouraging development.

We’ve said it before, but this team will go the way Bryce Alford goes. He, as its clear leader, sets the tone and the style. In this game, particularly early on, he had the mindset he was going to function as a pass-first point guard, especially in the halfcourt, and he made some nice passes to set up his teammates in the flow of the offense. It's actually the best part of his game, even better than his shooting -- his knowledge and ability to execute his father's offense and make an effective pass. But then Bryce got out of that mindset, and starts taking quick shots and drives to nowhere. The jumping-to-pass thing, as we've said before, just doesn't work against good defenses. All of it works against the Fullertons of the world but not against the North Carolinas. It’s contagious, then, because you can see that his teammates, whether they consciously acknowledge it, start taking bad shots and drives, too. So much of UCLA’s offensive development and effectiveness is going to be about Bryce being disciplined and staying in that mindset when UCLA needs a good possession, and personally using a more refined good shot/bad shot judgment.

The question is whether Coach Alford sees it that way.

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