Looney Steps Up Against San Diego

Dec. 8 -- The Toreros were out-playing the Bruins, but then the future NBAer, Kevon Looney, asserted himself in the second half and UCLA came from behind to win, 75-68...

Unlike previous non-conference games so far this season, in which you couldn’t take much away from the game, when UCLA beat San Diego, 75-68, Sunday, there was actually quite a bit to take away from it.

San Diego is actually a decent team, at least they were on Sunday night against the Bruins.

The San Diego coaching staff, led by head coach Bill Grier, had a very good game plan that gave the team a good chance to win.

The Toreros had the best post players UCLA has faced among its more cupcakey non-conference opponents, and that challenged UCLA’s frontcourt.

San Diego, too, was the best-executing offense UCLA has seen yet this season, so it presented a challenge for UCLA’s defense.

Give the Bruins credit for ultimately overcoming these factors and pulling out the win after they had trailed and been out-played for most of the game. They very well could have folded up the tents at halftime after the Toreros led at the break, 35-33, and like we said, were completely out-playing the Bruins.

The major difference in the game, which helped UCLA gain a lead in the second half and hold on, is just merely that it had better and more talented athletes. We’re talking mostly about Kevon Looney, who was a hands-down future NBA player going up against a team full of future accountants. After a slow start in the first half, he asserted himself in the first 10 minutes of the second half, grabbing some big rebounds with his length, making key baskets because he’s just too athletic and long, and even making a nice assist. Looney propelled the Bruins in a couple of second-half runs, finishing with 18 points and 11 rebounds after having only 5 and 3 in the first half.

Really, in the end, it was a matter of high-major talent and size ultimately winning out over better coaching and execution. If your criteria for which team is superior is purely based on which team knows how to play basketball better, San Diego was the winner. But, if that were the predominant criteria in winning basketball games then there’d be some guys on the BRO Message Board in the NBA. Alas, size, athleticism and talent have the bigger influence on the outcome of a game, and UCLA had the clear edge.

San Diego played pretty well and UCLA actually played pretty poorly for about 3/4s of the game.

USD slowed down the pace, which is a smart, tactical move when you’re a less-talented team. The Toreros rotated back and prevented UCLA from getting transition points, and made UCLA play a halfcourt game. We’re sure Grier was banking on UCLA’s offense still trying to find some easy offense and opt for some quick shots, and for shots by non-scorers, and UCLA obliged. UCLA showed no discipline to consistently play in a halfcourt game, and lacked a good feel for time and score, or to value possession, especially when a possession was critical, and that resulted in many empty offensive trips for the Bruins.

On the other end, USD was the antithesis, staying under control and executing a very good halfcourt offense, mostly off well-executed ball screens and pick-and-rolls. UCLA’s interior defense had been its defensive strength previously, but it looked confused repeatedly on which man to pick up and was very slow in help defense. It also forced UCLA to get frustrated on defense and gamble some which got UCLA into some foul trouble.

It all worked perfectly for USD. The Toreros just didn’t have a tactic that could overcome Looney.

It’s a bit worrisome with this UCLA team that there doesn’t seem to be much development in terms of learning how to value possession, with everyone having a great light and no savviness from point guard Bryce Alford on when it’s vital to have a good, halfcourt possession. Steve Alford’s offense is easily one of the best aspects of his coaching, and it seems, this season, that we’re seeing it far less than we did last season – and more bad, forced shots being taken with no sense of game situation, time and score.

Previous to this game we had thought that UCLA would struggle only against more talented teams, since its style of running up and down and taking quick shots would favor a more talented team. The jury was still out, though, in how UCLA would do against a team that is close in talent to UCLA, but this game created more concern on that issue. If a team about as talented as UCLA decides to slow down the Bruins and make it a halfcourt game, there is very little indication that UCLA has the type of self-awareness, or even just simple strategy, in its repertoire, to go along with discipline and focus, to beat them. With what we’ve seen so far this season, and especially what we saw against USD, it leads us to believe that UCLA’s games against the likes of Utah, Colorado, Washington, Cal, and Stanford could really go either way.

USD actually laid out a blueprint for those teams to beat the Bruins this season. On defense, make UCLA play a halfcourt game, don’t allow them transition points, make them have to play with discipline to out-execute you, and then hopefully it degrades into quick, bad shots. On offense, be patient, execute your offense, use ball screens and pick and rolls against UCLA’s slack perimeter defense and convert as UCLA’s bigs struggle to know what to do, and how to help.

There were perhaps a few little developments in the San Diego game that might hold a little bit of optimism. Isaac Hamilton played some improved defense in the second half on USD’s big scorer, Johnny Dee, and took him out of his rhythm for a couple of minutes. It helped UCLA get some stops and contribute to the runs. Alford exploited Looney even more in the second half by using him in the high-post, where he’s a tough match-up, being able to knock down the 15-footer if you sag off him and also taking just a couple of his long strides around you if you get up in him. UCLA also ran some sets off the high-post, which led to Looney’s nice assist to Bryce under the basket. The fact that Looney showed resiliency and came back in the second half with a new sense of urgency, purpose and energy was very encouraging. He could very well be the key to the season, and showing that he has some fire in him Sunday was significant.

It could be a matter of just that, keeping Looney on the court and out of foul trouble, because it appears there just aren’t many college basketball players that approach his level of talent, especially among UCLA’s opponents.

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