UCLA Almost Loses It

Dec. 11 -- The Bruins play terribly in the first half but then ride Norman Powell and Tony Parker in the second to do enough to beat UC Riverside, 77-66...

One of the things this UCLA team had going for it was, with its fast-paced, up-and-down style, it was able to blow out lesser talented teams.

That didn’t happen Wednesday, as UC Riverside hung tough for most of the game, with the Bruins ekeing out a victory, 77-66.

Riverside essentially used the same tactic that San Diego did Sunday, slowing down the game, making it a halfcourt affair, and hoping that would force UCLA into taking bad, quick shots and losing interest on defense. It worked, too, but, like with San Diego, a Bruin with talent light years above Riverside stepped up at the beginning of the second half and gave UCLA a lead it clung to for the win. On Sunday against San Diego it was Kevon Looney, and Wednesday against Riverside it was Norman Powell. Powell had a huge first few minutes after the break, hitting a three, getting a big, athletic dunk in transition, and then another basket in transition – scoring a quick seven points – to erase UCLA’s eight-point deficit and bring it to 37-38. When you watch Powell against a team like Riverside, as it was watching Looney explode against San Diego, it’s like watching an adult play against children in a game on a playground. He’s just too big and quick for this level of competition. Powell finished with 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting, and hit two of three from three-point land.

Luckily UCLA, behind Powell, asserted itself in the second half, outscoring Riverside 49-30, to overcome a pretty poor first half, perhaps the worst first half of the Steve Alford era. UCLA trailed 36-28 after the first 20 minutes, and it wasn’t exactly that Riverside was playing that spectacularly, it was just that UCLA was absolutely horrid. Riverside, in the first half, shot just 35% from the field and that was good enough to get an 8-point lead in Pauley Pavilion. Riverside and UCLA were tied at 19 in rebounds, and the Bruins had just six assists against eight turnovers.

Riverside’s tactic worked exceptionally well in the first half, because it essentially deflated the Bruins, too. UCLA played defense with energy for perhaps the first five minutes of the game, but then clearly had no interest in doing it the rest of the half, either in man or zone. It mostly used man, because it seems, for a team that is so disinterested in playing defense, playing man at least keeps them a little more awake on the defensive end of the court. Riverside had no interior offense at all, in fact, it shot more threes than it did twos in this game. But it had great ball movement in its halfcourt offense and found open looks fairly easily. Very simply if Riverside had been just a slightly better three-point shooting team (It shot 31% for the game), it easily would have beaten UCLA, no question. UCLA isn’t good at closing out on shooters and it was particularly lazy in doing it Wednesday. Isaac Hamilton has to be called out for it, allowing eight threes to be shot over him and made during this game because he has so little energy in his close-out. At one point, in the zone, Steve Alford moved Hamilton and Bryce Alford to the back line of the zone clearly because they’re so poor at defending from the top of it. That’s really saying something – when you have to move your two starting guards to the back line of the zone to hide them in it.

Besides the smart overall tactic, Riverside also had Bryce Alford scouted and defended in the first half. They pretty much shut him down by slowing him down in transition when he had the ball in his hands or finding him in transition and not allowing too many open transition threes, and then defending him very well in the halfcourt. Bryce turned over the ball three times in the first half as a result of both errant passes but also with his drives-to-nowhere that Riverside easily defended. By just keeping a man on him it took Bryce’s game away, with him unable to get space in rhythm to shoot and disrupting his usual forced drives.

Hamilton had a pretty poor game. His defense was pretty bad, as we stated. Every game, too, there seems to be a short period when one of Hamilton, Bryce or Powell decide they’re going to force the action offensively, and when Hamilton did it, about halfway through the second half, he missed some quick shots at the beginning of the offense that Riverside then took advantage of on the other end, keeping Riverside close when they really should have been rolling over and getting blown out.

Bryce, too, had his Time of Forcing It. In the first half when Riverside was clearly playing UCLA toe-to-toe, it was vital that every possession be valued. Down 29-27, Bryce took a very ill-advised drive and put up an off-balance prayer – which started a Riverside break the other way.

Kevon Looney didn’t have one of his better games, but his overall athleticism and length were keys to the second-half comeback. There was a very telling sequence in the second half when Riverside literally got five offensive rebounds in a row and five new shot clocks because UCLA couldn’t get a defensive rebound. Alford called timeout, smartly, and put in Looney and he immediately got the offensive rebound off Riverside’s next miss. He finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds.

If you were going to designate a player of the game – for the entire 40 minutes – it’d be Tony Parker. Sure, Powell led the one surge to start the second half, but Parker was the guy who did the blue-collar work that kept UCLA in it in the first half and then cemented the surge in the second. Of course, Parker should dominate a team that doesn’t have one post player on it that could play in the Pac-12, and he did, finishing with 16 and 16.

Alford tends to coach by rote sometimes. We’ve learned he has his substitution patterns, especially in the first half, and he likes to stick with them. Like Looney picked up a quick foul at about five minutes, but Alford subs out Parker for Thomas Welsh, because that’s been established as his first sub. The coaching-by-rote, too, extends to the tactical approach in the game, without much adjustment. Sure, there are tweaks here and there at times in the halfcourt offense like, say, using a high-post offense for a possession. But there’s very little acknowledgment of a team’s weaknesses and an effort to exploit it. Riverside clearly had poor interior players, and then its biggest post, Alex Larsson, fouled out early in the second half. UCLA should have been going to Parker and Looney early and often – and then especially when Larsson was out of the game. But there was no noticeable shift in offensive tactic. Late in the game, when Looney actually touched the ball a couple of times in the offense he dominated – pretty much like an adult playing against kids in a sandlot game. Parker’s numbers of 16 and 16 were impressive but they could have been even better if UCLA had made an effort to get him touches. But UCLA, regardless, sticks to its approach, and that’s for its perimeter players to hunt excessively for outside shots – even when it’s clear they should be feeding the post.

There were some moments in this game when UCLA did play smartly and as a team on both ends of the court. They were brief but telling. UCLA was much better defensively when Noah Allen and Gyorgy Goloman were in for a brief stint, with Allen and Goloman at least bringing some energy to the defense, with Allen diving on the floor for a loose ball. They were better offensive when Hamilton and/or Bryce were out for a few minutes, with better ball movement and Powell actually feeding Parker in the post. We’re not advocating that Alford bench Bryce or Hamilton, because they bring some traits to the court you need, but it exposed the other traits the two need to also bring to the court.

Here’s something really telling: Utah beat UC Riverside by 46 points. Sacramento State beat them.

Now, with UCLA’s non-conference cupcake schedule over, it heads into a harrowing stint in its schedule: Gonzaga, Kentucky, Alabama (at Alabama), at Colorado and at Utah. No more Mr. Cupcake. On one hand that might be good since the cupcakes had finally sussed out how to potentially beat the Bruins on their terms. Now we expect to see an entirely different brand of basketball – not one where the game is slowed down by the opposition but one where the opposition wants to run with UCLA because it recognizes it’s more talented. We’re probably now not going to see dominating periods of the game when Looney and/or Powell look like men against boys, because now they’re playing against other men. We’ve thought about it and we have to admit – we keep seeing replays of the North Carolina game in UCLA’s future. UCLA does have the capability of getting very hot at times offensively, though, so the hope is that one of these upcoming opponents decides it doesn’t want to play defense and allows UCLA open looks in both transition and the halfcourt, and UCLA gets hot and wins. It’s not likely but it’s entirely possible. Hey, college basketball isn’t very good so we’re banking on one of these opponents playing lazily and stupidly.

There is also a fear that some things could wear down this team. Literally fatigue, for one. Alford has shortened his rotation considerably – and that’s been against the last two cupcakes. UCLA’s starters are going to probably get increased minutes going through the upcoming gauntlet and wear-and-tear physically is a concern. Wear-and-tear mentally, too. We’ve seen what happens to Powell when he gets tired and frustrated, he tends to lose his shooting touch and reverts to out-of-control Powell. You’d have to speculate that it would wear down a youngster like Looney, who is carrying so much responsibility of this team on his shoulders and averaging a huge 31 minutes per game – which is a great deal for a freshman post, especially against cupcakes. Bryce is averaging 35 minutes per game and you have to worry about what his game might degrade into when he’s beaten up and fatigued going through the gauntlet. We’ve also talked about how there seems to be a bit of a perceived chemistry issue and that could exacerbate after a couple demoralizing losses. The resilience of this team is definitely going to get tested. How this team gets through these next five games could very well establish the prevailing tone of the season. It could be, too, with such low expectation, one unexpectedly good performance against one of these teams could bolster the team for the rest of the season.

So there is fear, but there is hope.

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