Tough on the Eyes and Heart

Dec. 28 -- UCLA loses ugly to Alabama, 56-50, in one of the worst college basketball games in memory..

If you watched UCLA lose to Alabama, 56-50, you undoubtedly feel like you lost two hours of your life.

That was one of the worst college basketball games that UCLA played in for probably the last few decades. Both UCLA and Alabama were absolutely horrendous, in all phases of the game. If you’re a basketball fan, not even a UCLA fan but just a fan who holds good basketball dear to his heart, you have to feel like the guy in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” who had his beating heart ripped out of his chest.

Not only were both teams horrible when they weren’t scoring, but they were horrible when they were scoring. Even during the times when UCLA made runs in this game it was mostly done on the shoulders of bad shots going in. Bad contested shots, out-of-control drives, sloppy passes, bad free-throw shooting, unforced errors and energy-less, careless defense. And just turnover after turnover. In one classic sequence that stands out, a bad UCLA turnover ended up as an Alabama bad pass to a Bruin under the basket for a dunk. The last few minutes of this game were a series of ill-advised plays, turnovers, bad free-throw shooting, a few made but poorly-chosen shots, and some very bad decisions.

It wasn’t going to come down to whichever team could make a play. It came down to whichever team wouldn’t make a bonehead mistake.

UCLA shot 32% and 29% from three. Alabama shot 33% and 18% from three. There were a total of 30 turnovers. UCLA scored 17 points in the first half, the third worst point production for a half in UCLA history. It committed nine turnovers in the first half while making just five shots.

But this doesn’t even capture how bad this game was. Even beyond the actual fumbling execution, it was poorly coached from both benches, to go along with a very poor sense of good, sound basketball from just about every player on the court. Bryce Alford was responsible for perhaps the sequence that best epitomized a bad sense of basketball in this game. UCLA was operating its Green Light offense for the first half and most of the second, but then finally got a little bit of sense and, on two straight possessions, posted up Tony Parker and fed him the ball. Two baskets. That was like an oasis in a vast desert of the abominable. It was really the only one in this game for UCLA. So when you find the oasis you would think you’d want to linger there a while. But no. At a time when UCLA is starting to build some momentum while Alabama is fumbling all over itself, the UCLA point guard should recognize it’s a time to seize the game with another smart possession – and that would mean going back to Parker on the block. On the next possession, though, Bryce brings up the ball and within a couple of seconds of advancing it across midcourt he takes a long, contested three from the corner – which creates a long rebound for Alabama and a basket in transition. That was the epitome, but heck, you could point to about 30 instances where either a UCLA or Alabama player showed an uncanny lack of basketball I.Q. Like taking a bad, 24-foot three-pointer when there were still 15 seconds left in the game.

When you pile it all up on each other on both ends of the court, it made for a game that featured perhaps the worst combined basketball I.Q. between two teams in recent memory. Then combine that with all the bad execution, and it was a spectacle of the basketball absurd.

With this game, it wouldn’t have really mattered if UCLA had won or lost. If UCLA had actually pulled out the game in the end it wouldn’t have been able to erase all the ugliness that our eyes saw for 40 minutes. It’s like, if you had happened to see Margaret Thatcher in a bikini. If you then saw a bikini-clad Irina Shayk it can’t ever erase the image of the former British Prime Minister in a thong. While you can appreciate Shayk, you’re still scarred for life.

The most disturbing aspect of the game is that it's clear what kind of basketball we’re going to get at UCLA now. You couldn’t really see it against Kentucky because the Wildcats were too talented to give us a clear picture. But Alabama is a pretty bad basketball team that has a few decent players, and going up against them really shined a light on UCLA. If you disregard the short Parker Oasis, UCLA made its second-half comeback by generally converting bad shots. It’s starting to sink it – that most of the time the best we’re going to get with this team and this style of play are players making ill-advised bad shots or drives. Isaac Hamilton led the second-half comeback when he made back-to-back threes – and both were poorly-chosen shots.

Many UCLA fans have said they like the high-scoring style, that they like the excitement of it. But if we were in a court of law and arguing for the Defense of Good Basketball, we’d use this game as the cornerstone evidence of our case. This “style” tends to beget bad shot selection and un-fundamental, sloppy play, at least with this UCLA team. Really, even though Hamilton made those back-to-back threes it’s now easy to recognize that it doesn’t matter that the shots went in because this team has proven that playing this way is betting on long odds. Sure, Hamilton or Alford will make some threes at times when the team needs a basket. They could actually win some games this season doing it. But in the long run, as this game proved out, taking a large amount of bad shots is a low-percentage bet. You couldn’t see this against Montana State (even though we tried to point it out) and you couldn’t even see it clearly against Kentucky. But against a bad – and badly-coached – high-major team like Alabama it’s really evident.

UCLA should have even won this game because, when it came down to it, between two bad and poorly-coached teams, UCLA had a couple of players who were better at making bad shots.

So even from that perspective UCLA under-achieved.

There are growing concerns now with this team and the program. The lack of effort with the players at times, especially on the defensive end, has been a long-running theme for the season, and it seemed to be more pronounced in this game. Chemistry has to be a concern. There were some obvious moments of freezing out against Alabama, and players looking like they’re losing focus out of frustration. There has to be a concern that the team and the season could spiral.

The biggest concern, though, is that the powers-that-be behind the program right now don’t seem to recognize that this style they’ve decided to play is a low-percentage strategy. If it were a matter that the UCLA coaches were trying to get this team to play smart, fundamental basketball and they were just not executing it well, or missing good shots, or turning over the ball because they just weren’t good enough, we’d let them off the hook. Heck, we’d even let them off the hook if the intensity level was uneven, well, like it is. But we’ve come to realize that this is clearly the strategy, the “style,” of choice. We don’t know why this is, if it has something to do with showcasing Bryce Alford, or it’s just really bad judgment on their part. And it’s a bit of a waste of time speculating about why. But it’s absolutely clear that this is the program’s style, and that it’s not pretty regardless of whether the shot goes in. In fact, instead of using the term “winning ugly” to represent a defensive-minded, well-disciplined style, this style, even if it wins, is the true “winning ugly.” We realize now that we’re only going to get well-played, good basketball in fleeting moments. Really whether UCLA succeeds or not is now based on a hope that Hamilton and Alford get hot enough hitting bad shots in enough games this season.

So, if you still watch the rest of the season, good for you. But know that you will have to concede your eyes and heart. No matter what you see for the rest of the season, it’s going to be difficult to get the image of Margaret Thatcher out of your eyes, especially after our hearts have been ripped out.

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