Bruins Miss Opportunity

Jan. 3 -- UCLA had a chance to steal a Pac-12 road win Friday night as Colorado was missing all-conference player Josh Scott. But the Bruins struggled to play consistent, team basketball and didn't have enough at the end to hold off the Buffaloes...

Over the last couple years, we’ve written at times about a particular game looking like an “AAU game” and many fans may not have a good idea of what that means.

For those of you that watched the entire UCLA/Colorado game last night, you now have a pretty good idea. In general, it's basketball played by individuals with little purpose, focus or structure. There is a general lack of teamwork and the emphasis is on individual play (at both ends of the court). It doesn’t mean there is a lack of effort. In fact, I’ve seen some tremendous effort and energy in AAU games. And last night in Colorado, the Bruins played with generally good energy and effort. But there is a general sense of randomness to the game – anything can happen on a given possession with little rhyme or reason. There doesn’t seem to be a plan and players are trying to make plays by themselves with no offensive structure. And, most often, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. That would be a good description of this UCLA team so far this season and it was definitely the case Friday night in Boulder.

The Bruins obviously have a thin team, and there are certainly many incomplete pieces, but it’s not like they are completely without talent. However, the cohesion and teamwork that we saw early in the season against cupcakes is now pretty much non-existent. There doesn’t seem to be any plan other than Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton or Norman Powell launching jump shots or attempting out-of-control forays into the lane. Once in a while there will be a post entry pass to Tony Parker, but that’s about the extent of any inside game. And when Parker struggles, as he did against Colorado, then the Bruin offense becomes almost exclusively perimeter oriented. Kevon Looney inexplicably seems to get most of his touches on the perimeter facing the basket, which doesn’t play to his strengths. He’s not a good jump shooter and he’s not great at taking his man off the dribble. He does his best work on offensive rebounds where he can use his size and length to score around the basket. It would seem that perhaps he should get more touches close to the basket on post-up opportunities.

The free-flowing, dynamic and versatile Bruin offense of last season is now a distant memory. With each passing game this season, it becomes more obvious just how much Kyle Anderson meant to the offense. The bizarre assertion that “Steve Alford’s offense doesn’t need a point guard,” which the staff and fans have espoused at many different times, has now been exposed as being blatantly false. The lack of a point guard on the roster is clearly a huge problem at both ends of the court. There is no leadership, no floor general and no one making sure the team gets a good shot at critical moments. Instead, there is Bryce Alford launching contested 23-footers early in the shot clock or taking off on wild, out-of-control drives to the basket where the best thing that can happen is the other team will commit a stupid foul and bail him out. Hamilton, the other “point guard” on the team, is often guilty of the same type of plays, only with a few more turnovers mixed in.

The fact that Hamilton had a better performance shooting the ball against Colorado, going 6-14 from the field, doesn’t really mean much. The specific results from game to game may vary with each player, but the approach remains consistently wrong. There are generally poor decisions, no sense of good shot/bad shot and no ability to create good opportunities for teammates. The Bruins have two shooting guards trying to play point guard and that’s a major problem for this team. And it becomes an even bigger problem when those two shooting guards want to shoot the ball a lot and show no self-awareness or understanding of how they’re playing in a particular game. For Alford to be 0-8 from three point range in the game, and then attempt yet another contested three-pointer at a huge moment with three minutes left…that’s Kobe Bryant-level confidence. Unfortunately, the confidence is unfounded on Alford’s part. He’s not a good enough player to be taking forced, contested shots from well beyond the stripe.

UCLA missed a great opportunity against Colorado as the Buffaloes were missing their best player in Josh Scott. Colorado isn’t a good team with Scott and without him the Buffaloes looked just about as disorganized and random as the Bruins. Without Scott, Colorado’s offense was pretty much limited to Askia Booker (another shooting guard masquerading as a point guard) launching jump shots. With Hamilton losing him on several occasions, Booker managed to get free for 20 points. In Hamilton’s defense, though, there were a few times when Booker came off screens and the Bruin big men did a poor job of helping. Again, that’s something you see a lot in AAU basketball – the lack of team defense. Guys may be giving a good effort individually, but there’s a lack of teamwork and communication. This issue also showed up late in the game in transition defense at a few critical moments. Both Alford and Hamilton were guilty of not matching up, or allowing a Colorado player to get behind them in transition and it led to some key points for the Buffaloes late in the game.

The particular stats of this game were a little unusual with Powell and Hamilton shooting a combined 15-34 from the field for 38 points, while Parker, Looney and Alford went a combined 6-33 for 16 points. The temptation might be to say two guys played well, while the other three played very poorly. But how they played individually isn’t really the point. On Sunday against Utah, we might see Alford get hot from the perimeter or Looney might grab a bunch of offensive rebounds and have a double-double. But whatever happens will most likely be the result of individual effort and whether the Bruins win or not will likely just depend on whether the shots are dropping that night (and Utah having a cold shooting night themselves). There is no sense that the Bruins have a specific plan of attack. If you asked me to describe this team’s identity, I’d have to say they don’t have one. They don’t play a consistent brand of basketball. They’re not a tough, physical grind-it-out team. They’re not a heady team that values the ball, limits mistakes and makes the other team beat them. They’re not an athletic team that beats you with their transition game. They’re not a pressure defense, speed-you-up-and-force-you-into-turnovers team. They’re five guys playing a random, purposeless game where they hope to win with contested three-pointers (or wild forays into the lane), while hoping that that the opposition has a poor shooting night. As someone once said, hope isn’t a strategy.

While Colorado didn’t have much of an offense with Josh Scott out of the game, the Buffaloes did have much better energy than the Bruins down the stretch in the last ten minutes or so. The Buffalos have a little deeper bench, the crowd energy helped them and the Bruins may have been fatigued playing at the high altitude. Whatever the reason, it was Colorado that was getting the big offensive rebounds late or getting out for some semi-transition buckets when the Bruins failed to match up. UCLA’s big men had foul trouble most of the game and the Buffaloes took advantage at the free-throw line where they made 21-25 attempts. Contrast that with the Bruins, who only made 6-10 attempts. Of course, you’re not going to get to the line as often when you’re launching three-point shots. For the game, UCLA made 6-26 three-pointers, with Alford ending up 0-9. Obviously, this Bruin team doesn’t have a lot of great offensive options and they need Hamilton, Alford and Powell to shoot from three-point range. But UCLA needs those players to take good, quality shots from the stripe – and not just cast them up willy-nilly with no rhyme or reason. Really bad shot selection is one of the defining characteristics of AAU basketball.

At this point in the season, it’s becoming pretty clear that this Bruin team will really struggle to make the NCAA tournament. There are too many holes on the roster and, while there is some individual talent, those individuals each have some deficiencies. Having pretty much given up on any meaningful success in terms of wins and losses, I’m more focused on how the team progresses in terms of playing consistently like a team. There are times when you see them trying to be patient on offense, getting a random low-post touch or playing decent team defense. The problem is those things don’t happen often enough. Too many times they revert to AAU ball and take bad shots, or don’t run back hard on defense or miss a rotation in the halfcourt defense. Most of the time, I feel like I’m watching five individuals attempting to make plays. Not always, but way too often for a team playing at UCLA’s level. Hopefully as the season progresses, we’ll see a more patient, disciplined team playing together. The by-product of that may be a few more wins this year, but it’s really about trying to lay a foundation for the coming years. Because without that foundation, it’s really irrelevant if the staff signs Ivan Rabb or Jaylen Brown or any other elite prospect in the spring. Without the foundation of a solid, team concept the results on the court won’t be a whole lot different next year. There may be a few more wins due solely to a talent infusion, but there won’t be any deep runs in the tournament without a major change in the approach. Coach Alford needs to find a way to reach this team and get them to play the game the right way. Wins and losses aren’t that important at this point. But getting them to play the right way is critically important.

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