Bruins Show Shift in Approach

Jan. 9 -- It wasn't a seismic change and it could have been inadvertent, but there was an improvement in offensive approach that enabled UCLA to beat Stanford in double overtime, 86-81...

UCLA broke its five-game losing streak by beating Stanford in double overtime, 86-81.

It was a game in which UCLA showed a little promise and perhaps some development in its offensive approach.

All season long it’s been pretty obvious that UCLA has an advantage in one area with just about every team – that’s Kevon Looney against anyone.

It’s also been pretty obvious that getting the ball into his hands, and into the post to Tony Parker, and creating an inside-outside offensive approach, was consistently the most effective.

But even while it was pretty obvious, for most of the first half of the season, this team kept being perimeter oriented, with Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton dominating the ball – and the shots. There were previous games when Looney and Parker wouldn’t even touch the ball on an offensive possession.

That definitely changed against Stanford. There was a perceivable shift in tactics (we presume), with far more deliberate attempts to feed Parker, and it paid off with easily Parker’s best game of 22 points and 12 rebounds.

While UCLA still doesn’t seem to be doing anything deliberate to get Looney touches, he individually took over the game and was able to since he was head and shoulders the most talented on the floor. The length-of-the-court dribble and dunk probably made the highlight reels, but there were far better fundamental moments for Looney in this game, mostly rebounding like a man on both sides of the court, just absolutely willing an offensive possession not to end, and being able to do so because he was the most talented player on the court. Looney finished with his career-high 27 points and 19 rebounds.

With UCLA’s two big actually touching the ball, the Bruins looked more like a team offensively than they ever have this season, even when they were blowing out the cupcakes. Some of the other Bruins passed the ball and deferred to Parker and Looney, and the offense flowed from there, with some better – that is, less contested – shots from the outside opening up because of the inside-outside ball movement.

Now, if you didn’t watch the game and are just reading this review, we have to warn you – don’t get too excited. There were elements of this game that still gave you pause, and for the most part there still was a poor approach offensively to the game and far too spotty of an effort on defense.

Stanford also did its part. Even though the game was very entertaining, with the two overtimes and some big shots (and Chasson Randle missing what should have been a game-winning free throw at the end of the first overtime), the game was basically not very pretty since Stanford contributed its own brand of ugliness. The Cardinal, God bless ‘em, had their chance to rid itself of the bad coaching of Johnny Dawkins last season – until Stanford went on the run in March (beware the Lavin-esque, career-extending Lazarus-type reprieves). What they’re left with is still bad coaching, so match that up with the poor coaching of UCLA and you have a pretty dysfunctional game, fraught with head-scratchingly poor decisions and a lack of team play on both sides.

It wasn’t, too, like Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton, finally came to Jesus either, and were transformed into guards that set up and create for their teammates. They went kicking and screaming into the light. Between the two of them they still went 9 of 25 from the field, while Looney/Parker went 15 of 25. But at least Bryce changed his approach a little. Hamilton was pretty much horrendous for the entire game so it was fitting that one of the game-winning possessions in the second overtime was when he passed the ball to Tony Parker for a dunk. He had maybe one or two entry passes in this game, but other than that he was his bad-decision-making self – shooting the ball too quickly and in a bad situation, and driving off-balance to nowhere.

Bryce looks like he’s now in no-man’s land in terms of what he thinks he’s supposed to be doing. It was clear in this game that he’s been told to distribute the ball, and he intended to do it, but he’s at a bit of loss at how. He actually turned down some outside shots and gave up the ball, but a couple of times the shot he gave up was a wide open look – which is the one we want him to take. He then, too, took some bad, too-quick shots that were absolute momentum killers. When UCLA was making runs – by getting the ball to its bigs mostly -- Bryce was the cooler a couple of times because of a quick, contested shot. He still, too, thinks that driving out of control and jumping to pass is distributing. It’s painfully clear that he just doesn’t have a superior feel for the game – and what’s most shocking, that he obviously has been encouraged to play this style. Most coach’s sons are the ones on the floor that have the best feel and decision-making because they’ve been versed in good basketball their entire lives, and that begs the question: When in Bryce’s basketball development was it encouraged to drive to nowhere and jump to pass? On the ESPN telecast, even Bill Walton asked, "Why does he do that?" First, that’s just so bad fundamentally. Secondly, it’s a horrible tactical approach. You would think a coach who saw his son doing that in the driveway when he was 12 years old would shut that down immediately.

What’s starting to become apparent, too, is that with so much selfishness and bad decisions happening between Hamilton, Bryce and Norman Powell, if you take just one of them off the court and put in a team-oriented player like Gyorgy Goloman or even Noah Allen, the team improves. That’s right, remember this is a team game and it’s been widely proven by many brilliant basketball minds that the best teams usually win, not the best individuals. Even though Goloman and Allen aren’t as talented as the other three, they improve the team by doing many little things you need at least a few guys on the floor to do – like set screens, pass the ball, make that extra pass, feed the post, help with ball movement and actually play with a bit more energy on defense. Here’s an example of why you shouldn’t be a stat scout: Goloman perhaps played his best game as a Bruin even though his stat sheet showed he went scoreless in 24 minutes, had just 3 rebounds and 0 blocks. He did have three assists and they were the type that showed vision and an instinct to make the extra pass. Powell was hurt, injuring his back, and had to sit out for a long stretch of the second half, and Goloman was the main person who filled in the minutes, and it wasn’t coincidental that UCLA surged during that time. This doesn’t mean that the team’s usual bad play is specifically and soley the fault of Powell, but it shows if you take one selfish player off the court and replace him with one team-oriented player it makes a marked difference.

Perhaps going forward, Goloman and Allen should get more of Hamilton’s minutes. At least you can see that Bryce is trying to change and adapt his game, even though he has no idea really how to do it. Powell has shown us in the past he can play within a team concept, and between the three of them he is the one that is most likely to be able to finish a drive-to-nowhere. Hamilton clearly isn’t capable of any of this. He was his same old self in this game. Talking about having a bad style of basketball developed in a player, Hamilton has been playing this way as long as we’ve been watching him, going back to his sophomore year in high school, so it’d be like trying to change his proverbial spots.

You have to give the players a good deal of credit for showing the heart and perseverance to stay in this game. They were down by 13, with 8:41 to go and you might have suspected that after the ugly five-game losing streak they were going to pull up the stakes. But there wasn’t a perceivable letdown in any of them. While you can’t say this team plays hard, because they absolutely show little effort on defense most of the time, you can say they are pretty resilient.

That resiliency and the slight shift in offensive approach makes us believe UCLA will have a better chance of beating some of the poorer teams in the conference, especially at Pauley Pavilion. Before this game we were skeptical. But don’t under-estimate how bad some of the teams are in the conference, and just how effective a little bit of good basketball can be.

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