USC No Match For Bruins

Jan. 15 -- UCLA won relatively easily at the Galen Center Wednesday against USC but, in terms of the overall development of the team, it was a mixed bag for the Bruins...

UCLA played well in spurts Wednesday night at the Galen Center and that was enough for the Bruins to come away with an 83-66 win over USC.

The margin of victory was due primarily to the Bruins having a huge 41-20 edge in rebounding, strong overall games from Tony Parker, Kevon Looney and Norman Powell and the fact that, on this night, Bryce Alford shot the ball well even as he was taking some bad shots.

We’ve written a few times that this team probably isn’t going to have a great won/loss record and the real measure of progress, or lack thereof, is in how much of a foundation is being laid for the future. Are solid defensive and offensive principles being installed? Do you see signs of players improving with fundamentals and decision-making? Is the team playing hard consistently and playing unselfishly? Those are the kinds of questions we’re asking ourselves when we watch the games and, in those terms, this game was a mixed bag.

The Bruins are making a slightly better effort to play inside/out than they were two weeks ago. However, in this game, they still didn’t do it nearly enough. On a night when the Trojans had no answer for the Bruin big men, the guards were still taking a lot of shots. Prior to the game, I decided to count the bad shots for each player. My final tally for the game was Alford with eight bad shots, Isaac Hamilton with three, Powell with three and Looney with two. Of course, just because a shot goes in doesn’t make it a good shot. Time and score, game situation, the particular type of shot for that player…all those things enter into the equation. Which is why Alford can end up 8-14 from the field, with Hamilton 1-7 from the field, and Bryce still has far more bad shots. Several of Hamilton’s misses were wide open shots that came within the flow of the offense and he just happened to miss them. However, you could argue that on this particular night, when the advantage inside was so pronounced, that perhaps Hamilton should have passed up a few to go inside to Parker (who seemed pretty much unstoppable).

Alford, on the other hand, took several forced shots and the fact that a couple went in doesn’t make them good shots. For some reason he still believes he’s a really good shooter, despite all evidence to the contrary. We now have a large enough sample size, after a year and a half, to look at his 37% from the field and say, “you’re not as good a shooter as you think you are – stop taking so many bad shots.” Bill Walton basically said that a number of times during the broadcast. You know it’s pretty obvious when even Bill -- in the midst of doing a broadcast about the Grateful Dead, Jack Ramsey and whatever else pops in his addled brain – has figured out that Alford shoots way too much. Again, it’s not always about whether they go in or not. On this night, he happened to make 8-14 from the field. But if they’re not good shots, then the inevitable 2-12 or 3-16 game is just around the corner.

It’s analogous to the poker player staying in a hand hoping for an inside straight, miraculously getting his card on the river and then saying “see, I made a good decision.” No, the decision was poor and you ended up with a fortunate result. Keep making those kinds of decisions and you’ll eventually go broke. If Bryce keeps taking the kinds of shots that lead to 37% from the field, the Bruins will lose more games than they should. From that standpoint, this game was not a good game for laying a solid foundation for the program. Unless Coach Alford starts actually coaching his son – and cuts out the bad shots and ridiculous drives to the baseline – the Bruins will have no chance to doing anything meaningful in the future. Because not only does that mean that Bryce won’t improve as a player, it also means that you will have a team full of resentful teammates.

The shot selection, though, wasn’t the main problem in the first half. With USC starting out slowly offensively, and UCLA dominating the glass, the Bruins should have had a big lead early. But the game stayed close due to a slew of Bruin turnovers – most of which were unforced. Alford, Gyorgy Golomon and Noah Allen had a bad stretch with some careless passes and that allowed USC to stay in the game early. While the Bruin defense was decent for the first ten minutes or so, it really was more about the ineptitude of the USC offense. When UCLA relaxed a bit, Katin Reinhardt got hot and Nikola Jovanovic started doing damage inside. This coincided with the Bruins going away from Parker inside and the game was tied at 25-25. Parker got into some foul trouble as well, but Thomas Welsh came off the bench to give the Bruins a lift. Golomon, also, had some nice moments and the Bruins managed a 36-31 lead at the half.

The start of the second half was similar to the Cal game. The Bruins had a 15-2 run to start the half and built a 51-33 lead. It was a combination of the Bruins going back inside to Parker and Looney, as well as the Trojans really beating themselves at times. The Trojans are a young team and they played like it, forcing some really bad shots and committing a few careless turnovers. The Bruins definitely took advantage of the mistakes, but it didn’t really feel like UCLA dominating so much as they just stopped beating themselves and their talent advantage took over. When it was 51-33, I wrote in my notes “ballgame.”

But while the Bruins were never really seriously threatened after that run, they also didn’t exactly play a smart, sound game the rest of the way. They relaxed defensively at times, the ball-handling got careless again and the shot selection deteriorated. The Trojans cut the lead down a few times to nine points, but they just don’t have enough offensive firepower to overcome that kind of deficit against a much more talented team. The Trojans had one good post player in Jovanovic, while the Bruins had three in Parker, Looney and Welsh. It was encouraging to see Welsh playing with confidence and knocking down a few shots. He will eventually be a very good player for UCLA down the road. In addition to the play of the big guys, the Bruins got a very good all-around game from Powell. He started out a bit slowly in the first half, and missed a couple questionable shots, but he dominated at times the rest of the way. He’s an NBA-level athlete and the Trojans had no answer for him in the open court or on a few drives off the wing.

Watching this game, it was obvious that UCLA is the much more talented team and some of the Bruins’ problems this season have been self-inflicted. If they play sound, smart basketball, take good shots, play inside/out, play team defense and play with focus and intensity, the Bruins are capable of beating most of the bad to mediocre opponents they face. In this game, they did enough of those things – if even only in spurts – to put away a bad USC team.

The Bruins now get a week off before heading to the Oregon schools and they would be well advised to heed the words of Walton near the end of the broadcast. “Unless these guards realize that you gotta keep your front court happy, that trip to Oregon could very well be a lost weekend like we had.” Wow, cogent analysis from Bill Walton. That’s borderline miraculous. Maybe this Bruin team will surprise us as well.

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