UCLA Exposed on the Road

Jan. 23 -- The Bruins revert to their selfish road ways in losing to Oregon State in Corvallis, 66-55...

A great basketball mind once said: “Playing on the road is like when someone close to you is dying: it shows your true character.”

That wasn’t John Wooden, it was the coach on my freshman high school basketball team. I can’t even remember his name, but I’ve always remembered those words.

Whether UCLA showed its true selves on the road against Oregon State or not, it certainly proved that the UCLA road team is definitely different than the UCLA home team, losing to the Beavers in pretty disappointing fashion, 66-55.

Every aspect of the Bruins that was prevalent in their five-game losing streak we saw again in Corvallis. It’s not coincidental that four of the five losses in that streak were on the road.

Admittedly, Gill Coliseum is a tough place to play. UCLA has lost four in a row in that building.

And admittedly, UCLA was without Tony Parker, its starting center.

What’s so disappointing is that it’s clear the team and players really didn’t learn much from that five-game slide, and that the three-game home winning streak was an aberration. Like my freshman coach said, the real team is revealed on the road and the fantasy team plays in the safe confines of its home gym. At home the rims are familiar and forgiving, and the ball goes in more often, so it doesn’t make you have to rely on other things, like tactics, discipline, fundamentals, focus and intensity. The loss to Oregon State showed that there’s been little to no development on those fronts since UCLA left Salt Lake City.

On offense, the Bruins’ perimeter players jacked up too many bad shots and reverted to driving to nowhere, and neglected to get their posts touches. UCLA’s bigs – Kevon Looney, Thomas Welsh and Gyorgy Goloman – collectively went 9 for 19 (47%), while UCLA’s guards went 10 for 43 (23%). Even beyond the conversion percentage, the real atrocity here is that the bigs shot the ball just 19 times while the guards shot it 43 times. That means UCLA’s perimeter players took 70% of UCLA’s shots.

There’s another thing my freshman high school coach taught me: It’s easier to make a three-foot lay-up than it is 22-foot jumper. But that simple element of basketball is lost on this UCLA team.

It’s especially easier when you have a post player on the team like Looney who is far better than anyone on the floor. The only reason Looney scored 10 points was that he got 5 offensive rebounds, because it was just about the only way he was going to touch the ball. There were far too many offensive trips when Looney – that one-and-done Lottery pick – didn’t touch the ball unless he worked hard to get an offensive rebound.

On my high school freshman team we had one really good player, and my freshman coach told us to get him the ball every time down the floor.

It’s tough to try to psychologically analyze why UCLA’s perimeter players are so selfish and fail to understand the simple aspects of basketball. The BRO Message Boards spend a great deal of bandwidth doing it, but it’s kind of a waste of time. The takeaway is really that they continue to do it and haven’t learned.

Bryce Alford, despite leading the team with 18 points, had a poor game. There were so many moments in this game when he just plainly made bad decisions, mostly in choosing to shoot a contested shot over passing to an open teammate. It was really highlighted by crunch time in the second half. UCLA was making a run with Oregon State playing tight and not to lose in the last 10 minutes after being up by 17. Bryce had made a couple of contested threes, which he’ll do, and UCLA had cut it to 3. Bringing up the ball, on this critical possession, Bryce had both Norman Powell and Looney as better options but he called for a ball screen from Welsh, took a contested three and the momentum of a big run deflated like a New England Patriot’s football. Let’s even concede him some credit for hitting the first two three-pointers in that run, he should then be thinking, “Hey, since I made a couple of shots the OSU defense is now going to be keying on me so I need to draw defenders and dish off.”

Every perimeter player on my freshman high school team would have come to that conclusion.

Isaac Hamilton had his worst game as a Bruin, going 0 for 10, and 0 for 5 from three. Hamilton isn’t a great athlete, doesn’t have a great feel for the game, and is a poor defender, so if he’s not hitting his shots then he’s a true liability on the court.

Powell had some moments of note, finishing with 13 points. But just like Baron Davis said in the Pac-12 Network half-time analysis, Bryce’s insistence on taking bad shots and driving to nowhere hurts comraderie, and Powell is a product of comraderie-hurting. He clearly feels he needs to force shots if he’s going to get any, and that’s not good for Powell, who doesn’t have a great natural feel for good-shot-bad/shot anyway.

Powell gets a little bit of a pass for this game, however, because he was the only perimeter player who actually played a little defense. OSU’s Gary Payton took turns destroying UCLA’s perimeter players, even though it was mostly Hamilton. He exploited UCLA’s bad perimeter on-ball defense, used simple ball screens to cut loose a lazy UCLA defender and back-door cuts to catch a defender sleeping in the first half, scoring 15 points. UCLA gave him a couple of easy baskets off two consecutive lazy perimeter passes that he picked and converted. With just a couple of minutes before halftime Payton was tied with the entire UCLA team in scoring.

What’s shocking is that Payton scored just 3 points in the second half and Oregon State still won. The Beavers truly have one player who could play at UCLA in Payton. Heck, they have only six players, as a result of the suspension of Victor Robbins, who is their third leading scorer. They actually had to give minutes to a football player, Tanner Sanders, who is walking on to the program. And this team still out-scored UCLA in the second half, 37-36. Oregon State is clearly an offensively-challenged team, without anyone who can score in the post to speak of, and just average outside shooters. OSU took a vast majority of its shots from the perimeter, with even one of its bigs, 6-10 Olaf Schaftenaar (how many times in the last year has he gotten Frozen jokes?), shooting about 80% of his shots on the season from three. On the year they’re shooting just 35% from three, so this is an anemic offensive team, and they showed it, really, with very few offensive options.

UCLA getting out-scored was, yes, a matter of really poor defense, which we’ve conceded is the defensive status for the season. The way UCLA is going to beat teams, and its chance against OSU, was to out-score them, and the Beavers play tough defense. The challenge was to play a smart, disciplined offensive game, and not fall into what OSU wanted you to do. The Beavers’ 2-3 zone defense, first, tries to deny entry passes and then collapses on post players when they touch the ball, inviting opposing teams to beat them from the perimeter. But at the same time, OSU’s Coach Wayne Tinkle employs a great perimeter match-up defense. Out of the zone, his perimeter defenders still find the opposing shooters, and did so very well against UCLA. It’s designed to leave open the worst shooters on opposing teams, and entice them to shoot. For UCLA and its greenlight offense that’s like catnip. After UCLA tried in the first few minutes to get its posts touches, and Welsh converted, it then gave up for a majority of the game and settled mostly for outside shots.

Well, the team gave up but Goloman didn’t. The 6-10 Bruin freshman clearly has a very good feel for the game and looks to make the extra pass. He made a beautiful touch pass that showed some great vision. Goloman, too, has a good defensive feel, and is improving defensively. He stepped into a passing lane on the perimeter and took the ball the length of the court for a dunk, in what was the most impressive play for a Bruin in this game. Goloman was that guy that Oregon State left open, daring him to shoot, and he did, and made two clutch outside shots in the second half.

So, on one hand, you have a player in Goloman who makes the entire team better by playing team-oriented, is probably the best pure passer on the team, who hit a couple of threes and had a team-leading three steals in this game. On the other, you have Hamilton who went 0 for 10, has shown that his selfishness is comraderie-destroying and is a particularly poor perimeter defender. UCLA made its second-half run with Goloman on the floor and Hamilton on the bench. On a selfish team, inserting just one team-oriented player like Goloman can tip the scales. We asserted a few weeks ago that Goloman had earned a starting spot in Hamilton’s place, and this game proved it. If the worry is defense, well, really, at this point, does that really matter? You could make the case anyway that there isn’t a defensive drop-off with Goloman since Hamilton isn’t a good defender.

The difference for the remainder of the season will be whether this Bruin team can improve on the road. It has five remaining road games, and those games will probably make the difference between, say, an 18-13 or a 16-15 regular-season record. It will make the difference between a top-four seed in the Pac-12 Tournament or a lower seed, which exponentially increase the odds of advancing beyond the quarter finals.

But even beyond this season, it’s what the team and program are about. When it’s on the road and exposed for what it really is, will this team show that it’s about playing in an unselfish, team-oriented style or degrade into a selfish, comraderie-killing one? It’s not even about getting a win on the road that this team might not necessarily be favored to get, but about the program showing the world its true character.

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