Bruins Let One Get Away

Feb. 8 -- UCLA was clearly the better team, but it allowed Cal to steal it in the end, 64-62...

UCLA lost a tough one against Cal Saturday, with the Bears pulling out the win in the last minute, 64-62.

It was not only a tough loss because of the way it happened, but for a couple of other reasons: UCLA was clearly the better team and generally out-played Cal for most of the game, and losing the game really puts UCLA’s chances of making the NCAA Tournament into the longshot column.

The Bruins were better in just about every phase of the game. It’s not necessarily saying much because Cal just simply isn’t a good team. It has very little offense and a mediocre defense, so that makes it a team that’s slightly worse than mediocre. And to make them even worse than that, their best player, Tyrone Wallace, played dreadfully – for the second time this season against the Bruins.

Cal actually led for most of this game, through the entire first half, but it was doing it with smoke and mirrors. UCLA clearly had an easier time making baskets while Cal struggled to get good looks with that bad offense, and it was only a matter of time until the Bruins overtook the Bears. UCLA took the lead a couple of minutes into the second half and, with the way both teams were playing, you thought it was the beginning of the end for Cal. To Cal’s credit, however, they hung in, kept up their energy and took advantage of some UCLA lapses and fatigue, and were close enough at the end to pull it out.

Perhaps if you wanted to point a finger at what was to blame for UCLA’s loss it wasn’t necessarily how it finished but how it started. Cal had that lead for most of the first half because it started the game with energy while UCLA was flat. This is the kind of thing that doesn’t happen to good teams – when you come off a big win, like the one at Stanford, you don’t then come out in the next game flat, and risk losing the advantage you gained by winning that big game. But that’s what the Bruins did, and it took them a good portion of the first half to get their energy level up, at least to the point it matched Cal’s. If UCLA had played with a little more consistent energy from the outset the Bruins would probably have won this game by double digits.

UCLA’s defense was pretty listless for the first 10 minutes or so. Isaac Hamilton had been the defensive spark in the last couple of games, and that had made a huge difference, but he went back to his lower-energy self in this one. UCLA then allowed Cal a few transition baskets, and a few wide-open looks, and the Bears have a few guys who can make those shots – and the Bruins found themselves still trailing by 10 with 7 ½ to go in the first.

From about that point through just about the 15-minute mark of the second half, UCLA played generally some good basketball and showed they clearly are the better and more talented team. The Bruins’ defense tightened up, its perimeter players trailed over the top of screens with energy and with UCLA’s superiority in the paint, the Bears couldn’t get into the lane, or if they did they were challenged well. UCLA’s biggest advantage in this game was its rebounding ability, and that surged during this stretch, with Cal unable to get a second shot on just about any offensive possession. Rebounding in the first half was pretty even, with UCLA having a slight advantage, but Cal seemingly went about 8 minutes without getting a rebound. With 10 minutes remaining, UCLA’s rebounding advantage was a whopping 34-20 (finishing 44-33). The game at this point was this: Cal’s offense was stagnant, with no one with any offensive punch inside, basically trying to use perimeter ball movement and ball screens to find a perimeter shooter for a slightly open look; while UCLA’s offense, for the most part, was making that extra pass to get very easy looks.

Yes, that’s right. UCLA’s offense actually looked like an offense for a fairly decent stretch in this game. Bryce Alford, to his credit, really looked to pass on a good number of UCLA possessions. When he and Kevon Looney did a pick and roll, Bryce looked for him instead of ignoring him. He found teammates on backdoor cuts. The ball kept going inside to Tony Parker, and it was Bryce feeding him. Many times the shots Bryce took were open looks, not forced, challenged ones. When UCLA’s run ended it wasn’t as much Alford who killed it but Hamilton and Norman Powell; after Bryce had executed the offense a couple of times and created opportunities for his teammates, there were a couple of possessions at about the 13-minute mark where both Hamilton and Powell then over-dominated the ball and drove to nowhere. It was frustrating to watch – when this team looked like it was finally understanding how to play basketball and Bryce Alford was starting to play with some sense – it was Hamilton and Powell reverting to AAU style.

There were still some moments from there on out when the offense executed well, when Bryce, Hamilton or Powell didn’t take a bad shot or drive, but those possessions were now more infrequent. It seems that those three, when it’s crunch time, revert to Hero Ball, rather than trusting the team concept – the one that got them there.

When UCLA was operating its offense, making an extra pass and looking to get the best look it could in the 35 seconds of the shot clock, the offense was, as I said, pretty good. Parker might have gotten the most offensive touches he’s ever had in one game, and it paid off, with UCLA’s center getting a game-high 20 points. UCLA ran the same set many times during the game, with the bigs setting baseline screens and the guards coming around them to curl and catch, with the post then pivoting to the block. It worked repeatedly, and it worked because many times the guard didn’t necessarily jack up a shot when he caught it but fed that pivoting post who was sealing his man. If done well, and done with the right intention, it exploited UCLA’s advantage in the post, with Parker and Looney so much more talented than Cal’s bigs.

What was interesting, too, was how good the offense looked when you actually took the ball out of a hands of the guards. Looney and Parker played a two-man game on a number of possessions and it was perhaps the prettiest offensive basketball UCLA had played all season. On one in-bound play, Parker made a beautiful pass to Looney for a dunk, and at that point, at about 3 minutes into the second half, you thought the Bruins were going to pull away.

But they didn’t. UCLA’s guard then took turns playing individually too much, and UCLA clearly got fatigued. Combining that with going to a zone allowed Cal some open perimeter looks because of bad defensive rotations and close-outs and not having that quickness-to-the-ball in its rebounding.

You can use fatigue as an excuse, but at this point, when you only have 7 players, it’s not as much an excuse as a valid reason for why the team could potentially trail off the rest of the season. The state of personnel on the team wasn’t thrust upon this staff, it created it, so it is directly responsible for it. They’re responsible for the effect fatigue will have on players in the last third of the season when they’ve been playing too many minutes and are collecting injuries.

Bryce had an interesting game. He probably looked to pass more in this one than in any road game of his career. That mentality was a huge factor in UCLA out-playing Cal during that run from the end of the first half and into the second. Then, when Hamilton and Powell took a couple of bad shots/drives, Bryce didn’t revert himself. His next couple of shots were actually good ones. But when Bryce makes a shot –whether it’s a good one or not – he then clearly gets it in his head that he’s “hot” and needs to take another, rather than still letting the offense come to him and to wait for another good shot. So often when Bryce makes a shot he then follows it up with a bad shot, and that again happened against Cal. It’s one of the main elements of Bryce’a game that makes it a negative sum game, because when he takes a bad shot and it leads to a basket on the other end, it completely negates the shot he made. In this instance, too, it gave Cal exactly what it needed – a good look. You take a bad outside shot it usually leads to a long rebound, which allows the opposing team to get an easier shot in transition. In a game like this, in which Cal couldn’t get a good look in their halfcourt offense, giving them this opportunity was the worst possible thing you could do. Without it, Cal’s offense would have been choked off.

Then there was the last play of the game. With UCLA trailing 64-62, with five seconds remaining, Cal’s Kingsley Okoroh missed the front end of a one-and-one, Looney go the rebound and outletted to Bryce. Bryce rushed the ball up the court and jacked a 30-footer – while Hamilton was under the basket unguarded, waving his arms to try to get Bryce’s attention.

On this team, despite little glimpses of team play, for the most part they are blinded by their individual selfishness, and it was never illustrated more than in the game’s last play.

Now, many fans will try to get some positive out of this game, and cite UCLA’s recent improved play as an indication that the team, and the program, are improving. But that’s only done because this team was so embarrassingly bad early in the season, and expectations were lowered considerably. The reality is that this UCLA team is probably the second-most talented in the conference behind Arizona (even Bill Walton recognizes that). It’s a NCAA Tournament-level team, no question. It has four McDonald's All-Americans. It’s been under-achieving all season, so just because it begins to play a little better doesn’t mean it should be heaped with credit. It needs to be stressed that this team has the talent that it should have been much better than it has been all season, and should be much better than it is right now.

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