Thanks to the inspired play of Norman Powell and Kevon Looney, UCLA defeated Oregon 72-63 Saturday afternoon at Pauley Pavilion.
For the Bruins this game was definitely a case of good news and bad news. Looking at the short-term picture, the good news was the Bruins won an important conference game and kept alive their hopes at an NCAA Tournament bid. However, looking at the longer term, the bad news was this wasn’t a good game in terms of building for the future. The season long issues of shaky offensive decisions and poor defensive effort were apparent once again. UCLA won this game because of the individual brilliance of Powell and Looney, as well as some nice contributions from Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh.
I’m sure some readers are saying at this point, “Damn, Greg, nine-point win in an important conference game – can’t we just be happy?” My response would be if your goal is to get to 19 wins this year, and possibly make the tournament, then go nuts and celebrate the win. If those are your goals, then this victory was a positive step. But if your goal is to compete for the conference championship next season, and possibly a Final Four appearance, then, I’m sorry, but this game was a step backwards in terms of those goals.
The reason it was a step backwards was the play of Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford. If the Bruins are to do anything meaningful next season, then those two players need to improve a great deal in terms of their approach to the game. Because the reality is the Bruin front court has been carrying those two guys all year. UCLA is now tied for third in the conference in spite of the play of Alford and Hamilton. With Hamilton and Alford going 2-15 from the field, along with playing very poor defense, the Ducks actually managed to stay in the game until the end. Oregon consistently got wide open shots in the first half as Hamilton and Alford were playing only token defense. Both of them stood around in the zone or lost their man several times, which led to wide open looks for the Ducks.
While both Alford and Hamilton have obvious physical limitations that give them low ceilings as players, the hope would be that they’d progress in terms of their approach to the game. But Alford continues to give no effort on defense far too often and his shot selection is only slightly better from earlier in the season. Hamilton, after a brief stretch where he seemed to make strides on defense, regressed in this game. He was slow on closeouts and a couple times he and Alford didn’t communicate well in matching up with Duck players on defense.
Alford went 2-10 from the field in a game where Parker was 3-4, Looney 7-11 and Powell 8-13. In conference play Alford is shooting 33% and Hamilton 32%, while Parker is shooting 51%, Looney 48% and Powell 45%. Yet Alford has taken 322 shots on the year, Powell 323, Hamilton 251, Looney 247 and Parker 188. What is wrong with this picture? I said it before, but someone needs to tell Alford and Hamilton “you guys aren’t as good as you think you are – please get the ball to the guys that are carrying this team.” The one positive to take from this game was that Hamilton did dish out seven assists. He was 0-5 from the field, but at least he didn’t continue to shoot on a day when his shot wasn’t dropping.
If Alford or Hamilton turn up as murder victims in the next couple months, the prime suspect is going to be Tony Parker. How many times does he have to post up and call for the ball before those two guys feed him? The best post-entry pass of the day was from Gyorgy Golomon to Thomas Welsh. In other games, it’s been Looney to Parker. How come the best post-entry passers on the team are the two power forwards? In this game, the Bruin big men had a huge size advantage and they rarely got any post touches. Parker and Welsh each had four shots and made three of them. Why are we watching the centers go stretches of five minutes where they don’t touch the ball? When Looney and Powell leave after this year, the two best players on the team next season will be Parker and Welsh. But if the Bruins guards can’t, or refuse, to pass them the ball, how successful do you think the team will be next season? That’s an example of why I’m saying this game was a step backwards in terms of the future. The Bruins have five more games remaining in the regular season and its unlikley they suddenly make feeding the post a priority – despite the fact that Hamilton and Alford shoot very low percentages.
It’s a real shame that Powell and Looney, both likely all-conference picks, haven’t had more help this season. They were both terrific again in this game, playing well at both ends and taking turns making big buckets that allowed the Bruins to eventually build a lead. Powell made several great individual plays, including the play where he split two defenders with a between-the-legs dribble and then an emphatic dunk (look for it be the #1 play on SportsCenter Saturday night). With no point guard on the roster to set him up for shots, Powell has been forced to adapt his game and start making more plays off the dribble. Against poor defensive teams like Oregon he can get away with dribbling from the perimeter and weaving his way to the basket. He did that several times in this game and either scored or broke down the Duck defense so that Oregon had to foul a Bruin big man.
Looney looked very comfortable from the perimeter in this game, knocking down a couple threes and also making a few plays off the dribble from around the elbow. It’s astonishing that Bryce Alford called him a “garbage type player,” as Looney clearly has the ability to make plays with the ball in his hands. The only problem is you have to actually give him the ball in order for that to happen, an event that has happened all too infrequently this season. Looney also had his usual great game on the boards as he grabbed 11 rebounds. The Bruins dominated the Duck on the glass by a 38-24 margin and that was a big key to the win.
Welsh only played 14 minutes, but he was very productive in those limited minutes as he finished with six points, four rebounds and two blocks to go with his usual solid interior defense. Golomon only played 11 minutes, but he made a contribution. In addition to the great post entry pass to Welsh, Golomon knocked down his only shot (a three), blocked a shot and also did a good job moving his feet to draw a charge.
So, depending on your perspective, this was either an important win for the Bruins or cause for concern. It certainly was enjoyable to watch the individual talents of Looney and Powell. And it’s exciting to think about where Welsh might be as a player in another year or two. But I’d feel a lot better about the win if it came as a result of progress in the areas that have hurt the Bruins so far this season. They weren’t focused early in the game and their defensive effort was really poor. They did do a better job ramping up the intensity and got some stops when Powell led them on the surge that decided the game. But this team isn’t talented enough to take breaks on defense for big chunks of the game or to go long stretches where they forget to get the ball to the best options on offense.
The Bruins head to Arizona next week for a critical road trip. With a very sketchy resume in terms of the NCAA Tournament, it’s important that they at least get a win at ASU. It’s very unlikely that they can upset the Wildcats at Arizona, but it’s not impossible. Arizona is a very good, not great, team. The game against the Sun Devils, though, is obviously the more likely win and the Bruins will need to be much more focused, ready to defend, and getting the ball to their best options, if they’re going to win in Tempe.
Powell & Looney Carry Bruins
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