UCLA Turns In Another Road Dud

Feb. 19 -- The listless Bruins are beaten 68-66 by a less talented Arizona State team...

Given what we’ve seen from the UCLA basketball team this year, there was nothing surprising about the Bruins’ listless 68-66 loss to Arizona State on Wednesday.

As in the very disappointing road losses to Alabama, Colorado, and California, UCLA showed a poor approach to the game, with the guards jacking up far too many shots far too early in the shot clock. The defense was porous on several counts, with Bryce Alford having virtually no chance of staying in front of Tra Holder and no one, apparently, having any idea where Savon Goodman was on the court at any time. The last five minutes of the game featured some of the worst shot selection and decision-making we’ve seen from UCLA this year, and that’s really saying something.

In a season that has grown all too full of underwhelming road performances, this may have been the most disappointing. With realistic NCAA Tournament hopes on the line, UCLA turned in a complete dud of a performance, showing very little toughness, poise, intelligence, or intensity — especially through the final five minutes — against what is a pretty untalented Arizona State team.

Of course, UCLA did have a chance to win at the end, despite the team’s poor overall showing, but even on the final sequence UCLA played to its typical road form. Norman Powell somewhat inexplicably drove to the baseline, failed to throw up a shot, and instead passed out to Isaac Hamilton, who, it turned out, didn’t even get the shot off. That six-second sequence could have saved the game for UCLA if Powell had been a little quicker in his decision-making, but the momentum had been lost five minutes earlier.

With 5:47 to go, UCLA took a 57-54 lead after an Isaac Hamilton jumper. On the next three possessions, UCLA’s results were this: Hamilton three attempt early in the shot clock (missed), Powell three attempt early in the shot clock (missed), and Alford wild foray into the lane (turnover). In that same time period, ASU went on an 8-0 run, and with a 62-57 lead with 3:09 to go, the Sun Devils were in control the rest of the way.

One of the more inexplicable aspects of the game was the play of Tony Parker. Parker, who has been a big part of UCLA’s somewhat improved play through the conference season, attempted just one shot, often failed to find good post position, and got frustrated very easily, committing one obvious frustration foul after a missed jumper from Hamilton. Of course, part of that frustration no doubt stemmed from the inability, or disinclination, on the part of the guards to pass him the ball in the post. There were several times where Parker or Thomas Welsh were both open for entry passes — at one point, Welsh was so open that Bill Walton even emerged from his fugue state to note it — and the guards simply dribbled away. The few times where entry passes came in to either Welsh, Parker, or Kevon Looney, UCLA seemed to have a great deal of success. Given the balance of talent on this team, getting the ball inside in some form or another should be the concerted goal of virtually every offensive possession. That this is so clearly not the goal on most possessions is unfathomable.

Isaac Hamilton had an encouraging start to the game, looking energetic and involved, even scrapping for loose balls on the court. Toward the end of the first half and throughout most of the second half, though, he reverted to some of the worst aspects of his game, taking plays off on defense and then jacking up bad, early shots on the offensive end. He actually was a pretty good barometer for UCLA as a whole on Wednesday — while he was playing in a focused way, the Bruins climbed to their largest lead (33-23 in the first half) and when he began to play in a looser, more unfocused way, the lead quickly evaporated.

Of course, that’s not to lay the blame fully on Hamilton; this was a poor performance almost across the board. Bryce Alford played one of his worst games of the second half of the season, and really had difficulty dealing with the quickness of Tra Holder. Holder’s dribble penetration really got things going for Arizona State, and contributed quite a bit to Savon Goodman’s easy looks at the rim, since more often than not one of the bigs had to help on Holder’s penetration, and UCLA’s rotations just weren’t quick enough to deal with Goodman. Alford’s issues on the defensive end were exacerbated by his play on the offensive end, where he never seemed to find a rhythm, too often shooting the ball without making a real effort to get the ball inside. One of the biggest mis-steps for Alford at this level is the belief that he needs to be a volume scorer. Alford is now tied for first on the team in shot attempts, and is third to last among rotational players in field goal percentage, ahead of just Hamilton and Noah Allen. From a proportional perspective, he’s playing 56% more minutes than last year but shooting the ball 113% more.

About the only player you could reasonably say played well was Kevon Looney (with honorable mentions to Norman Powell and Thomas Welsh). Looney’s effort level has been consistently high all year, and he was one of the few players who showed good intensity for most of the game Wednesday. He’s developed as a three-point shooter throughout the year, and it’s by turns both exciting and frustrating to think about what he’d look like in an offensive system designed to play more to his strengths, or even if he was simply given a few more pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop opportunities per game.

This was obviously a critical game for UCLA’s NCAA Tournament hopes, and the fact that the team was so intermittently focused for what was effectively an elimination game is obviously not a good omen for the stretch run. Barring a miracle win on Saturday against Arizona, the Bruins will now have to rely on a home sweep through the final three games of the season and a very strong showing in the Pac-12 Tournament — possibly even winning the whole thing — to earn a bid. From what we’ve seen of this team this year, that’s almost certainly too much to ask.

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