UCLA Runs Out of Gas

Feb. 22 -- The stifling defense from Arizona was too much for UCLA in the 57-47 loss...

After a shockingly tough performance, UCLA eventually succumbed to Arizona’s defensive pressure Saturday night, eventually losing 57-47.

In many ways, it was a very surprising game. UCLA, in total, played hard on the defensive end most of the night, and actually won the matchup between starters pretty substantially. But if ever a game showed the true lack of depth on UCLA’s bench, especially compared to that of another elite high-major squad, it was this one. Despite outscoring Arizona’s starters 47-30, the Bruins lost in large part because they got nothing from their bench — in total, Arizona’s bench outscored UCLA’s 27-0.

It was a very, very strange game. If you took just the first six minutes of each half, it looked like a blowout — in UCLA’s favor. The Bruins rocketed out to a 7-0 lead in the first half through six or so minutes and then had a 17-0 run to start the second half. In large part that was due to Arizona’s starters, particularly Stanley Johnson, looking especially tight, forcing the issue and not playing with any kind of flow on the offensive end. You have to give credit, though, to the combinations of defenses that Steve Alford threw at the Wildcats and the defensive effort shown by Norman Powell especially.

Powell drew the assignment of Johnson for most of the night, and he did a tremendous job matching up with the bigger, taller wing. Though Johnson didn’t look like he was feeling it from the beginning, Powell certainly made the night more uncomfortable for him, using his physicality to make it difficult for Johnson to even get the ball in good position. Offensively, Powell came on in the second half after finding some trouble in the first half. In general, he played pretty well on both ends of the court, and was probably one of the few Bruins to do so.

UCLA had some real issues offensively against Arizona’s tough man-to-man defense. The Wildcats did a pretty good job of denying post entry passes, but UCLA also did a poor job of trying to work it into the post. As has been the case for far too many games this year, UCLA’s guards took too many shots and UCLA’s posts took too few. In total, UCLA’s posts took ten shots while UCLA’s guards took 32 — and only two by Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh.

Parker played a really poor game. Much like against Arizona State, he struggled to get into the flow at all, and got in significant foul trouble, fouling out in the second half. As Jay Bilas opined several times, Parker is a bit of a bellwether for UCLA, and his play was a pretty significant sign that UCLA was going to have a hard time winning the game. Again, though, UCLA’s guards did a pretty good job of taking Parker out of the game as well by not feeding him in the post and trying to get him in a rhythm early. Given how significant he is to UCLA’s success, you would think that it would be a prime focus at the beginning of games to get him involved and comfortable, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Bryce Alford was fairly hot on the offensive end, but was not particularly stifling on the defensive side. As Greg has said a few times, though, there are some real diminishing returns when he makes a bunch of off-balance, tough shots to start a game. While they go in sometimes, and it can carry UCLA, taking those kinds of shots can’t help the morale of the post players especially and, long-term, is probably not a good plan for success.

UCLA really hit its stride in the beginning of the second half when they started working a lot of two-man action with Alford and Kevon Looney, including a really nice pick-and-pop for a three by Looney. While we sort of get the intent of Coach Alford and Bryce Alford saying that Looney is a garbage man, in the sense that he’s an excellent offensive rebounder who can get a huge portion of his points off of misses, his relative value as a skilled offensive player has not been utilized fully this year. He’s now hitting 42% from three this year and is looking much more comfortable as a shooter. Even on drives, where he can be a little awkward looking since he still needs to tighten up his handle in close quarters, he’s been largely successful this year because he has great body control. If UCLA wants to make any kind of run this year, and use Looney’s talent to its fullest extent before he leaves for the NBA, it’d make sense to only increase the number of plays run for him.

We do have to mention the horrible officiating. Pac-12 refs are egregiously bad in both basketball and football, and it seems like they save their absolute worst performances for nationally televised games. Not even speaking from a UCLA perspective, it was an incredibly uneven game, with spurts of touch fouls followed by complete muggings near the basket that went uncalled. It’s a shame, because the game had the makings of a good one, but the sheer number of fouls made it somewhat unwatchable.

If this game had come in the beginning of the conference season, we’d probably say it was a pretty encouraging performance. UCLA’s defense wasn’t horrible, and offensively there were signs that the Bruins could execute pretty well in spurts against a very good defense. As it is, though, UCLA is running out of chances to make its case for the NCAA Tournament, and getting swept on this road trip essentially guarantees that UCLA will have to make a great deal of noise in the Pac-12 Tournament to earn a bid to the big one.

Now 16-12, and 8-7 in conference, UCLA absolutely needs to win out through the final three home games (not really a tall order, since this final stretch will come against three of the worst teams in the Pac-12 in Washington, Washington State, and USC). After that, though, it’s a little murky as to what needs to happen next. It’s a fairly soft bubble this year, and UCLA’s two wins against Stanford and one win against Utah look pretty good in terms of solid wins. But it’s decidedly hard to fathom a 19-13 or 20-13 UCLA team making the NCAA Tournament. If we had to guess, we’d say the minimum goal for the Bruins will have to be making the championship game against either Arizona or Utah, since another matchup with those teams will only help UCLA’s RPI. Obviously, winning the Pac-12 Tournament is the ideal, but if UCLA can snag two more wins in the tournament and earn another matchup with one of the elite Pac-12 teams, the Bruins would probably have a good shot come Selection Sunday.

Bruin Report Online Top Stories