Bruins Almost Lose It

Mar. 2 -- With an NCAA Tournament berth on the line, UCLA came close to letting it slip away with a poor effort Sunday against Washington State, but pulled out a win by riding the coattails of superhero Norman Powell...

UCLA pulled out a win against a decent Washington State team Sunday night, 72-67, to remain alive for an NCAA Tournament bid.

Yes, we said a decent WSU team. We know you’re tired of hearing us say that UCLA’s opponents are horrible and that’s a big factor why UCLA beat them. Well, the Cougars aren’t horrible – they have an okay amount of talent, they were fairly well coached Sunday and they came to Pauley Pavilion with some intensity even though they have nothing to play for except pride.

Combine all of those factors and that’s why WSU led for probably 33 of the 40 minutes and, for the most part, out-played the Bruins.

UCLA is more talented, however, and that level of talent combined with probably 5 minutes of playing decent defense in the second half was enough to beat the Cougars.

The main takeaway from this game: How can a team that’s playing for its post-season lives show so little effort on defense and in rebounding to the point it came very close to losing against an inferior team on its own court?

And the head-scratcher: Why was Isaac Hamilton given the defensive assignment against Washington State’s prolifie scorer, DaVonte Lacy?

That’s the key combination of the game. Those two factors allowed a scrappy and inspired Washington State team to almost beat the Bruins.

It’s mind-boggling that, for the majority of the season, UCLA didn’t prioritize putting the ball in the hands of Norman Powell. In this game – after 29 games – it finally did. He responded with a career high of 28 points and was almost unstoppable that you could make a case UCLA still didn’t get him the ball enough. Powell has developed his ability to drive and finish, combined with his size and athleticism, to the point that he’s one of the toughest Bruins to guard in recent memory. In the latter-half of the season, so many teams (well, pretty bad teams) have tried to do anything they could to limit Powell, but to no avail. On this homestand against the Washington schools, in two games he averaged 26 points and shot 65%, mostly because he’s so difficult to stop when driving to the rack. Washington State put Lacy on him for a while, used Junior Longrus as a designated defender against him, cheated over with a second defender for help, and for the most part he still couldn’t be stopped.

Again, it boggles the mind that, for the majority of the season, the UCLA staff opted to put the ball primarily in the hands of Bryce Alford as its primary scorer over Powell.

In this game, Powell still almost wasn’t enough to counteract UCLA’s slack energy on defense, and that had UCLA on the verge of losing this game late in the second half. Again, this is a team that is playing to stay alive in the NCAA Tournament, at home where it clearly is a much better team, playing against an opponent with nothing to play for, and they were getting out-played and out-hustled, and it wasn’t just a lack of defensive effort. The best statistical barometer of effort for a team in any game is rebounding. Washington State is not a good rebounding team, dead last in the Pac-12 in rebounding margin, but it out-rebounded UCLA – a good rebounding team – for most of the game. In the first half, Washington State had the rebounding edge, 19-13. Washington State was just going much harder after boards.

Even with Powell’s Herculean effort, UCLA was on the verge of losing this game and having their chance of an NCAA Tournament berth dashed. But then, once Powell took UCLA to the brink of pulling out the game, Tony Parker pretty much finished it off. In the last five minutes or so, Parker was the best player on the floor, grabbing some key offensive rebounds, wrestling a loose ball away after an errant pass, and basically being unstoppable in the block. Parker finished with a double-double, 15 and 10, in just 26 minutes, since he didn’t start due to being late to a meeting this week.

Then Hercules Powell provided the back-breaker with a big three-pointer with 1:35 left to lift UCLA to a lead of 65-59.

With Powell being the superhero, and Parker providing late-game heroics, the game turned in the second half, really, when UCLA actually decided to play a little defense for a handful of Washington State possessions. So much of UCLA’s defensive effort and performance were completely head-scratching throughout this game. While it’s not as easily quantifiable of a barometer as a rebounding stat, it’s not tough to see how much effort a team is putting in on defense – especially when it’s not. For most of this game, UCLA’s defensive effort was pretty poor. Washington State, as we said, is a decent team, but “decent” has become a low bar these days in college basketball, and WSU meets the qualification with essentially two good offensive players, Lacy and sophomore post Josh Hawkinson. Lacy is mostly a great perimeter scorer, able to get off a shot with very little space and is very adept at creating it. Hawkinson is mostly a face-up scorer, with a very good shooting touch, but after those two, WSU doesn’t really have any other great scoring dimensions.

A big indication of which team will win a game is where each team is getting their points from – either inside the paint or outside. At one point late in the second half, UCLA was leading Washington State in that category 36-5, but still the Bruins weren’t leading on the scoreboard. That was mostly because UCLA’s defense put in a very little effort to stop Lacy and Hawkinson, through a lack of intensity and some ineffective tactics. For the vast majority of the game, Isaac Hamilton was given the assignment of guarding Lacy, and it was vastly unsuccessful. Hamilton has had a few flashes this season when he’s played hard on defense, but this wasn’t one of them. Most of WSU’s offense is designed to get Lacy an open look, and Hamilton was slow in getting around screens and closing out, leaving Lacy open far too often. A great deal of the time it was just a matter of Hamilton absent-mindedly losing Lacy, sagging into the middle to inexplicably help on a drive by another Cougar and then losing track of Lacy when the ball was kicked out to him. With Lacy being their best scorer and doing so primarily on kick-outs, wouldn’t it be smart to stay with him? It’s both a coaching and player breakdown to allow this to happen so often – something that would be the #1 defensive priority of the game.

And then there’s the issue of Hamilton being the guy to guard Lacy. Once Hamilton was thoroughly torched, Steve Alford switched Powell to guard Lacy, and there was one defensive trip in the second half when Powell shut down Lacy, and that was a huge turning point in the game. It infused the UCLA defense with some energy, just enough to help to get a few stops, and it seemed to fatigue Lacy. The choice to wait until very late in the game, after Lacy thoroughly dismantled Hamilton, to switch Powell onto Lacy is a strange one. It’s been an on-going issue this entire season for Steve Alford, refusing to assign Powell to defend the opponent’s best scorer. Perhaps the intent is to keep Powell fresh on the offensive side, and the thought is that Hamilton, after showing those defensive flashes, is up to the task, but that’s just plainly a bad evaluation and coaching decision.

Another clear indication of whether a team is playing with effort and intensity is how well it gets back in transition on defense – and UCLA basically failed for a big enough portion of this game in this category. WSU established a lead midway through the first half mostly because it got some easy points in transition, getting Lacy and Hawkinson open looks before UCLA’s defense could get back and get set. Washington State’s coach Ernie Kent had a good game plan, obviously recognizing that he wouldn’t be able to convert enough offensive possessions in a halfcourt game, so he tried to get the Cougars some easy transition points. And amazingly, the uninspired Bruins obliged. It wasn’t just a matter of UCLA not getting back on defense but being slack in matching up in transition. Lacy and Hawkinson scored a good amount in transition because they found themselves in good defensive match-ups, which UCLA just haphazardly allowed.

One thing we did see as an improvement for UCLA in this game is that Hamilton and Bryce Alford didn’t revert to being the primary shooters late in the game. When UCLA pulled ahead with about 6 minutes remaining, and was clearly having an easier time of it offensively with Powell and Parker than WSU was on their offensive side of the floor, the UCLA guards showed a little more poise than they have previously this season. Well, again, our bar for “poise” is low: They didn’t jack up shots in crunch time is basically what we’re saying.

UCLA has, for the most part, under-achieved all season. It did it so very dramatically early in the season during the five-game losing streak and, even though it has rebounded a bit from that (mostly because the competition got easier), it still isn’t playing up to its talent level. It under-achieved in this game. While Washington State is a decent team, let’s be real: They’re 6-10 in a weak conference, and Sunday they were playing in an arena where they are 2-54 in their history – and they still came very close to winning the game. That happened because this UCLA team won’t play with consistent effort on both ends of the floor. You’d think that wouldn’t be an issue with so much on the line for the season, but you can only conclude that it’s an issue with the program since it’s an issue with the team.

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