UCLA Doesn't Improve Against USC

Mar. 5 -- Of course, it's always good to beat the Trojans, but the Bruins reverted to some of their old habits in their last game of the regular season...

After the Washington State game we actually conceded that the Cougars were a decent team. But sorry, folks, we have to revert back to calling UCLA’s opponent bad after watching the Bruins beat USC Wednesday, 85-74.

The Trojans are so bad that that score should be somewhat embarrassing to UCLA.

What should also be embarrassing was that USC out-shot UCLA, 55% to 49%, and almost out-rebounded them, 30-29.

We've talked about how this UCLA team has under-achieved all season, and this was a particularly under-achieving outing. USC is in 12th place in the Pac-12, and one of the worst teams in college basketball. And, they’re without their best player – their invaluable point guard – Jordan McLaughlin. This is a USC team that has absolutely nothing to play for, while UCLA is playing for an NCAA Tournament bid.

The outcome really was never in doubt, with UCLA staying anywhere from 9 to 15 points ahead of USC for a majority of the game, but USC hung around at that deficit, with UCLA unable to blow out the Trojans. This was a game that, given the talent on both sides, the homecourt advantage and the motivation, should have been a 25-point blow-out. It wasn’t, mostly because UCLA reverted to very old form Wednesday, looking like it did much earlier in the season when it didn’t necessarily play well but beat cupcakes.

Many have held up UCLA’s “improvement” from the beginning of the season until now. But if you held up this game next to any mediocre game UCLA played in November or December it would be interchangeable, and you wouldn’t detect much difference or improvement.

Just compare this game to the one these teams played at the Galen Center in January. In that game two months ago, UCLA held USC to 41% shooting, and out-rebounded them 41-20. And again, that was with the decided disadvantage of playing away from Pauley.

Perhaps the only difference is that UCLA’s post player Tony Parker was a beast on the offensive glass, with six of his seven rebounds coming on the offensive side of the court. With little resistance from some pretty poor USC post players, they were easy put-backs for Parker, who finished with 22 points.

Other than that, UCLA looked like it did circa-December.

On offense, the perimeter players shot too much. Bryce Alford, clearly feeling he was the hot hand after making a few shots, kept shooting. He finished with 23 points on 7 of 10 shooting. He actually started out playing smartly, shooting when he had open looks, with USC clearly obliging him on simple kick-outs. But then he reverted a bit to forced shots. Again, some went in, but as we’ve said repeatedly that’s not good for Bryce – it only reinforces a habit of taking a bad shot.

If you compared the Isaac Hamilton from the USC game to the Isaac Hamilton earlier in the season, it looked like he had made no progress throughout the season at all. Despite scoring 13 points with a flurry of garbage-time three-pointers, he played one of his worst games of the season. He took poor shots and forced passes and drives, and was lethargic on defense.

UCLA’s offensive bugaboo is an inability – or unwillingness – to get its post players involved in the offense. It’s been the issue all season and, not showing much improvement in this game, it was a factor again. Parker and Kevon Looney did get involved, mostly because of offensive rebounds (Looney had 5 of his own). But Parker wasn’t fed in the post much, and Looney was used, again, primarily as a screener. Many BROs on the message board have pointed out that it’s perturbing that one of the most talented players in the league and probably a Lottery pick is relegated in UCLA’s offense to predominantly setting screens. Again, it’s exactly what UCLA did earlier in the season.

Norman Powell, who had been blossoming in recent weeks, looked more like old Norman Powell. His forays into the lane weren’t nearly as productive as they have been recently, looking more like the ill-fated ones we saw earlier in the season.

Defensively, there’s no other way to describe it: This was a bad defensive performance for UCLA. UCLA had some of the same issues it showed against Washington State and earlier in the season – laziness in getting back in transition and then some really poor interior defense against USC’s halfcourt offense. USC, which isn’t a good passing team, especially without McLaughlin, was cutting up UCLA’s man or zone defense with some nice interior cuts and passing. Katin Reinhardt, USC’s greenlit shooter, had so many open looks in semi-transition, and then in the halfcourt he just needed a little ball movement and a screen to get an open look. He finished with 22 easy, relatively uncontested points.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this game was something that really wasn’t a reversion for UCLA, and that was generally a mediocre rebounding effort. Early on in the game, UCLA dominated the boards, and jumped out to a sizeable lead and looked like they were going to blow out the Trojans. Parker and Looney were getting easy baskets off offensive rebounds. But USC then started putting in some effort in rebounding, and the Trojans then stayed relatively close. As rebounding went so did this game. Earlier in the season, even when UCLA didn’t necessarily play well to beat a cupcake it usually rebounded well, but it’s a disturbing trend that now, late in the season, UCLA didn’t rebound as well against cupcake USC, or Washington State, the worst rebounding team in the conference. Looney finished with 13 boards, and Parker had 7, but the team rebounding was lacking, with the perimeter players too pre-occcupied with getting out to run than being around to get a defensive rebound. Perhaps it was a tactical choice, with the feeling being that UCLA’s frontline could easily dominate USC’s on the glass and that UCLA wanted to get some easy baskets in transition. But the way it actually translated into the game was to help USC’s rebounding, which really was the primary factor that kept the Trojans from getting blown out.

It was good to see and hear a sizeable Pauley Pavilion crowd, for UCLA’s last home game of the season, against its arch-rival USC, and for Powell’s last home game as a Bruin. So, all of the accompanying, ancillary elements of a basketball program were there Wednesday, except for the product on the court -- a product that, if you go by this game, hasn’t improved much since the beginning of the season.

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