The Bad-Effort Bruins showed up again Wednesday night against USC in the 89-75 loss, and it's certainly a big concern that UCLA can't muster an overall solid effort against a three-loss team in a rivalry game in front of a packed house, but perhaps the biggest worrying sign was that, even when UCLA had spurts of good energy and effort in this one, the Trojans still looked like a significantly more athletic, and perhaps more talented team.
Let that sink in for a moment. USC, which is fresh off of a season where it won all of three conference games, looks like a significantly more athletic team than UCLA. and the Trojans looked that way, it has to be said, largely because of local guys UCLA missed on, or didn't recruit early or hard enough -- or at all. It's not hard to envision a world where Jordan McLaughlin, Elijah Stewart, Chimezie Metu, and even Bennie Boatwright would all be Bruins.
UCLA was down by double-digits for virtually all but the first ten minutes of the game. USC shot almost 50% from three, and it could have been far worse given how open the Trojans' looks were. UCLA's perimeter defense and transition defense were both abysmal on Wednesday, with Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton in particular looking slow and disinterested closing out on shooters. If it hadn't been for some significant USC foul trouble in the second half, it's not hard to imagine this game being a 20+ point blowout.
Metu played a spectacular game, on both ends of the floor, and his first half was dominant. He only had one block on the night, but he affected what seemed like a dozen shots, constantly forcing UCLA to take off-balance shots near the hoop. He also hit the glass really well, leading USC with four offensive rebounds. UCLA did a really poor job rebounding in the first half, collecting 17 rebounds to USC's 28, and a big part of that was Metu just being more active and outworking the UCLA front-line on the interior.
UCLA was very cold shooting the ball to start the game, but the Bruins' offense was kind of a red herring in this one. Yes, if UCLA had shot better in the first half perhaps the deficit would have only been ten points or so at halftime, but UCLA shot the ball fine in the second half and still only gained back four points off the half time deficit. The defense was just atrocious all game, and UCLA's effort simply wasn't there consistently enough to earn a win, no matter how well the Bruins shot the ball. UCLA finished a pretty respectable 44.3% from the field after shooting 32.4% at the half, so the Bruins were relatively hot, actually, in the second half.
You actually have to give some credit to Parker and Aaron Holiday, because without those two in the first ten minutes or so of the second half, there's no way this would have even been a competitive game down the stretch. Holiday, despite having a couple of poor examples in his upper class counterparts, brought good defensive effort for much of the game, and he helped to key a long UCLA run to start the second half. Parker, for his part, looked very energetic in the second half, perhaps more energized than he's looked all season. He helped to cause USC's foul trouble, and then went to work just dominating on the interior on offense. He scored 11 points in that first ten minutes of the half and finished with 19 second-half points.
There was actually a sequence where the game looked like it might end up fairly close, when UCLA was down 78-69, but had just worked the ball into the post on three straight possessions for three made baskets, cutting the USC lead from 15 to 9. On the ensuing UCLA possession, Alford, instead of again working the ball into the post, took a questionable three up top, which led to a three on the other end for McLaughlin, which pushed the lead back to 12, and then, on the next UCLA possession, Alford again took it upon himself to make a wild attempt at a layup and missed it. At that point, it seemed like USC kind of stabilized after having a shaky few minutes and the window closed on UCLA's opportunity to get back in the game.
Hamilton and Alford combined to shoot 8 of 26 in this one, with each going 4 of 13, and they both seemed to have trouble getting good looks against the at times tenacious USC defenders. Their defensive effort was pretty bad all game, but Hamilton, for his part, did manage to rebound at least, and was two assists away from a triple-double. He did have five turnovers, though, as the athleticism of USC seemed to cause him issues. Alford took a few bad shots down the stretch and didn't seem too interested in defending all game.
Thomas Welsh probably didn't play physically enough on either offense or defense in this one to mitigate the athletic disadvantage he had against USC's posts. Parker kind of got the idea in the second half, that he needed to just play through the USC bigs and force them to foul, but Welsh didn't seem to have that same mentality in this one. He finished with 16 points, and seemed to find the stroke on his jumper again in the second half, but he didn't do a great job of protecting the paint in this one, with USC finishing the game with a rebounding advantage, and with Metu, who wasn't exactly an offensive powerhouse coming in, finishing with 21 points.
Gyorgy Goloman made his return to the court, and it wasn't a great couple of minutes. He quickly got whistled for two fouls and just looked a step slow. Obviously, it will take some time for him to get reacclimated to playing at full speed. Prince Ali looked out of control on offense, and Jonah Bolden was largely ineffective after playing very well recently.
UCLA made the curious decision to zone for a stretch in the first half when Bolden came in, and it was strange only because USC is probably the best three-point shooting team UCLA has played this year. The Bruins' three-point defense isn't good at any time, but it's especially rough in zone.
So, now UCLA desperately needs to right the ship, yet again. After an encouraging home sweep over the Arizona schools, UCLA laid another egg against USC, and now the Bruins get a week off before heading on the road to Oregon, which should be a very tough road trip. While it's perhaps not a must-sweep for the Bruins, it's absolutely a must-not-get-swept, and that'll be a tall order given this team's inability to sustain effort for more than a two-game stretch.