UCLA lost to Oregon 86-72 on Saturday, and one of the few bits of solace that UCLA fans should take is that, hopefully, that performance was the nadir of UCLA's poor effort games this season. After all, the Bruins gave up 1.32 points per possession, certainly their worst mark of the season, so it really can't get worse than that.
It's actually getting a little frustrating to have to write the same things over and over again, but there isn't really a way to write these recaps that doesn't center around effort and focus. As the Bruins proved in the non-conference season, they can play with most teams when they're focused and play with good effort. As they've proved time and time again this season, they can also lose to basically anyone when they're not playing with effort and focus. It's really that simple. It's why playing hard is pretty much the baseline for any competent team in any sport.
That UCLA can't achieve that baseline with any sort of consistency is just baffling. It speaks to a leaderless team, poor motivation, and a general lack of caring.
As I wrote after the Oregon State game, Steve Alford has clearly decided to use the bench to motivate -- but only selectively. Prince Ali and Jonah Bolden were once again displaced in the rotation by Noah Allen and Gyorgy Goloman, and that was one of our concerns heading into this one, that the coaching staff would suddenly decide to ride with that change because it worked for one game. Allen and Goloman both played with good effort again, but Oregon outclassed them athletically in a way that Oregon State was not capable of doing.
In any case, that's not the kind of switch that's going to suddenly turn the fortunes of the season, swapping two bench players for two other bench players. The biggest issues in this game, from a focus and effort standpoint, were once again Bryce Alford and Tony Parker. Their defense was horrendous all game, and they tag-teamed for truly abysmal defense of a simple dribble handoff about three minutes into the game, a play that basically typified their focus and effort all game. Alford's man, Casey Benson, handed the ball off on the perimeter seemingly looking to reset the possession, but then Elgin Cook noticed that Alford had sagged off badly (hopping in place about ten feet from any Oregon player), while Parker thought the defense was switching, which left Cook with a wide-open lane to the hoop for a dunk. The key point is this: on that possession, neither Alford nor Parker were doing anything active. If Cook had passed it back to Benson on that play, Benson would have had a wide open three because Parker really wasn't guarding that spot anyway. The only way that possession would have ended well for UCLA is if Oregon had missed a wide open attempt, and that all too often seems to be UCLA's defensive plan.
Alford's shot selection was also a major issue. He forced a number of shots in this one that led directly to buckets on the other end for Oregon. He actually led the team in shots on a night where he made just three, which is, again, a big issue. Isaac Hamilton has been UCLA's most consistent offensive player through the last month and a half, and he took the fewest shots among starters with just eight. And while you might say Hamilton was in foul trouble in the first half, he finished playing 30 total minutes, more than enough to have more of an effect on this game if there had been any real effort to get him the ball.
So, UCLA has a senior in Parker and a junior point guard leader in Alford who give the most inconsistent effort and focus on the team. We've seen Parker get pulled for the lack of focus at times, and that's good to see, but we rarely see that sort of thing with Alford. In the first half, he got chewed out a bit on the sideline after a few possessions of poor defense, but he seemed to be on the bench as part of his normal rotation. He still finished with 35 minutes after playing two pretty poor games in terms of effort on this road trip.
This season probably isn't headed anywhere good as it is. UCLA has squandered the hopes it had of playing for seeding, and at this point, it's more a matter of not completely fumbling away an NCAA Tournament bid. Whichever way that goes, though, they're probably looking at no better than a middle seed in the Tournament, so the remaining point of this season should be to get this team in the shape it needs to be for next season, when there will be enough talent that a Final Four bid at least seems reasonable. That means benching starters when they are not playing hard, instilling some program discipline, and finding a way to force this team to play hard on defense.
It wasn't all bad on Saturday, though. The game saw the continued emergence of Aaron Holiday, who had his best game of the season and looked like the best athlete on the floor at times, against a team full of athletes. He took over the game for a stretch from about the 15-minute mark to the 13-minute mark in the second half, and helped to close the gap from 53-41 to 54-50 with a combination of great passes and drives to the hoop. About the most inexplicable thing that happened in the game, actually, was Holiday sitting for five straight minutes toward the end of the first half while Oregon extended its lead from three to nine. He was the one UCLA player who seemed to play hard for most of the game.
Hamilton, we should say, also played well and under control. Though he had some lapses at times, he was probably UCLA's second most engaged defender behind Holiday, at least among the starters. Offensively, he should have been more of a focus, as he was not only shooting well but facilitating well, with a couple of nifty assists to Thomas Welsh.
Interior play was a big issue for UCLA in this one. Yes, UCLA was at an athletic disadvantage inside, but the Bruins had a size advantage, and still Oregon finished with a 10-rebound advantage. The Ducks got an absurd 18 offensive rebounds, which speaks to, again, a lack of effort and focus. There was one play in the second half where Alford just simply didn't box out his man, and Parker didn't make any active effort to go get the ball, and the two simply watched as an Oregon player scooped up the ball and scored. Welsh was also pretty bad on the glass, and his effort level was at one of its lowest points of the season, which is a big concern, since he was one of the players giving the best effort at the beginning of the season. Parker had one of his bad games, where he looked unfocused, missed a few point-blank shots, and played lethargic defense.
UCLA now gets the Washington schools at home, and the Bruins were swept on the road against these two teams to open conference play. Of course, the Bruins are a different team at home, so it's probably reasonable to expect UCLA to hold serve against, by advanced stats metrics, the two worst teams in the conference. But if UCLA continues to play with this kind of effort, the Bruins can lose to absolutely anybody, absolutely anywhere.