Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice…
The UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team blew a huge opportunity to solidify some things this past weekend when they gave a really poor effort in losing to a very, very beatable Oregon Duck team. That means that for the remainder of the season the Bruins will be teetering on the proverbial NCAA Tournament Bubble, short of a big winning or losing streak. While I posted earlier this week that there was something inherently wrong with having to discuss UCLA simply making the NCAAs in late January for the second year in a row, that commentary is for another time and place. The reality is that on the Bubble is firmly where the Bruins find themselves today.
If the Bruins want to get into the Big Dance then the first thing that has to happen is the Bruins need to hold serve at home for the remainder of the season. That starts with this week’s games against the Washington schools. The Bruins host the tied-for-first-place Huskies of Washington on Thursday night (7 PM PST, Fox Sports 1).
Surely UCLA fans clearly remember the “lost” weekend in Washington to open the Pac 12 slate four short weeks ago. The Bruins blew a chance at a nice win by losing to UDub in double-overtime, 96-93. The Bruins followed that disappointment up with a loss at Wazzu two nights later. The Cougars were comfortable all night. The Bruins were putrid. Along with the recent game in Oregon, it was the worst of the “bad Bruins” that we’ve seen this season.
Both losses were easily attributable to UCLA’s lack of effort and focus. Now that the Bruins are home in the friendly confines of Pauley Pavilion, will the focus and intensity return? That’s been the real question all year, hasn’t it?
The Huskies come into the game surprisingly tied for first place in the Pac 12, but even should they beat the Bruins, that shouldn’t last too much longer. From a metrics standpoint the Huskies are hovering near the bottom of the conference with Washington State. Still, because of Washington’s athleticism and UCLA’s issue with athletic teams (save Kentucky), a UCLA victory is far from a sure thing.
While Washington may be athletic, the Huskies aren’t especially good. By that I mean that they are collectively raw, tend to play out of control and often make questionable decisions on both ends of the floor. However, they do play hard.
The key to Washington’s victory over UCLA earlier in January was UCLA’s inability to take care of the ball. The Bruins, who won the rebounding battle, had 25 turnovers, which is terrible. Quite frankly, if UCLA had only turned it over 20 times in that game, which would still have been really bad, the Bruins would have won in regulation.
So, the keys to the game are intensity and focus on the part of the Bruins, as well as limiting turnovers, which is really a product of good intensity and focus. To Coach Alford’s credit, he seemed to recognize this clearly, especially the turnover issue, in his video interview from Tuesday.
Because the first game with Washington was only a few weeks ago, there’s really been no change in both approach or in personnel for Lorenzo Romar’s Huskies. Washington’s starters include three players who will man the wing and guard positions, starting with senior Andrew Andrews (6’2” 200 lbs.). Andrews leads the Husky offense and is clearly their best offensive threat. He had 35 points when the teams first met, but that could be misleading in that he was 17-19 from the free throw line. He continues to be a dangerous three-point shooter, hitting 40% on a high volume of shots.
The other two wings, freshmen Dejounte Murray (6’4” 170 lbs.) and Matisse Thybulle (6’5” 195 lbs.) present a real match-up issue for the Bruins. That’s because UCLA’s Bryce Alford will probably have to guard one of them, assuming Aaron Holiday guards Andrews. Murray is much more of a slasher and athlete with a poor long distance shooting percentage. Thybulle is more of the “lunch pail” player, but is also a much better outside shooter. However, Murray has consistently been the second best player on the roster this season, especially when looking at rebounding (he leads the team at 6.4 RPG) and defense. Thybulle has often been a bit of an afterthought. Interestingly in the first meeting, Murray had a bad offensive game (5-15 from the floor) while Thybulle had arguably his best offensive game of the year (13 points including some timely ‘3’s).
Much will depend on Coach Alford’s positioning of Bryce on the defensive end so as to have him exploited as little as possible. Until his heroic three-point shooting at the end of regulation and in overtime, Bryce had a horrible shooting day in Seattle. His plus/minus rating before the late game rush was horrible and he was probably, along with Tony Parker (who was 3-14 from the floor), the reason why things went poorly for so long in that particular game. Romar is going to have whoever is being guarded by Bryce be the first option on offense until Coach Alford adjusts. It will be interesting to see, if there comes a point when UCLA slows or shuts down Washington for several possessions in a row, who is on the floor for the Bruins.
Junior forward Malik Dime (6’9” 220 lbs.) had a spectacular day against the Bruins. He scored 15 points (after averaging less than 7 PPG at the time) had 7 boards and although only credited with a single block, altered numerous Bruins attempts in the lane. It can be easily argued that he was one of the two primary reasons why Parker had such a bad day (the other being Parker’s apparent lack of focus). It was not a coincidence that UCLA began scoring at will late after Dime fouled out. Chances are Dime won’t have quite the impact he had in Seattle.
That’s a nice segue to the foul issue and how it negatively affected both teams in Seattle. It was one of the worst officiated games in recent Pac 12 memory, and that’s saying something. If you remember, the Huskies started out very poorly and UCLA built a double-digit lead. That lead virtually disappeared as the officials proceeded to call foul after foul on the UCLA bigs, many of which were questionable. Parker, Thomas Welsh, Alex Olesinski and Jonah Bolden all had at least 2 fouls by the half. The fact that Coach Alford had to go to Ikenna Okwarabizie just shows how crazy the officiating was. There were 64 fouls called. There were 90 total free throw attempts. The officiating absolutely impacted the game’s flow and, I would argue, the outcome.
Chances are there won’t be so many fouls called on Thursday night.
The remainder of the Husky front line consists of Noah Dickerson (6’8” 235 lbs.) and Marquese Chriss (6’9” 225 lbs.). Dickerson is a role player and didn’t do much in the first encounter between the Bruins and Huskies. In fact, he seemed overmatched, putting up a goose egg in the scoring column and fouling out in 29 minutes. He did have 10 rebounds which led the team.
Chriss is another story entirely. He is arguably the best athlete on the team and, as Greg Hicks wrote earlier on Wednesday, he is a future NBA player. His play so far this season has been indicative of a kid thinking too much. When the game slows down for him and the proverbial lightbulb goes on, he’ll be scary good. He was also less than stellar in the first encounter with the Bruins, going for 6 and 5 in 24 minutes. He is still a match-up nightmare unless Jonah Bolden can come out of his shell. With all due respect to Coach Alford, there isn’t another Bruin on the roster, including Gyorgy Goloman, who can guard Chriss when he is on his game.
Besides Dime coming off the bench, the Bruins will need to worry about freshman guard David Crisp (6’0” 190 lbs.) who is strictly a shooter. He didn’t shoot well in Seattle, far below what his averages are currently, but he hit two big three-point shots when the game was in doubt late and in the overtime sessions.
The first game in Seattle was not pretty. The Bruins shot 38% for the game while the Huskies shot 36%. The key was that in the overtimes UCLA stayed right around that 38% mark (it was a bit lower) while Washington shot up to 47%. The loss of Aaron Holiday to fouls really hurt the Bruins as their defense fell apart in the extra time.
But the key was the turnovers. Washington wasn’t great with the ball, turning it over 17 times, but that paled in comparison to UCLA’s 25. Those kind of turnover numbers are what you see in bad small-school girls high school basketball, not high-major NCAA basketball.
Issac Hamilton had 1 turnover and 5 assists that game. Aaron Holiday had only 1 assist to go with 3 turnovers but he was still in the middle of the mid-season funk that engulfed him from mid-December until mid-January.
Bryce Alford had 1 assist…and 7 turnovers. He shot 5-21 (that’s less than 24% from the floor for those keeping track), including 3-10 from distance and two of those three-pointers came at the end of regulation and the first overtime extending the games. To his credit, he was 17-18 from the free throw line, which is not an easy thing to do in a hostile arena.
Bryce scored 30 points that night, but the two guys he defended most of the night combined for 48. The Bruins lost by 3.
UCLA tends to play better at home, with more focus. While Bryce has had some really bad moments this season, especially on defense, nothing was as bad as the game in Seattle. It was the worst 30-point performance I’ve ever seen. He will still have defensive issues and still take some ill-advised shots, but he’d have to work very, very hard to be as bad as he was in Seattle. Aaron Holiday is quietly becoming one of the best 5-8 players in the Pac 12 and Isaac Hamilton has been solid this season. Those things should continue.
The point is that many things went wrong, and in some cases badly wrong for the Bruins in Seattle. This included the officiating. Yet, the Bruins only lost by 3 points.
Washington has tended to play much less effectively away from Seattle and this season seems to bear that out. While the Huskies beat ASU in Tempe, the Sun Devils were playing far above their talent level. UDub was boat-raced two nights before in Tucson by the Wildcats, who were missing Allonzo Trier.
The officiating can’t be as bad as it was in Seattle.
Bryce can’t be as bad as he was in Seattle.
Tony Parker should be more engaged because it’s a home game.
Aaron Holiday and Isaac Hamilton are playing much better than when the Bruins played in Seattle.
Still, even if these things all go pear-shaped on the Bruins, UCLA can ensure victory by doing one, simple thing…