UCLA lost to Washington 86-84 on Thursday night, with a beyond lethargic first 20 minutes putting UCLA in a 18-point halftime hole, which was quickly followed by UCLA playing with good enough effort over the last 15 minutes or so to lose by just two. That UCLA was able to play hard enough and well enough in the second half to actually take the lead at one point in the second half made the first half performance all the more inexplicable -- though inexplicable is probably not the right word at this point, since that game was the apotheosis of UCLA's approach to basketball this season under Steve Alford. Frustrating would probably be a better word than inexplicable.
That game was basically an indictment, not just of players and coaches, but the whole concept of being a fan of a team, or perhaps just this particular team.
As a fan of a certain team, even if you're of the more intellectually honest variety of fan, you're inherently gullible -- you talk about matchups and tactics and strategy and athletic personnel going into a particular game or season because you accept as a given, perhaps naively, that the team you follow will play hard enough and focused enough that those things will actually matter. That UCLA not only can't consistently play hard or focused, but, in fact, consistently does not play hard or focused enough, eats at the very framework of why people follow a particular team, and sucks almost all of the fun out of the whole endeavor. Someone on Twitter last night responded to a person criticizing the attendance at Pauley Pavilion by saying the team was 12-8 (now 12-9). And while that's part of it, I don't think it's all of it. The reason why there were more empty seats than filled seats at Pauley last night for a must-win conference game in January is because fans have no idea if the team is going to play hard on any given night, and when a team doesn't play hard -- when a team doesn't seem to care a whole lot, night-in and night-out -- it's as joyless as watching a bunch of 10 year-olds forced to play a sport they hate.
UCLA's first half was arguably the worst, most lethargic half of basketball the Bruins have played this season, and that it's arguable -- that there are even other options to consider -- is stunning. We've harped on two big issues over the last two months with this team, offensive focus and defensive effort, and while it's hard to pick which was the bigger culprit in the first half deficit, offensive focus was pretty horrendous. UCLA had 12 turnovers in the first half, with Aaron Holiday and Gyorgy Goloman combining for an astounding eight in just those first twenty minutes. Tony Parker missed four point-blank shots and two full sets of free throws. The team appeared to have no real plan for breaking Washington's press, which started up at the 17:20 mark, beyond Holiday hopefully dribbling past it before it got set.
Defensively, the Bruins were a mess as well. On his second three-pointer that put Washington up 41-25 with a little over three minutes to go in the half, Marquese Chriss could have eaten a sandwich or found some time to meditate before shooting since not only was there no Bruin defender on him, there was no UCLA player who looked even remotely interested in running out to half-heartedly contest. Washington shot almost 50% from three in this game, and, while they had a couple of good bounces, most of the shots themselves were of the open-look, feet-set variety without much resistance from UCLA.
UCLA played a better second half, and nearly topped off the comeback before fading in the final minute, but ultimately just proved the theory that playing hard for a little over 15 minutes is not enough to beat a real team.
Holiday had a really tough time in the first half. UCLA put the ball in his hands more than it has in recent weeks, with Bryce Alford playing more off the ball, and Washington responded by pressing pretty soon after the game began. That threw Holiday off and forced two of his five first-half turnovers. In the second half, Holiday was much better, and was a big part of the comeback with his defense. The big thing with Holiday, and why he's just about the only consistently watchable part of this basketball team, is that he virtually always plays hard, and always looks like he cares about the outcome. Even when he doesn't have a good game, and Thursday was far from his best, he makes watching the game seem worthwhile with his effort.
Thomas Welsh was in foul trouble for much of the game, so he didn't make much of an impact. We did want to point out, from a positive perspective, that he was one of the few players getting back in transition against Washington early, which is a good thing to see from a 7-footer.
Isaac Hamilton's offensive game was once again very efficient and controlled, and he probably, again, should have seen the ball more in the first half. He and Alford were both pretty poor defensively in this one. Alford shot the ball well in the second half, but didn't do much offensively in the first half, and was a huge part of why the defense was so bad most of the game.
Prince Ali and Jonah Bolden both played more than they have recently, with Ali getting 13 minutes (to Noah Allen's 3) and Bolden getting 26 minutes (to Goloman's 13). Bolden showed some playmaking ability in his minutes, and also rebounded well, while Ali looked a little more in-sync than he has in recent weeks. Goloman, for his part, played really poorly in his 13 minutes. Neither Goloman nor Bolden should probably be shooting threes at this point.
UCLA gave up eight first-half offensive rebounds, and was actually at a 35-30 rebounding disadvantage late in this game before foul trouble took out three of Washington's top bigs. The whole idea of playing with two centers in the starting lineup, Welsh and Parker, was that it would significantly improve interior defense and rebounding, and neither of those things was particularly good on Thursday.
It was an awful game to watch, on both sides, with a combined 25 turnovers in the first half. The officiating made it more awful, with a combined 54 fouls called, and five players fouling out. It would be hard to argue that there were two more abysmally officiated games in college basketball this year than the two games between UCLA and Washington.
As it stands, UCLA now has to be considered on the wrong side of the bubble. Ken Pom, for what it's worth, is now projecting a 16-15 record, and the Bruins would probably have to outperform that by a couple of wins, at least, to feel comfortable coming out of the regular season.
That said, losing a game like this basically makes all considerations about the NCAA Tournament seem a little silly. This was a must-win game by any standard -- so much of a must-win that, again, you would have accepted as a given that the Bruins would have played hard in it. That Alford cannot get this team to play hard with any consistency speaks to larger issues with the program than whether or not UCLA makes the tournament as an 11-seed this season.