SG Isaac Hamilton (USA Today)

UCLA vs. Washington State Preview

Jan. 30 -- UCLA is in desperate need of a win against the worst team in the conference today...

On Thursday night, the UCLA men’s basketball team produced a microcosm of not only their current season but also of the two-plus years of the Steve Alford coaching era. The Bruins lost to Washington 86-84 after being down by 18 at the half and by 20 early in the second half. The first half was about as “bad Bruins” as the team can get while the second half is proof positive that this year’s version of UCLA can play with and beat virtually any team in the country when playing with effort and focus.

There are so many ways to approach a game preview and yet in the 8-plus years I’ve been writing these I don’t remember things being so simple: it's all about effort and focus. When the Bruins bring those things, or, as David Woods likes to write, the “good” Bruins show up, UCLA wins; when the “bad” Bruins show up…well, just look at 8 of the 9 losses on the season (The Bruins weren’t bad against UNC. The Tar Heels were just better).

So, with that being the case, if the Bruins show up with intensity and focus on Saturday when they host Washington State then UCLA will win (4PM PST, Pac-12 Network). If not, then the Bruins will lose.

Okay, end of preview.

Alright, not really, but there truly isn’t much tactical to write about when every fan of UCLA basketball must know at this point intensity and focus are the issues with this team.

Each game that remains is of paramount importance to UCLA’s postseason chances to Dance. The Bruins have made things exceedingly difficult on themselves with the loss to UDub. UCLA is going to finish the first half of the conference schedule at 4-5 at best, meaning that in order to get to even 9-9 in the Pac-12, which would keep the Bruins squarely on the NCAA Bubble, the Bruins would have to go 5-4 with only four home games left and etc., etc., etc….

At this point the Bruins need to focus on the next game because things don’t look good right now in terms of the postseason. Currently, the Bruins have shown a nasty ability to come out flat for games. It isn’t that they are coming out flat all the time or they remain flat for an entire game. Just last week the Bruins showed up in Corvallis and won against Oregon State going away. The key moment in the Washington game was the beginning of the second half. Anyone that knows anything about coaching knows that the Bruin locker room probably had a high decibel level at the half. Had the Bruins come out and continued to lay an egg then the real issue would be how to handle a coach who clearly had lost the team.

Alford still may have lost the team but the fact that the players came out and played with the focus and intensity they did after the half dampens that concern, at least for the time being.

So the first thing to look for is how flat the Bruins are at the beginning of Saturday’s game and, if they are flat, how long that malaise lasts.

If the Bruins do come out flat then many will want to question the reason for that. Some have opined that the Bruins are using the lackadaisical play as a means of silent protest to perceived issues with the coaching staff. Others have questioned whether the Bruins simply don’t care. Frankly, the reason doesn’t matter because both fall at the feet of the head coach.

Now, let’s give credit when it’s due and Alford deserves it for much of his postgame presser. He immediately took the blame for the loss and indicated quite clearly that it was his responsibility to ensure that his team was emotionally ready to play. BROs have written about that with comments that basically read as, “Finally! He gets it!” That may be true, but the scarier proposition would be that Alford has gotten it for quite some time and simply doesn’t know how to fix it.  Or, if this is actually when he gets it,  two and a half years into his tenure.  

Coach Ernie Kent’s Wazzu squad has gone in a tailspin since the start of conference play. In fact, the only conference win the Cougars have was the first meeting with the Bruins. That game was probably UCLA’s worst of the year from beginning to end. Imagine the Washington game’s first half multiplied by 2. But to explain the talent difference between Wazzu and UDub, the Cougars only led the Bruins by 4 at the break in Pullman while UCLA was down 18 on its home floor to the Huskies.

That is about as clear an example as possible that any sort of effort on the part of the Bruins should result in a victory, and comfortably so.

From a scoring standpoint the Cougars are a three-man team: juniors Josh Hawkinson (6’10” 232 lbs.), Ike Iroegbu (6’2” 195 lbs.) and Que Johnson (6’5” 208 lbs.). Hawkinson and Johnson had big games against the Bruins in early January, combining for 34 points and 13 boards while shooting 13-25 from the field. Johnson has since been moved from the starting line-up in favor of senior Junior Longrus (6’7” 240 lbs.) in an effort to shake things up, get more scoring from the bench and more rebounding and defense in the starting line-up. Obviously, with Wazzu going o-fer since the UCLA win, the moves have yet to produce the desired results.

Iroegbu had an awful scoring game in Pullman and that was attributable to several factors, including Aaron Holiday's defense and the fact that the rest of the Cougars lit the Bruins up to the tune of over 55% shooting for the game. Iroegbu only attempted one shot. He wasn’t needed, and he is probably Wazzu’s most indispensable player.

To put things in perspective, juniors Renard Suggs (6’2” 188 lbs.), Conor Clifford (7’ 283 lbs.) and Charles Callison (6’ 183 lbs.) average about 22 PPG collectively on the season and scored 36 collectively against the Bruins. They average 47% from the field and that’s with Clifford’s 65%, but against the Bruins they shot a collective 14-24.

UCLA outrebounded the Cougars and forced more turnovers. But, the Bruins allowed the Cougars to shoot 55% from the floor, including 60% as a team in the second half.

The Bruins played with no fire, desire, intensity or focus…and see what happened.

The loss to Wazzu is currently the albatross around UCLA’s NCAA neck. Pull out that win and the loss to UDub isn’t that bad in totality.

So, if the Bruins give even 7-10 minutes of honest effort and focus in this one, then they probably win.

The one-game-at-a-time mentality is probably best for fans. If the Bruins come out and play much of the game as they did the second half against the Huskies, then that may be a sign the Bruins finally get it.

And the crazy thing is, there isn’t a team left on the schedule the Bruins can’t beat with the talent on the roster if they play with effort and focus.

Conversely, there isn’t a team the Bruins will beat if they play like they did in the first half Thursday night.

More than likely the Bruins will do just enough to win and allow a slight glimmer of hope moving forward. Then they’ll face a stiff run of USC, Arizona and ASU, all on the road, and hope will be extinguished.

So, the Bruins have the capacity to win all their remaining regular season games, and the same capacity to lose them all as well.

As with most things in life, the reality will probably be somewhere in between.

The Bruins will probably win Saturday, and if they don’t, won’t the next several weeks be fun?

Washington State 73

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