A few weeks ago, when we were assessing the final six games of the season, the calculation was that the Bruins would need to finish something like 5-1 to secure an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament. That looked difficult, but perhaps not impossible, with home games against the Mountain schools and the Oregon schools sandwiched around a road trip to the Bay Area.
Now, after losing 76-68 to Oregon on Wednesday night, the Bruins are 1-4 over that stretch, have fallen to an overall .500 record at 15-15, and are in real danger of ending this, Steve Alford's third season at UCLA, with a losing record. Any slim hopes of an NCAA Tournament bid rest entirely on the team's ability to win the Pac-12 Tournament.
The game against Oregon was about what you would have thought: UCLA played reasonably hard and well for a good chunk of the game, but Oregon's athletic advantage and ability to simply play harder and better down the stretch eventually proved to be too much. UCLA hasn't had too much trouble getting up for games against top ten teams this year, and Wednesday was no major exception. The Bruins certainly didn't play as hard as they did against Kentucky, or as hard as they did against Arizona, but this was still orders of magnitude better than the effort we've seen in the last couple of weeks.
But it didn't and doesn't matter. It didn't matter because Oregon is simply a much better team that presents so many matchup issues for UCLA that it would have even been understandable preseason to predict that the Bruins would be swept. And it doesn't matter because we already know all we need to know about this team: it will play hard when it's a big game situation, and it will play lethargically and with poor focus when it's not.
UCLA trotted out a zone defense for most of this game, and it worked like you would anticipate it would, with Oregon struggling to generate consistent offense against it for much of the game. In the second half, the Ducks started to go over the top a little bit more, and moved the ball a lot quicker, which allowed some easier baskets, but it still wasn't some sort of offensive explosion. Early on, Tyler Dorsey hit some open threes against the zone, but other than that, it worked pretty well to limit Oregon in the first half especially.
If there were tactical issues in this game, they were largely on the offensive end. Tony Parker was clearly very engaged, at least offensively, on Wednesday night, but despite making 80% of his shots, he was only the third-leading shot taker for the Bruins, behind Bryce Alford (who was 6 of 14) and Isaac Hamilton (who was 8 of 19). Parker really should have seen the ball more, and Thomas Welsh, when he was in, should have had the ball more as well. Welsh had just three shots in the game, and there was one point in the second half where Alford didn't pass the ball into Welsh when he was guarded by a player nine inches shorter than him.
Alford and Hamilton both fell into some chucking patterns at various points in the game. Look at the first three possessions: Parker scores easily on the first two trips down the court and is clearly in a rhythm. On the next possession, Alford dribble down the court, doesn't pass to anyone, and takes a contested three with 20+ seconds left on the shot clock from up top that misses. That should, full stop, not be an acceptable offensive possession for UCLA. At this point, with absolutely zero to play for in the regular season, the UCLA coaching staff should use the final game as a teaching moment, and use the bench to show why those sorts of possessions are unacceptable.
UCLA lost control of the game in the second half when the Bruins were up 48-41 and suddenly Oregon's athletic advantage became obvious. UCLA's post defense during this stretch was also poor, but largely, Oregon just started to play like it's capable of playing, and the Ducks quickly turned a 7-point deficit into a five-point advantage over the next several minutes.
The Bruins have one more regular season game left, a home matchup with Oregon State this weekend. Ken Pomeroy puts the Bruins as 65% favorites to win that game, which would stave off a losing record for UCLA. The Bruins are now 6-11 in conference this season, which marks the first time UCLA has lost 11 conference games since Ben Howland's first year, when he inherited a complete mess from Steve Lavin. If UCLA loses to Oregon State this weekend, that'll give the Bruins 12 conference losses, which would be the most for UCLA since Lavin's last year, when he was fired.
At this point, as morbid as it is, the remainder of this season is really about Steve Alford and his job status. Right now, we still wouldn't anticipate that UCLA makes a move this year, but if the season ends poorly enough, with a bad loss to Oregon State and then a one-and-out performance in the Pac-12 Tournament, there's going to be a good deal more pressure. Even discounting the possibility of Alford being let go this year, given the way this season has gone, it's certainly hard to envision a scenario where Alford isn't on the hot seat heading into next season. Every win at this point is critical for him in reducing a little bit of that heat.