UCLA's interminable regular season thankfully ended on Saturday, albeit with another bad loss, this time to Oregon State on Senior Day. In a season full of poor performances, this was one of the poorest, with UCLA giving a mediocre effort against a fairly untalented team without its second best player. With the loss, UCLA finishes the regular season 15-16, and with a matchup against USC coming on Wednesday, there's a very real possibility that the Bruins will finish the overall season two games below .500.
And, lest you are reading this years from now and think that this was simply a case where UCLA didn't have the talent to be any better this year, bear in mind that this same collection of parts beat Kentucky (currently No. 8 according to Kenpom), beat Arizona (currently No. 12 according to Kenpom), and went on the road to beat Gonzaga (currently a respectable No. 30 according to Kenpom). There is more than enough talent on this team to be far better than 10th in the Pac-12.
Watching Oregon State play against UCLA was instructive. The Beavers, while they had some nice pieces on the floor with Gary Payton II and Stephen Thompson Jr., are not as talented as the Bruins, but they played so much harder than UCLA, and with so much more purpose on the offensive end, that they equalized and overcame any talent differential.
It's hard to know the internal workings and dynamics of any team -- rarely can you assess things like whether a team has quit or not in some binary fashion -- but UCLA certainly had the look of a team that was playing out the string on Saturday. The effort came in spurts, but for large portions of the game, UCLA simply looked lethargic. Through the first three minutes, UCLA allowed Olaf Schaftenaar to get white hot from three, almost as if they hadn't a clue that Schaftenaar was one of the Beavers' best three point shooters. Schaftenaar was wide open on each shot, with no Bruin anywhere close. That kind of inattention was present throughout the game.
Turnovers were a huge issue. Aaron Holiday had five turnovers, with a number of them coming when he'd simply drive too deep into a defense and not have anywhere to go. Thomas Welsh and Tony Parker also fumbled far too many balls away. Holiday, though, obviously had the big turnover late that sealed UCLA's loss, but he was also a huge part of the massive comeback the Bruins had over the last two minutes to even make it a competitive game down the stretch.
That general offensive focus just didn't seem to be there. Isaac Hamilton, after having a really great year, has clearly gone to more of a gunning mentality over the last few weeks. He hoisted 23 shots on Saturday, making seven, and it's always strange to see a player who was playing so well by being under control decide that he needs to showcase himself by putting up a higher volume of shots. The Bruins collectively had more turnovers than assists.
Bryce Alford left the game after a swinging elbow from an Oregon State player hit him in the face, and with him out over the last 2:39, the Bruins cut Oregon State's lead from 73-66 to 83-82. The defense was much better over that stretch, and offensively, UCLA got hot, with Hamilton and Holiday combining for three 3-pointers over the last minute. Even playing a poor game for most of the game, and showing little effort, it's worth noting that UCLA was still almost able to win the game, which should give you an idea of the talent differential between these two teams.
UCLA had the biggest issues this year with effort, focus, and motivation, and all of those issues were present on Saturday. That's mainly a coaching and leadership issue -- yes, you'd love it if all players were intrinsically motivated, but for every Arron Afflalo and Russell Westbrook, there are ten guys who have to be led by example. We really wanted to see UCLA and Steve Alford establish some strong building blocks this season so that there'd be some realistic hope that next year could be a Final Four team, but, in reality, this season has simply shown us the major cracks in the foundation. If you can't get this team to play hard, when it absolutely needs to, how are you going to get next year's team, which should be significantly more talented, to play hard?
UCLA finished the season 15-16 and 6-12 in conference. The last time UCLA had that many conference losses was Steve Lavin's last year. This is Steve Alford's third year. In Ben Howland's third year, after inheriting a cratered program, he went to a Final Four and had a dominant Pac-12 season. Heck, in Lavin's third year, the Bruins went 22-9 and 12-6 in conference and made the NCAAs -- and that guy wasn't even a real coach. Alford inherited a team that went 25-10 in 2013, and in his three years, he has won 28 games, 22 games, and now 15 games. That is a disturbing trend. And even though that trend should be corrected a bit next year with the talent coming in, this season exposed far too many structural issues with the program to think that the Bruins will suddenly be a Final Four team.
But the season isn't over. UCLA plays USC on Wednesday, and the Bruins are still theoretically alive for an NCAA Tournament berth if they win the Pac-12 Tournament. USC has crushed UCLA this year, though, to the tune of a 33-point margin through the two games, and the Trojans are arguably the worst matchup for the Bruins in the entire conference. In all likelihood, the season ends on Wednesday, and the Bruins will head into the offseason with 17 losses and a coach firmly on the hot seat.