If UCLA basketball were a cart, it’d be safe to say that a couple of wheels have come off at this point.
In a season that looked like it was shaping up to be one of those magical types, the Bruins have lost the magic in the last four days, losing its second consecutive game, this one to USC Wednesday, 84-76.
That’s the fourth-straight loss in basketball to USC, which is, in itself, tough for any UCLA basketball fan to take.
UCLA has only lost four straight to USC twice in the last 63 years. That dubious feat is something that only happened at the end of the Ben Howland (2008-2011) and Steve Lavin (2001-2003) eras.
It’s absolutely an indication that there is something wrong, and that was the message you got watching this UCLA team Wednesday.
We said earlier this season that this team has a collective consciousness, one mind, if you will. You could say that collective Bruin mind got punched in the teeth Saturday when it got beaten up by a physical bully in Arizona, and then tried to straighten itself out against USC in the first 10 minute or so Wednesday. But then as soon as USC displayed a little fight itself, the UCLA collective mind showed how fragile it is and collapsed.
It was definitely a one-two punch. After getting physically out-manned Saturday, USC out-thought UCLA Wednesday. The Trojans employed a tactic of mostly zoning UCLA for this game, which you would think would be a relatively stupid move since good three-point-shooting teams should shred zones. But USC’s 3-2 zone had its guards extended out to better contest UCLA’s three-point shots, and the Bruins, instead of going inside to counter it, fell into the trap of settling on bad outside looks. It was a smart, calculated move by USC coach Andy Enfield, and perhaps a little risky. He was banking on, first, his more athletic squad would be able to find UCLA’s open perimeter shooters, which hasn’t been a successful theory is some games this season, most notably the Kentucky game. And he was relying on UCLA, which is so dependent on shooting the three, not being able to resist instead of working the ball inside where it had a clear advantage over USC.
What’s a little inexplicable: Why did UCLA’s Steve Alford let this happen? The UCLA coach had an example early on in this game of UCLA’s interior advantage over the Trojans. Twelve of UCLA’s first 15 points of the night came because of UCLA’s advantage over USC in the paint, with Thomas Welsh dominating USC’s Chimezie Metu on the block and T.J. Leaf easily scoring inside. Yeah, it’s a different type of offense you need to employ to get the ball inside against a zone -- good ball movement and dribble penetration -- pretty basic stuff that should absolutely be in UCLA’s offensive arsenal. But it appeared it wasn’t; it seems UCLA’s tactic against any zone is three-point hubris, believing it can shoot over any zone anyone throws at it.
It all came together, too, for Enfield, in that UCLA was so shaken up by USC’s zone it got really sloppy, committing 17 turnovers, and 13 in the first half (for a team averaging 12 per game). At halftime, USC was leading 50-38, but UCLA was still shooting 55%. There was about an 8-minute stretch in the first half when UCLA didn’t get off many shots merely because it was turning over the ball with such frequency. What also contributed was USC’s athletes getting back on defense quickly and not allowing UCLA any good three-point looks in semi-transition and that’s when UCLA, in fact, committed a big portion of those turnovers. Lonzo Ball committed 7 turnovers in this game and 5 in the first half, during the critical period in which USC forced its tactical will on UCLA and the Bruins succumbed. He looked un-Lonzo-like with his passes, mostly late and ill-timed. When the engine of your offense, which is absolutely Ball’s playmaking ability, breaks down, the car sputters and, well, dies.
The rest of UCLA’s offense did just that. In the first half, four starters – Ball, Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton – combined for just 13 points on 5-of-14 shooting. What was most disturbing was not necessarily the shooting percentage of those four (35%) but the fact that the four of them only got off 14 shots. UCLA shot the ball 29 times in the first half, and those four starters only took 14 of those 29 shots.
Bryce Alford took just two shots in the first half, both threes, and missed them both. He looked completely off his game, even his outside shooting stroke looking strange.
What was also interesting was Steve Alford’s own tactical move, employing mostly a zone from the time UCLA got down in the first half through the second half. UCLA came out of it occasionally, but spent most of its defensive minutes in that zone. In the Arizona game, it was evident that UCLA’s zone was far more effective than its man defense, and it probably didn’t employ it enough against the Wildcats. So, Alford went to it far more liberally against USC, but here’s the thing: To play it most effectively, UCLA thought it had to go to a four-guard lineup, with either Leaf or Welsh the only post. It apparently needs the guards’ quickness to be able to close out on shooters more effectively? What it effectively did, though, was take away UCLA’s advantage offensively in the post (and on the glass), which compelled UCLA even more to rely on its three-point shooting. Really, though, UCLA’s perimeter players aren’t quick anyway, so it’d be just as good to have the height and length of two of Welsh, Leaf and Ike Anigbogu in the zone at the same time. With UCLA using the zone, in fact, Anigbogu didn’t play in the second half.
It’s tough to say that this is all because of Enfield’s evil genius, or just some very obtuse coaching tactics on Alford’s part.
What going to predominantly a zone does, too, is pretty much send a message to your team that you’ve thrown in the towel on your man defense. And when UCLA was in its man defense it clearly looked like it obliged and threw in the towel. USC had wide-open looks -- in both UCLA’s man and zone. Alford has always employed a tactic of a collapsing defense, be it man or zone. And the defense against USC collapsed so much that USC’s perimeter shooters often times had no one guarding them. It wasn’t a matter of UCLA’s defenders sagging off a bit and just not closing out in time. It was a case, often times, as a result of the sagging, it was uncertain whose man was whose. Leaf was particularly guilty of this, sagging in so much on the weak side it was nearly impossible to know after a little ball movement which man he was guarding.
UCLA’s defense, overall, was horrendous. After the first 7 minutes or so, it had very little energy the rest of the way. It got a little traction out of the zone, getting a few stops in the second half, which helped the Bruins draw to within four, at 66-62 with 6 minutes left in the game. But it didn’t feel like a team surging, but kind of a last gasp before it expires. It was mostly USC, which isn’t a great three-point shooting team (36.8%, 95th in the country), just naturally missing some pretty decent looks. UCLA collectively looked in a daze defensively for most of the game, and not just on the ball or closing out but in its team defense, being almost non-existent on weakside help. There were a few examples when a simple USC ball screen opened up a lane and UCLA’s weakside defenders stood around and watched, collectively.
It’s clearly not just effort on defense. This game really illustrated a lack of defensive fundamentals, and not just in on-ball technique and help defense, but something as simple as blocking out. UCLA’s teams under Alford have always been very poor at blocking out (is it not emphasized in practice?), but this was one of the worst examples of it. It feels almost as if this team was coached in a far-flung region of Iceland where, somehow, the coaches there never heard of the concept of blocking out.
In all seriousness, if we had to really analyze what it is, it’s a matter of UCLA not having a true defensive identity to fall back on. This team, collectively and individually, have only an offensive identity. It’s carried them through so far this season, and most of the time in spectacular fashion. Most of the time, when UCLA was unraveling a bit in other games, it was precise offensive execution that brought it back from the brink. But when the opposing team throws a zone at you for most of the game, and your two best players, Ball and Leaf, are clearly off their individual offensive games, offensive execution isn’t going to salvage it. Defense is what you can rely on when you’re not shooting well, or your offense is out-of-sync or disrupted. It’s what can keep you in any game, but this UCLA team – and all Alford UCLA teams – don’t have a true defensive identity. With UCLA right now, it’s all about offense, and we’ve now seen, in the last two games, what relying on offense as your baseline and identity can do.
Ball and Leaf certainly didn’t play well offensively. Leaf, who is Mr. Consistency, scored in single digits in a game for the first time this season. Bryce had one of his worst outings, ending with 3 points on one made field goal and attempting an uncharacteristic 7 shots for the game, while playing 37 minutes. If Bryce isn’t making shots he’s clearly a liability on the floor with his defense. Hamilton started off the game cold, but asserted himself, finishing with a team-high 20. Welsh had the hot offensive hand, scoring 13 points, but they all came in the first half. UCLA wouldn’t go to him after the first 7 minutes, with Welsh attempting just one shot in the second half. Aaron Holiday had a typical game for him, forcing some poor turnovers, but then lighting a fire at times. He was the guy mostly responsible for sparking the second-half semi-comeback, ending with 15 points.
There are a few elements now to watch for the rest of the season:
-- As we’ve always suspected, when this team gets up against a more athletic opponent it has a chance to really struggle and not find an offensive rhythm. Superior opposing athleticism can take away UCLA’s offense.
-- When things aren’t going well with this team it resorts to selfish offensive play and hero ball. It was an element of Alford’s three previous UCLA teams, especially last year’s team, but it didn’t manifest itself that much this season, since there was an unselfish offensive culture engendered by Ball and adopted by the rest of the team. But we’ve now seen the selfish play pretty clearly in the last two losses.
-- As we get deeper into the season, and opponents have more tape on UCLA’s offense, opposing coaching staffs are better at defending against it. Heck, Arizona and USC just provided two different blueprints.
-- UCLA’s defense, what there was of it, is now in disarray. The zone has shown to be effective at times, but using it predominantly instead of just as a change-of-pace is problematic. And whether in zone or man, this UCLA team doesn’t have a defensive touchstone, something it knows it can confidently rely on to reset itself, and reset a specific game that’s gone awry offensively.
Right now, a conference championship is looking unlikely. UCLA is playing for a top-three finish in the Pac-12, which could set itself up for a good run in the Pac-12 Tournament and lead to a top three seed in the West for the Dance.
Without the ability to use defense to reset, this UCLA teams need to find another level of toughness and resilience in its offense as a way of resetting itself. Its only chance is to double down on its remarkable brand of offensive basketball, stay focused on it, don’t let unselfish offensive play overtake it, and hope that there’s enough remarkable offense to carry it through.
And hopefully that can keep the other two wheels on the cart.