But while many are disappointed, it wasn't that disappointing of a loss, for a number of reasons.
-- UCSB is a good team. We warned you before the game. The Gauchos have a very good chance of making the NCAA tournament, being the class of the Big West conference. Not only that, with the way college basketball is down around the country, this veteran UCSB team is better than many teams in bigger conferences. This UCSB team would probably finish in the top five of the Pac-10 this year, easily better than Washington State and Oregon State, and right now, looking better than USC, Washington, and Arizona State. In the first five minutes of the game it was easy to see that UCLA was evenly matched with UCSB. In its first five minutes against Vermont, Riverside or Loyola Marymount, it was obvious that those teams were over-matched by UCLA. Not Santa Barbara.
-- It was good to see UCLA with its full contingent of players for the first time this year, and it is very clear that the addition of T.J. Cummings and Trevor Ariza is going to have a huge impact on this team.
-- The teams of Steve Lavin were consistent in losing to mid-majors at Pauley Pavilion. It was a Steve Lavin staple. Years of experiencing it has softened the blow of a loss to a good UCSB team in Pauley. It's another way that head coach Ben Howland benefits from how deeply Lavin dug the hole. Many might draw a conclusion that this team looked and played just like a Lavin team. Well, they're partially correct. It is a Lavin team, to a great degree, since this is the team that Lavin bequeathed to Howland, made up of the players he recruited, failed to coach and develop for a number of years, and then stole their hearts by putting them through the worst season in UCLA history. But even so, if you know basketball at all, watching this game you know that there is a vast difference between how this team plays and a Steve Lavin team. While UCLA did get out-hustled quite a bit in the second half, it's nothing close to the lack of effort, heart and complete disarray that was very evident in a Lavin game. With this team, with these players, playing against this UCSB team that played the kind of game they did Wednesday night, Lavin would have lost by double digits.
-- While many point to UCLA being out-hustled in the second half, it appeared that there were also quite a few unlucky bounces of the ball. There were times UCLA failed to block out, but there were times they did, and then the ball rebounded long and into the hands of a Gaucho. There were a few shots by UCLA, particularly Cedric Bozeman in crunch time at the end, that looked like they were a foot in the cylinder before rolling out. Also, UCLA defended UCSB to the extent of the shot clock on many possessions, but then a Gaucho player would put up somewhat of a prayer and the shot would improbably go in. These things happen in sports. And it's unfortunate that it happened to Howland's young team against this type of opponent at Pauley. But with these bad bounces, this game was more of an aberration of bad luck than it was a reflection of the team.
Isn't it great? I've become an apologista. Here's more.
The three key factors in UCLA losing this game were 1) that UCSB is pretty darn good and will make the NCAA tournament, 2) the unlucky bounces of the ball in the second half. When you get unlucky bounces like that against a potential tournament team, you're going to lose, and 3) UCSB's zone defense.
UCSB's matchup zone stifled UCLA in the second half. The Gauchos came out with it just a few minutes into the half, and UCLA's offense immediately went stagnant. UCSB got a series of stops, then converted baskets on their end, which gave them their first lead, 43-41, which they held throughout the rest of the half. UCLA was off-balance against the Gaucho's defense and then couldn't do anything to regain its balance. In the first half, T.J. Cummings knocked down some baseline jumpers to counteract UCSB's zone, but UCSB, which is obviously well coached by Bob Williams, made an adjustment in their zone in the second half that took away Cummings' look at the basket. There were open jumpers in the zone, as there usually is, but UCLA then made the mistake of trying to beat a zone through penetration, over-penetration in this case, instead of beating it by shooting over it. You can beat a zone through penetration, but the players doing the penetrating better be very good at it, which UCLA's players aren't. It's easier to beat a zone through spacing, passing and shooting, which they started to do in the late second half when Dijon Thompson hit some big threes to keep the Bruins in it. But the zone, which UCSB changed between a 2-3 and 2-1-2 to keep UCLA even more off-balance, was the main catalyst in giving UCSB its edge, stopping Cummings from getting his points (he scored 12 in the first half and then only two in the second half), and making UCLA's already struggling offense even more tentative.
Combined with UCLA on the other end, seeing long rebounds bounce over their front line and into the hands of a UCSB guard, it gave the Gauchos enough leverage to win the game. UCSB had 10 offensive rebounds in the second half, and 8 of them had to be from a lucky bounce. Could UCLA had boxed out and crashed the boards better? Probably. But some of those rebounds, especially the one with about 30 seconds left in the game off a missed UCSB free throw that hit off the back of the rim and bounced over UCLA's rebounders, were uncanny.
UCLA's defense wasn't as bad as you might think, looking at the box score, giving up 44% from the field and getting out-rebounded 25-20. And while many might think that this game was lost in the second half, when UCSB took its lead, it might very well had been lost in the first half, when UCSB shot an uncanny 63% from the field. It was the lucky bounce factor again, many times with a Gaucho hitting an improbable shot with the shot clock winding down. UCSB's sophomore wing Josh Davis, who many thought was a Pac-10 level player coming out of high school, had 11 points, on 4-4 shooting and 3-3 on threes, in the first half. He threw in one late-clock leaner and a couple of long-distance threes that hit nothing but net, as if he had made a deal with the devil, which was obvious since he scored only two points in the second half and was averaging only 6 a game for the season. And you couldn't say that UCLA's defense was particularly lax. It might have been a bit in trying to match up with 6-8 junior forward Casey Cook, who stepped away from the basket and easily knocked down a few face-up jumpers. Cook is a known good shooter from that range and UCLA's defense looked a bit confused in how to handle him. But overall, UCSB made probably 3-5 improbable shots in the first half, when they were defended pretty well that gave them that 63% mark, and the decided point difference in the game.
The game, though, as stated above, was a good hint at what this team could possibly become, particularly offensively. Ariza and Cummings bring so many more dimensions to UCLA's offense. Cummings' ability to shoot will change the makeup of how UCLA will get looks at the basket. He'll face the basket from about 12-17 feet, forcing his defender to have to guard him and opening up lanes for cutters or for the center to post up. Ariza impacts the offense in so many ways – not just his athleticism and ability to score -- but probably the most with his passing ability. Ariza made a couple of passes Wednesday that hadn't been seen at Pauley Pavilion since the last time Baron Davis played on its floor. With his back to the basket, along the baseline, Ariza made a no-look, over-the-head pass to a posted up Cedric Bozeman. He threaded the needle a couple of times in the halfcourt offense, finding teammates under the basket for easy lay-ups. A couple of his passes were so good then took a teammate by surprise, particularly one shovel pass in the paint that Ryan Hollins fumbled. His passing ability will create so many more opportunities and hopefully get UCLA 6-10 more points a game.
There are some obvious areas that need improvement. UCLA needs to take its intensity to a whole new level. It plays harder and is more focused on defense than any UCLA team in years, but the team also tends to go through lulls where its defensive intensity wanes. Each game this season UCLA has done this, and it's allowed its opponents some easy baskets at crucial moments. The lack of rebounding is a reflection of this; UCLA goes through periods where they look like they tend to forget to crash the boards. Cummings tends to forget for very long periods about the boards, as evident by his one rebound in this game. But we'll cut Cummings some slack here, in his first game back, with probably a lot to keep in mind. But you can rest assured that blocking out, rebounding and intensity will be emphasized by Howland.
Turnovers and sloppiness on the offensive side of the ball have become an issue. Cedric Bozeman and Dijon Thompson have committed 26 turnovers between them in the last two games, after committing just 16 in the first three games. Thompson started out this game with two particularly slack possessions, letting a pass go through his hands and then committing a lazy pass, both resulting in turnovers. Much of this has stemmed from Bozeman and Thompson trying to force things to happen offensively, to get things going. Hopefully with more contributions from Ariza and Cummings, the team will let the game come to them more rather than forcing it to happen.
Transition scoring is still something that is mostly non-existent. It's hard in a game like this, when the opposing team shoots 63% in the first half, and you only get a total of 17 rebounds for the game (against LMU, UCLA got 54 boards), to initiate breaks. But UCLA will continue to struggle if it's so dependent on getting its points only from its half-court offense, as it has mostly in its first five games. UCLA's half-court offense, also, still seems to be too perimeter-oriented. Michael Fey only had three shots from the field, and really was only fed the ball in the post one time, which he converted.
After five games, the team, though, is better than you might have anticipated going into the season, and shows some considerable potential. Given the level of competition, so far they've played at or maybe slightly above expectation. The outlook for the season continues to be encouraging, if they continue to play consistently tough defense and improve offensively with the additions of Cummings and Ariza. If they can get one win from the next two upcoming games – against Michigan State at home or Michigan on the road – they'll off-set the loss against UCSB and their record will be right at the pre-season expectation level.
Again, as we've repeated so many times, it's all about expectation and capability. While it is disappointing for UCLA to lose to UCSB generally, given this team (and UCSB's team), its expectations and capability, losing this game isn't particularly devastating. But having seen the team's potential now, with all of its players now active on the roster, interestingly enough, this loss, rather than lowering expectations, could have inched them a bit higher...