Bruins Show the Way, 88-86

Many fans are dwelling on how UCLA almost lost its game against Washington Saturday, while the real emphasis should be on what UCLA did to win the game. You can now see the direction the team could possibly go this season...

In the preview to the Washington game, we drew comparisons to the Oregon game, and it was a bit eery just how much the games resembled each other, with UCLA holding off a Washington surge to win, 86-84, in overtime.

Many people were critical of this game. I listened to the post-game show on the radio and read the posts on the message board. Fans complained that UCLA needs to be able to blow out a team like Washington.

First, I think there is one thing that most UCLA fans have to get through their head this year, and it seems to be a difficult process. UCLA fans so naturally assume that players that wear "UCLA" on their chest are superior athletes and players to just about whomever they face. So, with that assumption, they assert that UCLA should blow out a team like Washington. That assumption will leave you disappointed this season, as it has for years. Just because a player does wear a UCLA jersey doesn't necessarily mean that he's a superior athlete or player this season. The talent level is not what long-time UCLA fans are accustomed to. There is probably one player with NBA potential on this team – and he's a freshman and (despite a ridiculous assertion) is a long ways away from being NBA-ready. There are a handful of others who might have a chance in the NBA, but most likely as free agents. It's not what the former UCLA coach has gone around saying, that UCLA has five NBA players on its roster.

We know we've repeated this a number of times this season, but it still doesn't seem like UCLA fans get it. UCLA just doesn't have a great deal of talent this year. On top of it, it's a pretty young team, too. With that combination it makes a win over Washington, a team that has some decent talent, in Seattle, even if it's just a squeaker, something to appreciate.

UCLA is currently 8-3, one win better than we had predicted before the season. That's appropriate, since the team is about as talented and as well-coached as we anticipated, but is a better defensive team than we could have even projected. Our prediction needs to be slightly amended, though, after watching the Pac-10. The conference is plainly pretty bad. Its conference RPI isn't going to be strong, so a fifth-place finish in the Pac-10 and a 18-13 overall record will probably not get you into the NCAA tournament. Luckily, though, UCLA has a chance to be better than that, with a real chance to finish 3rd in the Pac-10, and at least fourth, possibly, with the Pac-10 tournament, finish with close to 20 wins, and still have a good shot at getting an NCAA berth.

The Washington win was actually a big step for this team in achieving that. It accomplished a sweep on the road, in poor travel conditions. It probably went very far in giving this team confidence that they'll be able to go on the road in the Pac-10 and win.

Many observers are dwelling on the collapse UCLA experienced in the last two minutes of regulation. I think it's far more significant to point out that UCLA, on the road, against a decent team, had the poise to win the game ultimately. I think it's also far more significant that the Bruins, without one of its best players in Brian Morrison, built a 17-point lead against Washington in Seattle, and maintained a double-digit lead for most of the game.

You can't say that UCLA's collapse was a fluke, since it experienced a similar collapse against Oregon at Pauley Pavilion a week before. But you can say that both collapses were a result of unique circumstances as well as aspects of this team that can easily be corrected.

UCLA's point guard, Cedric Bozeman, fouled out with six minutes left in the Washington game. It began the Bruins' collapse, mostly caused by bad decisions and poor ball-handling against pressure from Washington, similar to what happened in the Oregon game. These two games, where UCLA almost gave up two wins, and two great efforts, because it couldn't simply take care of the ball in the waning minutes, have now made it pretty clear that UCLA needs to make some changes to its use of personnel. Back-up point guard Ryan Walcott has been viciously criticized for his performance against Washington in relief of Bozeman, and, admittedly it wasn't a good one, turning over the ball at critical times down the stretch. But it's also pretty unfair. It's obvious to any sharp observer that Walcott is a player with limitations and he shouldn't be allowed to get into situations where he could potentially make such significant mistakes. Walcott needs to be reigned in, and used appropriately. He is capable of giving relief to Bozeman if he takes care of the ball, is not allowed to penetrate or come anywhere near the paint in the half-court offense, and execute the offense conservatively for the few minutes that Bozeman is on the bench. His outside jumper is decent, and he should be allowed to take a shot if he has an open look, which he could get, given that defenses will be too busy trying to shut down the other Bruins on the floor. He needs to play solid defense, and lately his quickness has aided him in matching up well against smaller Pac-10 guards.

The collapse just wasn't Walcott's fault. The team had 24 turnovers for the game, which is just plainly not acceptable. UCLA's freshman Trevor Ariza had 9 himself and also needs to get better at taking care of the ball in critical situations. UCLA, overall, is passable at taking care of the ball for most of the game, but needs to improve drastically in its ballhandling, passing and decision-making in those critical situations. Bozeman might very well foul out again, and UCLA needs to be able to play intelligently without him.

While Janou Rubin had a bad turnover down the stretch, he does show promise in being able to handle the ball and make good decisions. Rubin, possibly could get more minutes in a back-up point guard role. Dijon Thompson perhaps also could take over ball-handling duties in situations where UCLA finds itself without Bozeman. When Morrison returns, he also could provide minutes.

Other criticism continues to be leveled at UCLA's big men, Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins. Against Washington, the two combined for just one rebound in 40 minutes. That is below expectation. But also, it's pretty understandable to not expect big rebounding numbers from the two of them. As we've maintained like a mantra, Fey and Hollins are not elite talents, but young, developing post players who've only benefitted from a few months of coaching from a good coaching staff. Fey possibly might not ever develop into a 8-rebound-a-game guy. But he is doing his job, and that's blocking out. His blockouts have helped UCLA's other players – Ariza, T.J. Cummings and Thompson – to get to the rebounds. He's is having trouble getting out of his blockout to actually get to the rebound, but as long as the blockout gets UCLA the rebound, it works. Fey also had a good offensive game. It'd be good if he could play as inspired offensively as he did in front of his hometown crowd all the time.

T.J. Cummings continues to display a newfound maturity and intelligence in his approach to the game. As Howland said, he's letting the game come to him, and isn't forcing shots or taking the ball wildly to the hoop. Because of his restraint, he's flourishing, leading UCLA to the win over Washington with 22 points and 11 rebounds.

The Washington game, though, overall, was another indication of how much potential this team has, and its capability of winning. Coming off a Washington State game where it scored just 48 points, it scored 86 against Washington. Many were wondering what type of team this is – whether it's a team that wants to run or not. That issue is irrelevant. UCLA, this year, is a team that's going to play good defense, and then on offense try to get opportunities in transition but then play a very structured half-court offense, as Howland has said from the beginning of the season. If that team faces Washington State, who slows it down, milks the shot clock, and then when it shoots the ball falls quickly back on defense, it will score 48 points and play good enough to win. If that team plays against Washington, a team that shoots 10 seconds into the shot clock and plays poor defense, UCLA will score 86 points – and win. That's the beauty of Howland's philosophy and approach. It can be successful playing against anyone. If you tried to get out and run on Washington State, with its entire team giving up on the offensive boards and getting back on defense, you would have turned over the ball quite a bit more, probably not played as well defensively and possibly lost.

The biggest take-away perhaps to the last couple of weeks, including the Washington game, are the longer stretches that UCLA plays well both offensively and defensively. It sustained good play for about 20 minutes in the Oregon game, and for most of the Washington game. It continues to play very good defense, while it's getting better at executing its offense. It's getting easier to envision where this team could go.

And if it continues to win, either by scoring 48 points or 86, while on its way there, it will be very interesting to see just exactly where that is come March...

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