During UCLA's fast start, the players appeared to understand this basic premise. They looked like they were buying into the concept that they need to be a lunch-pail, hard-hat kind of team. To borrow a phrase from an infamous former coach, UCLA needs to win the "grinder" type of games. Which is not to say that they need to slow it down and play like Washington State. But they do need to play with great intensity, defend with passion, crash the boards, value the ball on every possession and look for high percentage shots. And they need to do all of those things consistently just to be a middle of the Pac-10 team.
After a three-week stretch where they forgot what got them off to that 9-3 start, the Bruins got back to basics last night and the result was an 80-75 win over Washington. UCLA dominated the boards, especially at the offensive end. They defended pretty well for most of the game, giving up more jump shots than lay-ups. And they took care of the ball fairly well, finishing the game with 13 turnovers.
UCLA started the game with much more energy than the Huskies, who appeared to be somewhat flat. Despite being considerably less athletic and quick, UCLA beat UW to many loose balls. Trevor Ariza was diving on the floor, T.J. Cummings was saving a ball on the sideline and Michael Fey was crashing the glass for a tip-in.
UCLA came out determined to get the ball inside, an approach which led to high quality shots against the shorter Huskies. When the Bruins missed the shots, they crashed the boards and got second or third attempts.
At the defensive end, the Bruins didn't exactly look like, say, Pittsburgh, but they were doing a better job of helping one another and forcing UW to take jump shots. Granted, some of those shots were open looks that the Huskies might normally make. But at least the Bruins were attempting to play defense, as opposed to stretches of the previous six games where they didn't even make the effort.
Despite their inspired play in the first half, the Bruins lead was only 35-28 at halftime. And when UW turned up their intensity to start the second half, and quickly tied the score at 38, it seemed like the Bruins might be returning to their lethargic play of the past six games. Mike Jensen grabbed several offensive boards, Trevor Ariza stepped over the baseline on an in-bounds play (and followed it up with a silly goaltending) and the Bruins looked like they might be in trouble.
But UCLA answered that run, and a couple more Huskie runs, by doing what was successful all night – they pounded the ball inside. Each time UW made a charge in the second half, UCLA would go inside and get a good shot. Sharper cuts, better ball movement and, to be honest, shaky UW defense, led to quality shots. T.J. Cummings also rediscovered his shooting touch after struggling for a couple weeks. Cummings led the Bruins with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
Another key component in the win was the play of the Bruin bench. Fey had his best game in some time, as he contributed 10 points and three rebounds in 17 minutes. Ryan Walcott played his best game of the year, scoring eight points and grabbing four rebounds. Most importantly, he didn't turn the ball over. Jon Crispin missed both his shots, but he played with good energy. And Janou Rubin played a solid game, with seven points, three rebounds and three assists.
The best and, in my opinion, the worst play of the night happened on the same sequence. Trevor Ariza threw down a monster dunk on Mike Jensen, who was attempting to take a charge. It was a great dunk and a big-time jolt of energy for the team and the crowd. But after the dunk, Ariza was posing – grabbing the front of his jersey (as Ray Young used to do all too often). Hopefully, the Bruin staff mentioned to Ariza that this is a bush-league move – all the more so when you've lost six straight games. UCLA needs to get away from the posing and preening that plagued them during the Lavin years. Play hard, play smart and, as the saying goes, act like you've been there before.
While it was great to see the Bruins stop the losing streak, UCLA fans might want to keep in mind that Washington was down by one with less than a minute to go and easily could have won the game despite playing with little energy and missing a lot of open shots. The UCLA bench made a nice contribution, but there's a reason Coach Howland has been reluctant to play them all year – they won't play this well every night. And the Bruins dominated the boards, but they won't face any more opponents where the starting center is the size of Mike Jensen.
Absent a miracle run in the Pac-10 tournament, this UCLA team isn't going to the NCAA tournament. So it's not about wins and losses from here on out, unless you're concerned about winning enough games to get to the NIT. The old adage that it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game? That's truly the case in this situation. Due to a depleted roster, UCLA is going to lose several, perhaps most, of their remaining games. But in order to get better, and have a chance to compete next year, this team needs to learn the basics. Defend consistently, rebound with passion and value every possession. Stanford is undefeated because they 1) have some talent, and 2) do those three things extremely well. The Cardinal lead the Pac-10 in field goal percentage defense, rebounding margin and fewest turnovers per game.
If you want to truly gauge how the Bruins are progressing the rest of this year, don't look at the final score or the box score for individual stats. Watch how they play when things go badly. Do they hang their heads, stop defending/rebounding, and jack up bad shots, as they did during the last two years and during their six game losing streak? Or do they continue to compete, play hard, play together and work for good shots? UCLA's best chance for success next year starts with the current players learning how to play, and developing winning habits, the rest of this year.