When UCLA lost a 13-point lead to get beaten in overtime by ASU, 74-62, it wasn't like the losses UCLA had experienced during its six-game losing streak. In those games, the team hadn't come to play. For considerable portions of each of those games they had folded mentally and weren't putting forth a competitive effort.
In those losses, they didn't make the effort to play defense, to rebound or to execute their offense. In this game against ASU, it's particularly deflating because the team more or less did that and still lost.
They lost this one not because of a lack of effort, but because of a series of bone-head plays, a lack of clutch free-throw shooting and then an inability to hit an open shot in crunch time.
Again, you hate to harp on the issue, but the level of talent on this team is now crystal clear. Even with the team playing with effort and heart, they still turned the ball over a staggering 23 times and went 0-for-11 shooting in overtime. This comes from a team that lacks athleticism, ball-handling and shooting ability – basically: talent. It was never more evident in the overtime period. UCLA was fairly composed, and executed its offense well. They had a series of open looks from within 10 feet or so and no one could knock down their shot. In the last 50 seconds of the game, UCLA could have iced it, but Dijon Thompson and Ryan Hollins made only one of four foul shots to give ASU the opportunity to tie it with a last-second three-pointer to send it to overtime.
Yes, there were some defensive breakdowns, especially in defending ASU's three-point shooters. But they weren't sustained breakdowns, like the ones that characterized the 6-game losing streak. The breakdowns were sporadic, and much more within the realm of what you could normally expect from an average team. They did hold ASU to 40% shooting for the game and, even though ASU's Ike Diogu scored 27 points, played generally tough defense against him. UCLA, for the most part, rebounded fairly well, even though they ultimately loss the battle of the boards, and showed effort in blocking out throughout the night.
It's a testament to the fact that even if you play hard for the most part, defend and make a big effort to rebound – all of the critical tenets of Head Coach Ben Howland's basketball philosophy – it will keep you in games, but you can still lose if you just don't have superior talent.
There was a short burst of an example of what kind of production you can get from a team when it puts forth an effort and actually has some talent on the floor, too. Even though Brian Morrison is not a savior and his wild play can be detrimental at times, getting him on the floor provides a bit more talent and gives the team so much more dimension. Without him, really, Dijon Thompson is the only effective outside shooter, and Thompson sometimes goes cold, as he did against ASU, shooting 7-of-18 overall and one-of six from three. But when you put Morrison on the court with Thompson and a good mid-range shooter like T.J. Cummings, it's a different team. There's another scoring option, as we saw when UCLA worked the ball around during one possession, looking for its usual shooters in Thompson and Cummings, when it then found a wide-open Morrison in the corner for a big three. UCLA, at the time, was building a double-digit lead and looked perhaps the best it had in two months. It's clear evidence just how little talent this team has had with Morrison out of the lineup, having to rely, really, on just two scorers, Thompson and Cummings. The team is just so limited offensively, especially since it can't expect any kind of outside scoring from either its point guard in Cedric Bozeman, or its small forward in Trevor Ariza. In fact, Ariza's play has trailed off considerably since the beginning of the season. He seemingly hasn't hit an outside shot in many games, and looks to have lost his confidence in taking it. He also, curiously, has seemed to have lost his explosion underneath the basket. In this game, UCLA worked its offense effectively to get Ariza two great looks underneath the basket. Perhaps because of end-of-season fatigue, Ariza now has seemingly lost the explosion to be able to finish those looks, going up weakly and getting his shot attempts blocked easily. Or is it a matter that perhaps he's shying away from contact? In his first 10 games, Ariza averaged almost 14 points a game; in his last seven games he's averaging 9 points a game. In the his first ten games of the season, he hit nine threes, and in the last seven games he's hit two. In fact, he hasn't even attempted a three in the last two games. In his defense, Ariza is a freshman and is getting accustomed to the travel, rigors and pressure of a college season and a college academic workload (but it's nothing compared to the rigors of an 82-game NBA season, right?).
From a personnel standpoint, the brightest aspect of this team over the last couple of months has been sophomore center Ryan Hollins. Hollins looks to be the only player that has truly shown some marked development this season. He has become a good post defender, has learned to play fundamentally and more under control, and is making strides offensively. It's not to say that he's going to develop into an NBA-level center, but he now has displayed enough this season to lead you to believe he has a chance to develop into a good Pac-10-level center.
There will probably be accusations on the message board that taking anything good from this loss is definitely looking at the situation with a glass-half-full attitude. Perhaps that's true. But you can easily look at this season as the season Howland is using to establish the type of discipline, fundamentals and effort he's going to expect during his coaching tenure at UCLA. Now if there wasn't more talent coming into the program, you could easily say this was a half-empty-glass situation. But with the degree of talent coming in next year, it is definitely more accurate to describe the situation as a glass being half-full...