There was the ticky-tack, non-shooting call on Trevor Ariza with 13 seconds left that sent one of the best free-throw shooters in the conference, Luke Jackson, to the line. Luke Jackson shooting free throws with the game on the line; you might as well just put the points on the board. The other call that was critical: UCLA was up by a few points with a few minutes left, had possession and Trevor Ariza got called for charging when Ian Crosswhite was clearly still moving.
Ah, that felt good – to be able to complain about something other than the lack of talent and effort.
The Bruins played about as hard as you can expect against the Ducks. They didn't lose this game primarily due to effort, but just some stretches of pretty poor basketball. Sloppy turnovers, bad decisions, poor shot selection – and random effort – isn't a formula for success. Oregon opened the second half with a 14-2 run, which was fueled by a series of UCLA blunders. To the Bruins' credit, they stuck it out and fought their way back to go ahead late in the game.
It also helped UCLA that Oregon, as they showed in the first matchup in Westwood, isn't very good. They have a penchant for mistakes themselves and play very little defense.
With UCLA's putting in a decent effort, playing against a mediocre Oregon team, it did, again, show the limits to UCLA's personnel. The most glaring weakness in this game was perhaps UCLA's lack of a clutch player who is going to win a game when it's on the line. With UCLA needing someone to step up, Dijon Thompson short-armed a three-pointer that might have iced the game in the waning minutes, and Cedric Bozeman didn't convert a short lay-up. When the game was on the line, and the Bruins needed a player to be the hero, there were none to be had. Where's Jason Kapono, or even Billy Knight, when you need them?
This is a game that, if going by the statistical standard for the season, UCLA should have won. They out-rebounded Oregon, 33-24. They out-shot Oregon, 46% to 38%, and T.J. Cummings played with some effort, getting 12 points and, more importantly, 11 rebounds.
It's interesting to speculate about how the UCLA community would feel about this team, and the program, if they had won the three heart-breaking games that you could reasonably believe they deserved to win – this Oregon game, and the two OT games against ASU and USC. UCLA would currently be 14-13 and 10-8, and having finished fourth in the Pac-10 behind Stanford, Washington, and Arizona, and possibly even be an NCAA bubble team (well, possibly). These are three games that UCLA deserved to win, where they out-played their opponent, but just blew it in the last few minutes. The UCLA community would be generally satisfied with the season, saying that head coach Ben Howland had succeeded, and gotten as much as could be expected out of this team. There would be a fraction of the dissatisfaction with the players effort for the season, even.
So, really, the difference between general satisfaction and the current general dissatisfaction comes down to a few minutes in three different games. Most people's opinions hinge on those few minutes.
It's just not right.
Hey, if you're doing "what-ifs," what if they also eke out that win against Kentucky, and add another win against Santa Barbara? They're 16-11 on the season and everyone is generally elated.
So, really, the dissatisfaction doesn't have much to do with the majority of the performance for the season – really, the quality of the actual play on the court -- but really only the black-and-white results. I guess when Howland said in a press conference a few weeks ago that you're only really judged by your win-loss record he knew what he was talking about.
But if you want to be a bit more sophisticated than that in judging whether this program has improved, you'd look at the actual play of the team this season. Did the quality of play improve from last season?
I'm going to leave much of that analysis for the season-ending review (I know I've been saying that for a while, but it's tough – you don't want to give away all of your bullets). But until then, there is one black-and-white stat that says quite a bit: UCLA is currently second in field-goal percentage defense in the conference. They've allowed opponents to shoot only 43% for the season, only second to previously #1-ranked Stanford's 39%. When's the last time UCLA was second in opponent's field goal percentage in the conference?
So, after watching this team suffer a loss to Oregon, in a game they should have won, it's very easy to see the season with a completely different perspective. You have to throw out basing your judgment on just a few minutes and a few random bounces of the ball. You have to look past the win-loss record and really look at the quality of basketball that's actually being played on the court, and realize this is a foundation that's being laid, and project what it will be like with talent. If not, we would still believe that Steve Lavin was, overall, a good coach for UCLA. After all, if you just look at results, he did take UCLA to five Sweet 16s in six years.