The Anteaters of UC-Irvine beat the Bruins of UCLA in every way imaginable Saturday afternoon at Pauley Pavilion. They out shot them, out rebounded them, and out hustled them (for the first 32 minutes, at least). They have a better band than we do, and better cheerleaders. They even had about 4,000 fans in the gym, as compared to about 3,500 for UCLA, but the noise level from the Irvine crowd was probably triple the decibel level put out by the Bruin faithless.
Notwithstanding which, UCLA won the game, 75-74, and improved their record to 5-2.
This game might be titled "A Tale of Two Zones." Or, perhaps "A Tale of Tow Halves" would be better. UCLA employed its 1-2-2 matchup zone for most of the game. Irvine applied a soft 1-2-2 matchup zone and a soft 3-2 zone for most of the game, mixed with a little man to man. What Irvine really did was focus on denying Jason Kapono the ball, even if it meant leaving two other guys open at a time, but UCLA couldn't exploit that. At least, not in the first half.
In the first half, UCLA employed Jason Kapono as a forward, used Dijon Thompson and Ryan Walcott at the point, ran their zone offense, and looked truly awful. They couldn't seem to find any rhythm at all, and had especial trouble getting the ball inside. When they did get the ball inside, Dan Gadzuric would blow a dunk or a wide open 3-footer or just get harried into a bad shot by Irvine big man Adam Parada. The Bruins did get some good looks when Jason was getting double-teamed or tag-teamed, but didn't seem able to put the ball in the hole. With virtually zero interior offense, and with Jason Kapono not getting a single field goal in the first half, the Bruins became a jump-shooting team, with Rico Hines and Ryan Walcott taking more jumpers than Jason Kapono. This was not good.
However, Billy Knight and Dijon Thompson were also getting some jumpers, and this was good. These two guys combined to basically give UCLA some semblance of an offense, but the Bruins only managed to generate 27 points in the first half, making only 32.1% of their FGs and turning the ball over 9 times.
At the other end, Irvine had equal trouble with UCLA's matchup zone. Anteater star Jerry Green carried his team with 14 points on some pretty spectacular shots. Stan Zuzak, the giant Czech jump shooter, also scored effectively and showed good mobility. With Parada getting some good looks inside, Irvine got enough open looks from 3, along with their conversions off Bruin turnovers, to claw their way to a 29-27 halftime lead. However, Irvine also had foul problems, with Jordan Harris and Parada both getting whistled on numerous occasions. The Anteaters shot 35.7% overall from the field in the first half and made 9 turnovers themselves, most of them unforced. They also shot the ball extremely well from the free throw line, an odd occurrence for this team.
Steve Lavin of UCLA and Pat Douglass of UC-I played chess at halftime. The problem was, both of them made the right moves and both of them won. Well, sort of. Lavin realized that with the Irvine's inability to really put great pressure on the ball, he could move Jason Kapono back to point guard and just run his 1-4 high offense, even against a zone. With Irvine trying to tag-team Jason, they suddenly spread themselves all over the floor trying to keep track of him and UCLA inevitably began to get numerous driving opportunities and wide-open jumpers through good ball reversal. As the Bruins know all too well, really slow guys who get spread out eventually lose contact with their men, especially when the offense is passing the ball well and quickly. So, even though Irvine was looking for Jason everywhere he went, they lost him anyway.
As a result of the Bruins' change of offensive system, they shot 60% in the second half, freed up Jason and Billy for numerous wide-open looks from 3 (UCLA made 8-12 3s in the second half), got Jason and Billy open for layups as well off the set offense, and only made 5 turnovers in the final 20 minutes. Jason totally went off, scoring 13 points in a row at one point and 21 overall in the second half, to finish with 25 points for the game (he was 5-6 from 3 and 6-6 from the FT line). Billy Knight got 21 points (4-6 from 3, 5-6 from the FT line), 4 rebounds and 3 steals. Dijon Thompson, making his first start for the Bruins (hopefully, it won't be his last), got 14 points (2-5 from 3, 4-4 from the FT line), 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and only 2 turnovers in 38 minutes.
Unfortunately for UCLA, Pat Douglass also figured out how to break down the Bruins' defense. He did it the old-fashioned way, flashing Zuzak, Harris or Parada into the lane just inside the FT line and then just taking the Bruin zone apart completely when the Bruins shifted one perimeter player and one post player to whomever entered the paint. That either led to a quick pass or two for a wide open shot from 3, or an easy dunk inside when Gadzuric or Cummings stepped up to harass the guy in the paint, thus leaving their own men wide open under the basket for the dunk or layup, since no one on UCLA was quick enough or smart enough to rotate over. UC-I made a remarkable 15-20 of its shots from the field in the second half, but then I suppose any good college team should make 15-20 of their shots if all of their shots are dunks, layups and wide open 3s.
Green continued to be the main gun for his team (until the final 7:30, but more on that later) and finished with 27 points on 10-17 shooting (4-7 from 3, 3-3 from the line). Zuzak, who got open for numerous shots from everywhere, finished with 22 points (8-12 from the field, including 3-7 from 3, plus 3-4 from the FT line). Adam Parada showed Gadzuric what a real center is like and finished with 12 points (8-8 from the line) and 9 rebounds (UC-I outrebounded UCLA 30-23 overall). Mike Hood was also solid for Irvine with 7 points and 4 assists.
Indeed, with UC-I working the ball and themselves around as if the UCLA zone wasn't even there, the Anteaters built up numerous 6-7 point leads from the 12 minute mark on and still led by 6 with 5 minutes left. They seemed to be scoring on every possession, and it wasn't clear how the Bruins were going to win. So, how did the Bruins win? Well, I'll tell you…
First, UCLA's defensive intensity increased. They started pressing more, and Irvine began hurrying some shots and turning the ball over, robbing themselves of some of their possessions.
Second, Rico Hines re-entered the game at the 7:32 mark with orders to glue himself to Jerry Green's jersey for the rest of the game. In the final 7:32, Green was 1-4 from the field and committed 5 turnovers (he made 8 turnovers total in the game). UC-I wound up making 22 turnovers from the game, compared to UCLA's 14. I think those 13 second-half turnovers by the Anteaters compared to UCLA's 5 second-half turnovers were the big difference in the game. Both teams were shooting the lights out of the ball, but the Bruins got more possessions and thus more shots and that inevitably allowed UCLA to not only climb back into the game, but pull it out at the end. With Jason and Billy shooting it as well as, if not better then, Green and Zuzak, the Bruins were bound to outscore the Anteaters at the end.
Finally, the Bruins played some of their best defense of the season in the final 56 seconds after they got the lead at 75-74. They had a slight breakdown with 25 seconds left in the game and 4 seconds left on the clock, when Dan Gadzuric didn't switch out on a screen, leaving Zuzak wide open from the corner for a 3, which the deadly Czech fortunately bricked. But UCLA played great defense for the first 31 seconds of that possession. Then, with 21 seconds left, UCLA knocked the rebound out of bounds, so Irvine got a final shot. Lavin then called timeout, to the dismay of many Bruin fans: Irvine didn't have any timeouts, so this allowed them to actually design a play. What was Lavin thinking? Well, he was thinking exactly what he should have been thinking about. Lavin guessed that Irvine's last play was going to go to Green anyway, and he instructed Dan Gadzuric to move to the perimeter near Green while Dijon went inside. Lavin wanted to make sure Dan wasn't going to switch on the screen this time. Dan's job was to work with Rico to double-team Green as soon as he touched the ball. As Irvine dribbled the clock down and Green kept faking a cut to the basket, Parada seemed confused as to why Dan was standing near Green. He kept hesitating between moving toward the basket and sticking with Dan, trying to figure out if he would be wide open if he cut to the basket. Yes, Adam, you would have been wide open for a layup or dunk; Lavin was gambling everything that the play would be run for Green.
Lavin's gamble paid off. Adam hurried over to Dan to set a screen for Green after Jerry finally got the ball with 8 seconds left, but Adam was so far behind Dan his screen was non-existent. Rico stayed in Green's shirt, Dan stepped up, and Green suddenly found himself surrounded and double-teamed with nowhere to go. He fired up a wild shot over Dan's 6-11 hands and naturally missed the basket by about 5 feet. The ball went out of bounds as the buzzer sounded and the Bruins ran off the floor, escaping with the narrow win.
Although Dan had a key dunk and did his job on that last play, he must get an "F" for effort in this game. His 7 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and terrible defense and virtually non-existent ability to make any kind of offensive move in the key seriously hindered the Bruins' ability to play at a consistently high level. Sometimes, it seemed as if Dan was actually playing for Irvine, that's how bad he was. TJ Cummings was almost as bad, getting 4 points and 1 whole rebound in 17 minutes. Andre Patterson got 4 points and 3 rebounds, but was totally lost defensively in the second half. All three players failed to give the Bruins any interior offense or defense. They were especially slow at switching in the matchup zone when UC-I reversed the ball or got it into the paint, and they are the particular villains in this story of UCLA's awful defensive performance in the second half. Rico, Billy, Dijon and Jason can chase guys around the outside just fine, but if a team is going to start inside-outing your zone, your big men have step up, both obstructing the ability of the guy in the lane to pass the ball anywhere at all, and also rotating over to pick up the low post player. Whether it was Dan and TJ, or Dan and Andre, or TJ and Andre, nobody was moving their feet or any other part of their body like they have to if the matchup zone is going to work. The perimeter guys have to stay outside and let the big men handle that play.
Neither Alabama nor Riverside had the ability to inside-out UCLA's zone and they lost by 15 and 22 points, respectively. But if Irvine can break down UCLA's zone with Adam Parada and Stan Zuzak, Arizona, Stanford, Cal, USC and a few other teams can do it even better. So, this game exposed the Bruins' weakness in the interior of its zone. Of course, Matt Barnes is easily the Bruins' best interior defender, and his absence shouldn't be ignored, but UCLA has bigger problems than Matt's absence. Between Dan, TJ and Andre, somebody has to just get more effective in moving their feet defensively, and somebody has to give the Bruins a credible inside scoring presence (Matt helps here, too, but again he isn't a dominating player who can do it all by himself). The Bruins were able to beat a good, incredibly well coached Mid D 1 school like Irvine without any credible inside scoring presence, but just barely. They won't have that luxury against most of the Pac-10 (Washington and Washington State might be an exception).
Basically, the Bruins just have to thank their lucky stars, and the shooting of Jason and Billy, and Rico's defense on Green down the stretch, and take the win as a loss which presents them with many opportunities to see how they must continue to improve. A lot of people on the message boards have been debating on whether Mike Fey should redshirt this year when he becomes eligible. At first, I thought yes. Now, with Dan playing like this, I think Mike should play. Who knows? He might even be starting by February 1. Mike can actually shoot a jump-hook, a hook shot, a turnaround jumper and play with his back to the basket without getting lost. Perhaps Lavin should give TJ Cummings the nod at Washington and tell him that if he grabs 10 rebounds and plays physical defense, he's got the starting job for the rest of the year…
Even though Rico played great d on Green at the end of the game, I'd vote to keep Dijon in the starting lineup when Matt returns and have Rico come off the bench. Dijon is just a very talented all-around player. He's gotten 9 assists in the last two games, and he can hit the 3 and drive to the basket and create his own scoring opportunities. The Bruins jumped out to an 8-0 lead in this game and Dijon was a big part of that. He can score in so many ways, create plays for his teammates, use his long arms and 6-8 body to rebound like a forward and pick off passes in the zone. The Bruins just need to get this guy out there (Lavin played him 38 minutes in this game, so he was out there on Saturday). If Dan is going to be a bust inside (some interesting comments from Dijon in his forthcoming interview), and if TJ isn't going to go inside, the Bruins need to be as hard to guard as possible and Dijon is about 1,000 times harder to guard than Rico. He played solid defense today; not as good as Rico, but solid, and he will only improve as the season wears on.
Next up for the Bruins: Washington next Thursday night, in Seattle, where the Huskies have beaten the Bruins 4 straight times. Can UCLA finally end the streak? Stay tuned, same Bruin time, same Bruin channel…