We were curious, though, to see how UCLA's young players would handle playing a quality team in a hostile environment. While there were some rough moments – particularly late in the first half and early in the second – we thought the Bruin freshmen acquitted themselves fairly well. There were some defensive breakdowns, and some questionable shots, but they never seemed really rattled and they played with heart even when down twenty.
Early on, the Bruins matched the Spartans basket for basket and it looked like the game might be closer than we had forecasted. Josh Shipp was hot early, Mike Fey got free for a couple easy baskets and the Bruin defenders were doing a good job of contesting the Spartan shooters.
But the game started to get away from the Bruins in the latter stages of the first half. UCLA had numerous possessions where they either turned it over or took a quick outside shot. Those mistakes led to some easy Spartan baskets in transition and the crowd got into the game. Michigan State's defense became energized and several Bruins tried to take it upon themselves to stop the run. Dijon Thompson, Shipp, Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar each took some quick perimeter shots when they probably should have slowed things down. In some cases, the shots were open looks, but they still weren't quality shots.
The Bruins need to learn that not every open shot is a good shot. Sometimes you're better off making a team play defense for thirty seconds – even if the shot you ultimately get is not as good as a shot you could have taken five seconds into the possession. Slowing the pace down, and just making the other team defend for thirty seconds (particularly when you're playing on the road), can be an effective way to stop a run by the other team. When you take a quick shot, it not only gives the other team a break from defending – it can also demoralize your own team. Guys don't get back quite as quickly in transition, the other team knocks down a three in semi-transition, the crowd goes nuts and now your opponent is feeling energized and confident.
Absent a fifth year of eligibility for Bruin radio announcer Don MacLean, there was probably very little chance UCLA was going to beat Michigan State last night. But whatever chance the Bruins did have was likely done in by one key moment late in the first half. With UCLA down by eight, and less than a minute to go, Shipp had a three-point shot rattle out and Thompson committed a silly foul with three seconds left in the half. Instead of being down by five, the Bruins trailed by 10 at the half and lost whatever momentum they may have had going into the break.
In the second half, the Bruin's fate was pretty much sealed in the first couple possessions. Michigan State's Chris Hill got free from Farmar for consecutive threes and the Bruins were suddenly down by 16. After that, UCLA was basically just trying to keep it respectable. They did a good job of continuing to compete, and Afflalo knocked down several threes to keep them relatively close, but the outcome was never really in doubt.
Individually, most of the Bruins had some good and not-so-good moments. Shipp made some big shots, but struggled defensively with the Spartan wings. Several times he was taken off the dribble for a basket or a pass that led to a basket (after a Bruin big man came to help). Thompson continued to rebound well, but forced the action a few times, with the result being either a turnover or a bad shot. Afflalo also struggled with four turnovers, but he kept the Bruins within striking distance with his second-half shooting. Farmar had a poor shooting game – making two of twelve shots – but he generally held up pretty well against some tough pressure from Michigan State guards. He did have the two big defensive breakdowns when Hill hit the two three-pointers, but he played adequate defense most of the night. Mata had a very difficult time guarding Paul Davis, but he did grab six rebounds in only 15 minutes of action.
The Bruins continue to get very little out of either Mike Fey or Ryan Hollins – they had only two rebounds in a combined 30 minutes of action. Fey did have a couple early baskets, though, and it would seem the Bruins should get him touches early in the game. He may not be a great scoring threat, but the offense has a better rhythm when there are some low-post touches – as opposed to several perimeter passes followed by a three-point attempt. Another option is to post up Thompson or Afflalo. Brian Morrison got a wide open shot after feeding Affalo in the post and Arron kicked it back out. Morrison didn't make the shot, but it came out of a good offensive rhythm.
With UCLA opening up Pac-10 play on the road in Oregon next week, this game was a good experience for the Bruins. They didn't pull off the upset they hoped to achieve, but they learned something about playing a quality team in a hostile environment. Hopefully, they can build on this experience and be better prepared when they go on the road in the Pac-10.