That means, hopefully, that it can only go up from here.
But since it is the lowlight, it's appropriate that we dwell on its lowliness for a moment in the aftermath of the loss.
It was probably the lowlight since it was the first time yet this season that 1) the team played really poorly for an entire game 2) it made you suspect that the other big wins were flukes, and were dependent on one or more players playing at that magical level, and 3) the team played below expectation.
It was really the first time this basketball season that you really had that defeated ache after the game.
The loss definitely adds quite a bit of pressure to UCLA's season. At the beginning of the year, given the talent and experience on the roster, most reasonable UCLA fans would have been happy with a winning record. But darn it, these Bruins started winning, and winning games you didn't expect with inspired flare. So, those pesky expectations started rising a bit. You then went from hoping for a winning season, to speculating that the team could make the NCAA tournament, to then thinking what they needed to do to get a higher seed.
That crashed a bit last night. While expectations are still, given their situation in the season right now, that they have a very good chance to make the NCAA tournament, they've now backed up a little against the wall in their effort to do so.
With the loss to Stanford, it's pretty imperative that they win two of their next three games, against Cal at home, USC on the road and Washington State on the road. In fact, you could say that they need to win all three of these games. They are games that they'll be favored in, and the Bruins desperately need to hold serve now on every one of these types of games. Losing to Stanford drastically reduced their margin for error in the 12 remaining regular season games.
But the sky isn't falling. Fans tend to over-react when their team loses, especially UCLA fans since they've had to deal with that defeated ache quite a bit in recent years in football and basketball and that ache tends to lead to sky-is-falling, all-is-lost types of thoughts. This team, at 10-5 on the season, still realistically has a good chance of finishing the season with 17 wins, and then probably at least a total of 18 after the Pac-10 tournament. 18 wins and an RPI below 35 almost certainly gets UCLA in the NCAA tournament. UCLA's RPI was #11 before this loss, but given the remaining schedule, it would take some bizarre circumstances for it to fall below 35 by the end of the season.
But there still is that defeated ache, which leads to those paranoid fan feelings: What if they play like this the rest of the season? What if the wins over Washington and Oregon, and almost beating Arizona were flukes?
That is entirely possible. Perhaps this team was playing way over its head in the first half of the season and what we saw in the Stanford game is the more realistic capability of the team.
It's not actually that far-fetched. Senior Dijon Thompson had been playing out of his mind, far better than he ever had as a Bruin. The freshmen weren't, for the most part, playing like freshmen. Could it all have been an aberration?
More than likely, though, no. More than likely this game was more of an aberration than the 14 games before it.
Over 14 games, UCLA had shot 46% on the season. In this game just 40%. They had shot 37% from three for the season and in this game 25%. Dijon Thompson was averaging 18 points a game and almost 9 rebounds, and in this game he had just 6 and 6, and 6 turnovers (Oh, Mother of God, is that a sign? 6-6-6?) Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo scored 8 points below their averages combined. So, between its three leading scorers, UCLA scored 20 points below their averages.
It seems more like the exception than the rule. More like the aberration than the norm.
So, how did this happen?
As we said in the preview, Stanford 1) was playing the best basketball in the conference and 2) presented perhaps the toughest matchup for UCLA in the conference. Both proved to be true.
It wasn't that Stanford actually played a very good game itself, but it plainly isn't as bad as its record indicates. The Stanford team we've seen now in its last three games is closer to the real Stanford team, the one the rest of the conference will see and have to deal with the rest of the season.
In this game, there were some tough matchups for UCLA. As we pointed to in the preview, one of the most significant was Thompson's matchup with Stanford's 6-11 forward, Matt Haryasz. Haryasz, obviously, got the better of the matchup. Thompson, usually this season when being guarded by bigger, slower fours, has been able to exploit them. Not with Haryasz. He is so long that he didn't have to over-commit to be able to get a hand in Thompson's face when he was shooting, and by not over-committing and being fairly quick for his size, was able to mostly contain Thompson off the dribble. It was also, probably, that Thompson had an off night. You could see from his first shot of the game that he wasn't shooting well. And then, if Thompson doesn't, at least, give you an advantage offensively he's going to hurt you defensively. Thompson, to his credit, has generally played good post defense for the season, but Haryasz was just too big and too long for him.
In that matchup, Thompson scored 12 points less than his season's average, while Haryasz scored 6 points more than his, accounting for an 18 point counter-balance in points for the game.
UCLA also didn't have anyone who could adequately guard Stanford's leading scorer, wing Dan Grunfeld. He scored from the perimeter, on mid-ranges and in the paint. He scored amazingly efficiently, getting 25 points while taking only 13 shots. (By the way, if you want to come out of your doomsday mood for just a moment, Dan Grunfeld reminds us very much of UCLA signee, Mike Roll. Grunfeld is a bit bigger and stronger, and Roll probably a little quicker, but their skills and shooting ability are similar).
We had said that Stanford's center, Rob Little, would be critical to the outcome of the game, and he certainly was. In some critical stretches, UCLA couldn't guard him. There was a highly critical time in the second half, at about the 7-minute mark, with UCLA's deficit in single digits, where Little schooled Lorenzo Mata on the block for two straight easy baskets. Head Coach Ben Howland quickly called timeout to get Michael Fey in the game, but it was too late, the damage had been done. That put Stanford up by 10, and it was the turning point when you started to believe coming back in this game would be insurmountable.
Overall, as we did point out, this UCLA team doesn't play well against other disciplined teams. In its wins over Oregon and Washington, it played solid defense for major stretches of the game and relied on the other team getting impatient and sloppy on offense. Stanford isn't the type of team to do that. Not only are they disciplined, they are experienced, made up mostly of juniors and seniors.
Howland keeps emphasizing that if UCLA doesn't improve its defense it's not going to continue to win games. And if you want to apply the sky-is-falling mentality realistically to any part of this team's makeup, you could do it with defense. UCLA played generally poor defense against Stanford. Grunfeld had open looks, Stanford's post players had their way around the basket generally, UCLA defenders didn't come off screens well, leaving the screener opener quite often. In the second half, Stanford shot 56% from the field, and 75% from three.
Teams will have off days offensively, but what will keep a team in most games – and most seasons – is defense. UCLA had an off day offensively against Stanford but their defense didn't keep them in it. The fastest, surest way for UCLA to come close to living up to NCAA tournament expectations is to do it through defense.
And UCLA certainly had an off day offensively, to put it mildly. So far this season, at least one player has stepped up to carry the team in every game. In this game, no one stepped up. Thompson didn't score his first basket until 14:30 left in the second half. He was 0 for 3 in the first half with 3 turnovers. Brian Morrison looked like he might be the designated spark in this game, nailing a nothing-but-net three on his first touch and having a nice drive and dish in the first half. But then he snuffed out most of his spark by playing very sloppily, turning the ball over and making very poor decisions.
The freshmen each had stepped up in different games, sometimes more than one in a game. This time, none of them did. They were 1 for 7 collectively from three, with the one three by Afflalo a late-game mean-nothing type of thing. While you have to place some burden on Afflalo and Josh Shipp for playing poorly (Shipp missed some open threes, the type he usually makes, that came at critical moments in the game), Jordan Farmar is the point guard and the leader, and he has to get a great deal of the burden. The biggest knock on Farmar is simply that he's not looking for his shot enough, especially from the outside. He is probably UCLA's best outside shooter and they're not running plays to get him open from the outside enough, and he's not looking for his shot enough. In a couple of games in the first half of the season, when Farmar had a quiet first half offensively, he then stepped up in the second half and looked to shoot more. He didn't do that against Stanford. UCLA's best perimeter shooter had only one three-point attempt in the entire game.
UCLA has basically lived – and in this game, died – by the outside shot so far this season. That might be why so many fans are getting that doomsday feeling. What if UCLA's outside shooting in the first half of the season was the aberration? It has tried to remedy that situation by developing a better inside scoring game, and it has improved. In this game, Michael Fey had his first double-double of his career, scoring 17 and pulling down 11 rebounds. While Fey has improved and had a good game for him against Stanford, there were also more low-block scoring opportunities UCLA missed on. UCLA's perimeter players were feeding Fey the ball throughout the game, sometimes even excessively. And while he converted many, there were still quite a few that he didn't catch or finish. This team is still at a deficit offensively because it doesn't have an elite talent in the low block. Or even a Rob Little-level talent.
So, really, what UCLA needs to do to keep its fans from that defeated ache and resulting doomsday mentality is prove this game wasn't the norm and the first half of the season the aberration. The way it can do that is to play better defense and cut down on turnovers. While that might not win every game for you, it will certainly keep you in every game, especially ones where your offense is sputtering, like in the Stanford game. UCLA committed 20 turnovers against the Cardinal. That's 43 turnovers in the last two games. And it wasn't as if Stanford was pressuring the ball at all. So many of the turnovers have come from just freshmen inexperience – from Farmar, Afflalo, Shipp and Mata, and freshman-like errors by Morrison and Ryan Hollins. Eliminating just the traveling calls by slowing down and being more careful would go a long way, especially in this game against Stanford when traveling was called five times on UCLA. Defense and taking care of the ball are the keys.
Looking down the road at UCLA's last 12 regular season games, taking the first 15 into consideration, as we've said previously, every game could go either way. On just about any night, with this team, UCLA could just get Thompson and one freshman, say, to step up and secure the win. On another night, as the Stanford game proved, no one could step up and they could lose. It could happen against any one of UCLA's remaining opponents.
The chances are more likely, though, that the no-one-steps-up-and-UCLA-loses scenario occurs against Stanford. As we've said, they're a disciplined, veteran team, the type that could make UCLA have its worst game of the season. The game against Washington State, in Pullman, February 3rd is another possibility, as well as, obviously, the game at Palo Alto against the Cardinal Feb. 17th. Luckily, though, the Pac-10 has more run-and-gun, out-of-control teams than disciplined, fundamentally sound teams.
But the Bruins are now backing up a bit against the wall, feeling the pressure of living up to the new expectations they created for themselves by a successful first half of the season. Since November, everyone has talked about the character, toughness and never-say-die attitude of this team. In the next 12 games is when they'll really prove it.