UCLA hasn't finished a season in either football or basketball on a positive, encouraging note since 1997. Not since the UCLA football team ended a 10-2 season with a win over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl and finished ranked fifth in the country. It's hard to count some of those Sweet 16 finishes by Steve Lavin in the early 2000s as positive and encouraging since they generally looked bad in their Sweet 16 losses, you had a sense they were under-achieving and, at the time, you still knew Lavin would be the coach next season.
So, it's been eight years.
A couple of times, those Gods have teased us, too. That's a nice way of saying that these two programs have made late-season collapses an art form. The football team in 2001 probably was the epitome, starting out 6-0 and moving up to third in the national polls, only to lose its last four of five. Then, in 2003, in Karl Dorrell's first season, beginning 6-2 only to lose its last five games and finish 6-7. Then there was last year's basketball team, Ben Howland's first season, starting the season 9-4, to then only win two mores games the rest of the way, going 2-13 and finishing 11-17.
Then there was this school year. The football team appeared to turn the corner, or at least seriously approach it this season, before getting thrown off the road to finish 6-6, with a disappointing loss to Wyoming in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Now, there's this year's basketball season. This could be the biggest heart-breaker yet. The team starts out 10-3 and looks like it's going to defy expectation of merely having a winning record. Fans weren't just talking about making the NCAA tournament, they were talking about what UCLA needed to do to get a good tournament seed (it was an old, good feeling, wasn't it?).
This was a team and a season, most fans believed, that would finally be different. These were now Howland's players and they had showed a championship mentality early this season.
Alas, thou cruel God, could this be your most pitiless ruse of all?
I don't condone fans ever booing their own teams. It's just not something I'd ever do. But I'm getting to the point where I understand UCLA fans doing it. This is now bordering on absurd. This is the stuff that makes up a Samuel Beckett play. I think we now actually say that it's becoming the Theater of the Absurd.
The Gods should at least have some pity. If you're going to deliver us a 6-6 or 11-17 season, let the teams lose consistently, and early, so fans don't get their hopes and expectations up.
Because there is one thing that UCLA athletics has just not gotten through its figurative head, which is a very basic axiom of life:
It's How You Finish.
And right now, this team looks like it is nowhere close to the finish line. They looked finished, but far from that line.
This week we said the team had hit its season lowlight losing to Stanford. How foolish were we? We won't say this loss against Cal, 64-51, is the season lowlight, because we don't want to challenge the Gods again, like we did after the Stanford game, to produce a lower light, as it did against Cal.
It wasn't difficult to analyze why this happened against Cal. It was a simple combination of some very basic things. UCLA couldn't shoot very well. They played horrible defense. The opposing team had an advantage in certain matchups and a far superior game plan.
Now, it's difficult to necessarily control points #1, #3 and #4 all the time. Sometimes you're not going to shoot well, sometimes you just can't match up personnel-wise, and even sometimes you're going to be out-coached.
But point #2 is what you can control. Defense is the element of the game that you can impact with just effort and focus.
This was easily UCLA's worst defensive effort of the season. It, for the first time, looked like the team from last season, the one that looked very lackadaisical on defense. It was a combination of UCLA's interior defense not being able to stop Cal's interior players on the block, not necessarily from a lack of effort as much as bad matchups and an unsuccessful coaching strategy. But on the perimeter, it was simply a matter of very poor effort. Jordan Farmar looked like he was on Nyquil, with very little defensive energy, often out of his defensive stance and his head not in the game. The other two primary culprits were Dijon Thompson and Josh Shipp, both of whom must have taken a few swigs of Farmar's Nyquil. All three were incredibly slow-footed in their on-the-ball defense and were absolutely atrocious in switching on screens. And the team, collectively, was particularly atrocious in its transition defense, allowing Cal 26 points in easy transition baskets. On the switches, it wasn't that UCLA's players looked like they didn't know what they had to do, they just merely looked like they didn't have the energy or desire to do it. The old, slow, don't-seem-to-care Dijon Thompson defensive approach was reapplied. Shipp allowed Cal's players to get by him most of the day on screens. They made Cal's walk-on point guard, Martin Smith, look like Tyus Edney. In transition, there was often a couple of Cal's players ahead of UCLA's players down the court.
Ben Howland has preached it all season – if the team doesn't start playing defense, it's not going to win. Maybe this game will be a tangible example of that for these players. Cal shot 51% for the game and 59% in the second half.
What could this defensive lethargy be? Could it be that this team of limited depth and some considerable youth is out of gas already for the season? We made the point earlier in the season that the team's defensive intensity tends to feed off its offensive success. So, since UCLA's offense has sputtered recently is that what's making the defense slack off? We've seen them play good defense before, so is it really just a matter of effort?
It's probably a combination of all of these factors.
But again, guys, remember: It's How You Finish.
The only way this team finishes the season on a good note is if re-applies itself to playing better defense for the rest of the season. Pretty simple.
Sometimes your shots aren't just going to go in. Sometimes matchups are going to be tough. But playing hard on defense is the universal equalizer. If UCLA, say, never gets its shooting touch back the rest of the season and the rest of the Pac-10 now has this team scouted too well, again, the only thing that will keep them in it the rest of the season is renewed dedication to defense.
UCLA did, though, get out-worked in terms of strategy. On defense for UCLA, Cal's inside players took it right to UCLA's post defenders. And UCLA, for quite a long time in this game, didn't double Cal's posts. Now, you might see how UCLA necessarily wouldn't want to over-compensate for Cal's interior offense since David Paris and Rodrick Benson had shown to be just solid-to-good players so far this season, but they weren't Ike Diogu. But then again, as we said in our preview, Cal's inside guys, at this point, really are their biggest scoring threat, especially without their outside shooter, Richard Midgely, who sat out the game with a shoulder injury. So, wouldn't it follow that Cal's scoring would have to come from its inside players, and wouldn't you want to double them and try to shut them down and force Cal to beat you from the perimeter? Without doubling Paris early, he did start to look more like Ike Diogu than Ike Diogu did. Cal's perimeter players cleared out for him, which really wasn't that necessary since UCLA's perimeter players weren't doubling anyway. It gave Paris an enormous amount of room to work around the basket. He scored a career-high 20 points, on 10 for 11 shooting. UCLA started to double him in the second half, but it wasn't a very active double team, and Paris had already gotten in such a rhythm it was hard to stop at that point. Mike Fey, when guarding him one-on-one, couldn't stay with Paris' combination of strength and quickness. Freshman post Lorenzo Mata was worked by Paris, as he was by Rob Little against Stanford, and it's obvious that he can't simply guard a good, experienced, strong post player at this point in his development. With Fey struggling and Mata getting killed, might it have been a good move to try Ryan Hollins a bit more on Paris and Little? He has played some decent post defense this season and perhaps his quickness might have been an advantage.
With Cal screening, UCLA not switching on the screens, and then Cal's players feeding its open post players, it was a long day defensively. It worked so well for Cal, I don't remember them taking practically any outside shots. There was that one three-pointer by Ayinde Ubaka. The box score said they took five other threes, but it's difficult to remember them with how easily Cal was scoring inside.
On offense, UCLA was relatively baffled by Cal's zone. But actually, they got open looks out of it pretty consistently, they just couldn't knock down the open look. UCLA missed its first 15 or so three-point attempts. It wasn't until 10 minutes left in the second half that Jordan Farmar hit UCLA's first three pointer. Arron Afflalo hit three meaningless threes at the end of the game when the outcome was already determined. Besides those three threes, UCLA shot 2 for 24 from behind the three-point arc. And really, most of those were open looks that, in the first half of the season, Thompson, Shipp, Afflalo, Morrison and Farmar were knocking down at close to a 40% clip. If they shoot how they did in the first half of the season, they make 9 of those threes, not 2, which is good for 21 additional points.
Without making them UCLA was held to its lowest scoring total of the season.
From here on out, expect UCLA to see quite a bit of zone. It's just like stacking the box against the run in football. With the way UCLA is shooting right now, you zone them until UCLA can prove it can bust it and shoot over it.
The only true positive to take away from the game is the improving play of Michael Fey. At the beginning of the season, the primary knock on this team offensively was its inability to get the ball inside, and then for Fey to finish inside. To the team's credit, particularly to Farmar, it has now developed a consistent post feed. And Fey has really improved, converting around the basket well against Cal, with seemingly only one failure at finishing in the game. Fey led UCLA with 12 points.
But that was really about the only positive thing to take away from the game.
So, really, was it the problem here with this team?
It could be a matter of early season success inflating expectation and giving us all a false sense of the team. Before the season and even during UCLA's early victories, we talked about how this team was still pretty erratic, and its youth would lend itself to unpredictability and major swings in performance. Because of that, most UCLA fans coming into the season would have probably considered, say, a 16-10 regular season record, a successful step in the right direction for the program. There are many, now, given UCLA's last two games, who have lowered expectations back to those pre-season expectations. They've reminded themselves of the original aspects of this team – lack of good interior play, no power forward and four inexperienced freshmen – that made them believe a 16-10ish record was appropriate. But, as we said, It's How You Finish. So many of those same fans have now taken a ride with those raised expectations and it seems it was a one-way ticket.
Inflated expectations were easy to fall into, though. UCLA had been playing well up until the Stanford game. But now, after this weekend, you have to tend to ask: Were they previously playing way over their head? When they shot the ball so well to beat Washington in the second half, it could be that that was the aberration and not the norm. Right now, after the Cal game, you tend to believe that an accurate assessment of this team is somewhere in the middle. They probably were playing over their head for a couple of games in the first half of the season, but they're not nearly as bad as they've been in the last couple of games.
Or was it just that they were so distracted by those white head bands?
There are many things to consider, and it's just too difficult to try to pound a square explanation into a round hole. There is also the factor that Stanford and Cal presented tough personnel matchups for UCLA. Stanford and Cal had better defenders to match up against Thompson playing the four, and he was held to 6 points apiece in both games. Also, UCLA had some pretty bad timing in facing a Stanford team that was beginning to play well and gain confidence, and a couple of Cal players (Paris, Benson) who are just now starting to come into their own.
But there were also some very plain facts that have now been exposed about this team. The most glaring one, that we pointed out at the beginning of the season, is that UCLA just plainly isn't very talented. UCLA looked considerably smaller, slower, and less athletic than Cal. The Bears out-rebounded the Bruins 43-32, mostly because of superior athleticism and, of course, effort. While we began to believe that the freshmen had matured quickly, and were now making better decisions and not turning over the ball, they regressed a bit recently, as freshmen do. We have to always recognize that player progress happens in stops and starts, not as a linear progression. When UCLA won three games in a row, it committed a total of 33 turnovers in those three games. In its last three losses, it's committed 49 turnovers.
Right now, in every Bruin fan's mind, they're wondering if this team really is closer to the one that went 10-3, or the one we've seen in the last two losses.
So, all of this leaves this team as a considerable unknown, which is unique this deep into the season. It could very well collapse, and look like last year's team for the remainder of the schedule. It could get back its collective shooting touch, and the new, 2004-2005 Dijon Thompson could again repossess that body in jersey #1. But again, even if it doesn't get back its shooting touch, the path to resurrection is had through defense. The team has to collectively realize that it's just simply not going to do it without defense, and understand that its energy on offense feeds off defense, rather than the less consistent other way around.
With considerable frustration built up for UCLA fans, who haven't had a positive football or basketball season in 8 years, there is a good amount of weight riding on the outcome of this basketball season. It might be unfair to burden this young team with that responsibility, but at this point, UCLA and its fans need desperately to believe in something. We first though we had found it in the football team when they beat Oregon on the road, but that rug was pulled out from under us. We then thought we had found it this basketball season in Howland and his new, young charges. The rug is being tugged right now. Hopefully it wasn't a premature aberration and at the end of the season we'll taht elusive positive, encouraging note to finally take away.