They are games we can now call "Not-Quite-There-Yet" Games.
At Arizona. At Washington. Stanford and Arizona at home. And now this one, Stanford on the road.
This UCLA team showed again that they're not quite there yet, losing decisively to Stanford in Palo Alto, 78-65.
The game, like those other four in the same category, exposed the reasons why this team is where it is – at 14-9, and 8-7 in the Pac-10.
Just about exactly where any sane, rational UCLA fan would have projected it to be before the season, actually.
But even a depleted Stanford roster exposed UCLA for being marginally talented and vastly inexperienced. Chris Hernandez, the Cardinal's excellent point guard, torched the Bruins for 37 points. There wasn't really anyone on UCLA's roster that could guard him, being too strong for point guard Jordan Farmar and too quick for just about anyone else. UCLA doesn't have anyone with the talent or experience to stay with Stanford's 6-10 junior forward, Matt Haryasz, a future pro who had 12 points and 9 rebounds. And the Bruins lack the athleticism to stay with a great athlete like Fred Washington, who had 12 points and 8 rebounds, the same amount of boards as UCLA's three post players, Michael Fey, Ryan Hollins and Lorenzo Mata, combined.
Overall, this inexperienced UCLA team lacked the composure to be able to stay with Stanford.
Compared to the rest of the run-and-gun Pac-10, UCLA has shown this season that it's fairly disciplined. It more or less matched up decently against the less-disciplined, out-of-control teams like Washington, Arizona, Arizona State and Oregon this season since it countered the athleticism and talent of those teams with intelligence and defense, which none of them have much of.
But when UCLA then goes up against a very well-disciplined and smart team like Stanford, they are exposed as being on the undisciplined side of the spectrum, comparatively.
When UCLA needed composure Sunday, it didn't get it. It was never more evident when UCLA drew to within 10 points with about 4 minutes left to go in the game, which is definitely enough time to win it. UCLA had the ball. In fact, three times. UCLA had three straight possessions over the course of the next minute and a half and it couldn't convert one of them. Not only couldn't it convert, it squandered those possessions by hurrying and forcing each possession. Dijon Thompson, pushing the ball without numbers on his side, threw an errant pass out of bounds. Farmar, without setting up the offense, took a quick three, and missed. And Thompson then took a quick 17-footer with a defender in his face, and missed.
That stretch really epitomized the game, and really this brand of Not-Quite-There-Yet games. UCLA showed that, while it can easily out-play teams like Arizona State or Cal with its talent and relatively disciplined style, it showed that it simply isn't talented enough to will itself to win against a team like Stanford. It needs to also stick to the formula, and that's playing smart on offense while playing tough defense.
It did, again, support the notion that when UCLA plays good defense it will always have a chance to win. Not only was it evident in this game as a whole, but in many specific stretches in the game. UCLA came out initially playing fairly good defense, and it led after 12 minutes in the first half, 23-18. Its defense then lapsed considerably, and Stanford started scoring in bunches. UCLA didn't have the defensive energy it had against Cal on Thursday, looking slow and lethargic from about that 8-minute mark on.
Its defensive collapse coincided, as it has many times this season, with it struggling offensively. UCLA went cold offensively from that 8-minute mark in the first half half to the 13-minute mark in the second half. In that 19-minute stretch of play it scored only 10 points, while Stanford scored 32.
As we said in the preview of the game, for UCLA's offense to succeed it needs to get scoring from Thompson, Farmar needs to be aggressive in looking for his shots and Fey had to get touches in the post. Early on, Fey looked like he was going to have the game of his life, with UCLA feeding him the ball and Fey converting them. He then missed a couple of easy lay-ins, and it looked like Fey's confidence was then shot. And UCLA's perimeter players' confidence in giving him the ball was equally as shot. Thompson needs to not only get some touches on the ball, but has to take good shots, which he didn't do for much of the game. Once he missed his first couple of shots he then started forcing them, and missing more. Farmar finally started aggressively going to the basket toward the end of the second half, which spurred UCLA's comeback from being down by 22 points to draw to within 10. But before that, Farmar wasn't looking for his shot, only taking three in the first half and then not one in the second half before about the 12-minute mark.
What UCLA collectively failed to realize was that, even though it wasn't doing well offensively for that 19-minute stretch of play, Stanford was still the same team it was in the first 8 minutes. It still had no bench and its stars had to play carefully so as not to get into foul trouble. It still had no one who could consistently hit an outside jumper besides Hernandez. If you still took away Washington's transition game, he couldn't score. If you still doubled Haryasz and Rob Little in the post, they'd still struggle to score. And you still needed to shadow Hernandez since he is the only player who could shoot well on the team.
But all of those defensive strategies seemed to disappear when UCLA's offense did.
The biggest lesson of this game for UCLA is: Yeah, it's easy to be the more disciplined team when playing against Arizona State or Oregon, but the real test of discipline and composure is sustaining it against a well-disciplined and composed team like Stanford.
Perhaps they're not quite there yet.