How do you make heads or tails of this team?
You really can't. And if you try you'll just make yourself nuts.
But conceding that I'm a slightly nuts, I'll try. Just a little.
Why is this team like this? Here it is in a nutshell (get it?): The team is extremely talented. Don't let anyone fool you into believing that this team isn't talented. It's the most stacked team in the conference. So, with that talent, they're capable of beating anyone on any day, which they've done with wins over Kansas and Alabama. Only great talent can beat Kansas, Alabama, and then Stanford on the road. When they put it together, and all play well and with intensity, they're a Final Four-level team. The problem is that this year they haven't been able to put it together consistently. Not even from game to game, but from minute to minute. Why are they unable to do this? It's due to an entire array of different reasons.
But let's just stick to the Stanford game for this review and not get off on a 20-page-consuming tangent.
The Bruins beat Stanford for a few reasons.
First, Stanford is playing pretty poorly, and looked particularly tight. UCLA packed in its zone, and gave Stanford many, many opportunities to get back in this game with wide open looks behind the arc. But Casey Jacobsen, Julius Barnes and Josh Childress were freezing in the second half. I don't attribute this to any genius coaching move; it's generally not brilliant to allow a team with great shooters open looks. But it worked. Stanford was tentative and tight. Perhaps the big loss against USC has really shaken this essentially young Cardinal team. But if the Cardinal doesn't go on the cold streak it did in the first ten minutes of the second half, the Cardinal could very well have won this game.
But, also, for a team with its back against the wall, UCLA looked extremely loose for the first 30 minutes of this game, as if it had nothing to lose. Perhaps after getting blown out by Cal, falling to sixth place in the Pac-10, and realizing that they can't win the conference made these Bruins settle down. But then, when they then had something to lose – like a 20-point lead – they tightened up again. If there's a way for this team to play without looking at the scoreboard, convinced that they're losing by 10 points and are destined for sixth place in the conference all the time they'd probably win the conference.
Dan Gadzuric was also quite a factor in the game. Going up against the #1 rebounder in the conference and one of the best in the country in Curtis Borchardt, Gadzuric basically kicked his butt and owned the paint. In the first half, and in the run UCLA made in the first 10 minutes of the second half, UCLA dominated the boards, especially the offensive boards, getting multiple shots with every trip down the floor. It was mostly due to Gadzuric, whose rebounding skills have definitely improved throughout the season and definitely throughout his career. He's balanced and generally in position, and his hands have improved. He also was a difference maker offensively, playing well in the block, under control, and with nice post footwork. His sound play down low led to Borchardt also getting into early foul trouble, which limited Borchardt's aggressiveness, further giving Gadzuric an edge.
There was definitely some luck involved here, too. Losing Matt Barnes to a suspension made Steve Lavin have to dip into his bench, where he discovered some great, clutch play, talent and intensity from Dijon Thompson and Andre Patterson. The two seldom-used freshmen really gave UCLA a lift in the first half, a lift that was key to establishing a 9-point lead at halftime. Thompson's leaner in the lane with the shot-clock about to expire at 11 minutes left in the game also spurred the run that put UCLA up 20 points in the second half.
And please, everyone should just come to terms with the fact that Cedric Bozeman is going to be a star at UCLA before he's done. He's still not 100% recovered from his knee injury, and not even close to the form he displayed in his senior year in high school, but it's pretty obvious that he'll be a dominating point guard. He's too darn big for any 6-0 guard to stay with him. As soon as he gets his confidence back completely, and realizes that he can take these little college punks guarding him just like he took all of the high school punks, he's going to be unstoppable. It might not be this year, but you can bet it's going to happen.
In this game, though, once again, UCLA lost its focus and intensity. It proved it needed all 20 points of that lead to win. Well, at least 18 of them. Everyone in the building and watching the game on TV doubted that Stanford could go this entire game without putting on a run, which it finally did, but it proved to ultimately be too little, too late. But this is the M.O. of these Bruins. They can go up by 20 points, you start to indulge a little hope, but then they bring you back to Earth by giving up 17 points and winning by only 3. And the doubts creep in again.
However you analyze it, you have to give the team credit for the win. After two pretty devastating losses in a row, the players bounced back with some solid basketball. You have to give them credit for not folding completely and being in this game, much less winning it. The Bruins played a fairly good game, in spurts playing well offensively, but fairly poorly on defense. If Stanford had knocked down just a few of the open threes they missed in the beginning of the second half, this is a different game.
UCLA is now 18-8 overall, 10-6 in conference, and coming home to end conference play with home games against Oregon State and Oregon.