While the game showed some disturbing tendencies by the young Bruins, who are now 13-2 and tied for first in the Pac-10 at 3-1, it also offered an insight to a team that should contend for the PAC-10 crown this season.
For those of us who thought Jordan Farmar should rest, thank the basektball stars that we don't coach or aren't employed as athletic trainers. As most of you already know, Farmar hit a lay-up with 3.6 seconds remaining to beat the Sun Devils. The problem is, quite frankly, that the game shouldn't have come down to that.
While many, including Head Coach Ben Howland in his post-game press conference, thought that the team was "flat," that phrase, "flat," has come to encompass just about everything when you're not playing well. UCLA was probably a bit listless, sure. They allowed a pretty poor-shooting ASU team to shoot 47% from the floor, and were slow on many switches defensively, which led to many Sun Devil dunks. It didn't help that the one ASU player with pretty good talent, junior forward Serge Angounou, decided to go off for the second game in a row. Angounou finished with a career high 23 points, but it wasn't that surprising when you see that he scored 19 against the Trojans on Thursday and that he has generally been playing better as the season has progressed. Compounding Angounou stepping up was freshman forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute probably having his worst game as a Bruin. In fact, the defensive rotation of the Bruins was generally slow throughout the game at crucial times. There was a moment in the second half when it appeared the Bruins were finally going to take control of the game, but they "lost" Kevin Kruger, the one outside threat they really needed to worry about, and Kruger drained a three, and it's "game on." Then, with 12 seconds left, the Bruins lost track of Bryson Krueger, even though it was for a moment, and then the Bruins are forced to rely on Farmar for his last-second heroics.
But "flat," in this case, also meant generally that the team played poorly. UCLA shot a miserable 36% from the floor against the Sun Devils, and if you look at the Bruin shot selection throughout the game, it really was pretty decent. They took 15 threes and generally ran through the offense. But the Bruins missed 14 of those three-point shots and numerous lay-ups, much like in the Cal game.
It wasn't just Mbah a Moute who performed poorly, but Jordan Farmar, despite the last-minute heroics, and Josh Shipp, both didn't have stellar games. Farmar had nine points, three assists and three turnovers in 29 minutes, but that doesn't even reflect how off his game he was. He's struggling in just about every aspect right now, and whether it's a direct result physically of his sprained ankle, or possibly that the injury has gotten into his head, Farmar simply isn't himself. He's shooting very poorly, having gone 1-for-14 on threes since the beginning of Pac-10 play. In fact, he hasn't made a three-pointer in the last three games, going 0-for-10 against Cal, Arizona and Arizona State. The last three he made was in the first half against Stanford, but since he sprained his ankle in that game he hasn't made one since.
And just like with his shooting, Farmar is pressing in other aspects, forcing bad passes more often than is normal for him. And being just an average defender to begin with, the injury has definitely made him a defensively liability at times. Against ASU, there were a number of instances he left his man open, particularly when switching on screens, for easy short jumpers.
Shipp, too, is struggling. He's shooting 41% from the floor, generally because he's missing most of the shots he's forcing. When he gets a good look, Shipp is knocking them down, but he's trying to do too much at times offensively, either hurrying his outside jumper or driving to the basket when there simply isn't a lane. It appears that Shipp believes he can do things that he just simply can't at this time in his physical rehab. It must be difficult, understandably, because many of the things Shipp is attempting, that he's failing to pull off, he was able to do last summer before the hip injury. He's also struggling defensively at times.
But in this game, with Farmar and Shipp struggling, UCLA becomes very easy to defend. Just shadow Arron Afflalo and don't allow him to get a good look, which is what ASU did very effectively, especially in the first half when they limited UCLA to just 23 points and 24% shooting. Afflalo, who is easily the MVP of the season so far for the Bruins and a candidate for Pac-10 Player of the Year, being guarded tightly, tried to get his points by creating contact and going to the line, and he was actually successful. He ended the game 4 of 14 from the field, and one of 9 from three, but made 12 of 12 free throws.
Critical for the Bruins down the stretch was the play of Lorenzo Mata, again. Mata, with a nose that was bleeding and believed to be fractured, played with tissue stuffed up each nostril, and finished with 7 points, 7 rebounds and two big blocked shots. He threw a body in the way of a driving Sun Devil when UCLA needed a stop, and actually was called for a charge incorrectly in at least one instance.
So, really, it's not necessarily that the team was "flat." Arron Afflalo wasn't flat. Neither was Lorenzo Mata. Mbah a Moute, Shipp and Farmar weren't really flat, they just didn't have very good games.
But what was very encouraging was that UCLA found a way to win. When certain aspects of their game weren't working, when the Bruins knew that they didn't bring their "A" game, they started doing little things that help you win in those situations. Outside shots weren't falling, so they drove to the basket. Shots weren't falling in general, so the Bruins pounded the offensive glass. The Bruins out-rebounded the Sun Devils by 9, and had 11 offensive boards to ASU's 6. The dribble penetration and offensive rebounding were key because it gave the Bruins the opportunity to score form the charity stripe. The Bruins had a mediocre foul-shooting game against Arizona, needing to hit all of their last 8 free throws just to get the team's percentage up to 70%. The Bruins were very good Saturday, making 24 of 29, an 82% clip. In fact, the Bruins made 11 more free throws than ASU attempted. That is where the game was ultimately won, and whether it was an adjustment by Howland or the players realized it on their own, the penetration and the rebounding were critical.
Some Bruin fans may be despondent over this team's lack of consistency. But fans should face it: this is a team that is now all freshmen and sophomores. Further, it was easy to foresee that that the Bruins might be "flat" for this game after what happened in Tucson on Thursday night.
But when you play poorly, on the road, against a team that's playing better than expectation – and you win – that's an accomplishment in itself. That's what good teams do. The Bruins, even when they're playing poorly, having taken an opponent's best shot a few times and still won.
And have you looked around the nation – and specifically, the Pac-10? If you're talking inconsistent, senior-laded Washington is 1-2 in the Pac-10, losing to Washington State in Seattle last night. An Arizona team led by upperclassmen beat Washington on the road but lost to UCLA in Tucson. Cal, a team that looked like it was making a case to be among the upper echelon of the Pac-10 this season, beat UCLA in Los Angeles but lost to Oregon State in Berkeley yesterday. Cal plays almost all juniors and seniors.
While it wasn't pretty Saturday, the victory over ASU gave UCLA its first sweep in the desert since 1997. UCLA is 13-2 and 3-1 in the Pac-10. For a team currently playing all sophomores and freshmen, with some not even 100%, consistency for now might be beyond expectation. Actually, given the state of the team, beating Arizona State on the road when they're not playing well is the kind of thing this program hasn't done in a long time, and could also be considered beyond expectation.