The Old Tale of Two Halves

UCLA gets completely out-played in the first half against West Virginia Saturday, then stages a comeback from a 20-point deficit to almost pull out the game, 60-56. There are some worrisome aspects to this loss that could linger for the rest of the season...

UCLA dropped an intersectional contest against West Virginia on Saturday, 60-56, in a game that was a story of two very different halves, with West Virginia dominating the first half and the Bruins staging a furious rally in the second before falling short. Several factors contributed to the loss, most of them weaknesses that the Bruins won't be able to address for the rest of the season.

West Virginia is ranked for a reason. If not for a meltdown at the free throw line at the end of their game against Texas, they should have beaten the Longhorns, and the mental fatigue from that loss probably contributed to their loss the following night against Kentucky. Finally, they lost to an underrated LSU team that played over its head in beating the Mountaineers. Quite frankly, they could easily be undefeated and right now they are playing like one of the two best teams out of the Big East Conference. They showed their strengths in the first half of Saturday's game. On offense, their spacing was excellent, they found the open man time and time again, and they ran their offense, which includes multiple back door cuts, close to perfection. Their ability to run their offense in the first half, however, was as much to do with the poor UCLA defense as it was from West Virginia's execution. The defense by the Mountaineers in the first half was also good, but some of that stemmed from UCLA's inability to be aggressive against the 1-3-1 zone that West Virginia employed.

Let's look at the two halves separately. When Jordan Farmar hit a 3-point shot to put the Bruins up 7-2, you might have been thinking that this game might be a repeat of the USC game from Wednesday. But before you could get up to go to the refrigerator, West Virginia went on a quick 16-2 run that seemed to put the game away. The Mountaineers were hitting their threes. When the Bruins began overplaying the ball and the shooters, the Mountaineers were able to score some easy back-door baskets. It appeared that the Bruins could do little to stem the tide. But in reality, the Bruins weren't playing a particularly smart game, especially at the defensive end.

Either Coach Howland devised a poor game plan, which I doubt, or the Bruins simply didn't listen to it in the first half. It was obvious that Howland was focused on having the Bruin defenders chase their man around screens or go over the top the screens. This is done to minimize a shooter's comfort zone. The idea is that being chased forces you to put the ball on the floor and not have your feet set when you put up the shot. The Bruins did this to every Mountaineer, even the ones that required a different defensive technique. Both J.D. Collins and Darris Nichols are poor three-point shooters, and they like to get in the lane. That requires a defender to go under the screen in order to cut off the angle of penetration. Even though it leaves that player open for an outside shot, the idea is that if they are poor shooters, you'd rather have them do that and miss most of the time than get into the lane and cause chaos. There were multiple times in the first half when both Darren Collison and Jordan Farmar went over the top of screens set for either Collins or Nichols and it gave both West Virginia players an easy lane to the basket. That forced the Bruins to rotate and help, and the Mountaineer guards simply kicked the ball out to an open shooter and they hit a wide open 3. Even when the West Virginia shooters, Mike Gansey and Johannes Herber, etc., were being chased, they were able to get into the lane because the Bruins did a poor job of moving their feet and often were shading the opposing players weaker hand, thus letting Gansey, etc., get to the basket, or get deeper than they otherwise might. At this level these kids can go to the hoop with either hand, but don't let that keep you from understanding that a right-handed player typically gets to the glass a half-step quicker using his right hand. These seemingly small mistakes were huge in the first half because it allowed the Mountaineers to do what they do best, kick the ball out to an open shooter. As West Virginia gained more confidence, and the Bruin defensive intensity waned, the Mountaineers were able to start dropping deep three pointers. When the Bruins finally spent the last few minutes of the half trying to take away those shots, the Mountaineers began running back-door cuts that burned the Bruins on several occasions. The result was a 39-22 halftime lead for West Virginia.

The Bruins actually executed their offense for the most part in the first half, but they were a bit lazy as a team. There were balls rolling between players' legs, there were passes being tipped when a simple ball fake would have worked to free the passer and there were forced shots as the Bruins panicked a bit. And when Luc Mbah a Moute picked up his 3rd foul in the first half, on a lazy mental play I might add, the Bruins then lost their rebounding edge. UCLA did get many open looks from behind the arc, but other than Farmar's first, they just couldn't hit. If ever there was a game when not having Josh Shipp hurt, this was it. A viable third scoring option on the wing was imperative in this game, and Mike Roll simply didn't provide it today.

Another problem that the Bruins did appear to have was their collective timidity in attacking the 1-3-1 zone. Any zone needs to be attacked by quick passing and/or dribble penetration into the seams. The Bruins were waiting to pass the ball in the first half, allowing themselves to be continually double-teamed by West Virginia. This was still a problem in the second half, but it was mitigated by the Bruins simply using ball fakes to get the ball out of the traps.

The second half opened much the way that the first half went; the Bruins struggled to score and the Mountaineers seemingly scored at will. About a quarter of the way through the second half the Bruins trailed by 20. Then Farmar hit a three and Pauley Pavilion began to get loud and West Virginia stopped hitting their outside shots. The Bruins played more intense, smarter defense in the second half, and the adjustment that Howland made going to some token full court pressure paid off as it forced the Mountaineers to move faster than they wanted to, but in reality, it was the recognition of the screens being set and who they were being set for that picked up the Bruins. It forced West Virginia into some bad shots and before you knew it, it was a 9-point game. From that point on, West Virginia's shooters seemed a bit off-kilter. Make no mistake about it; part of the reason for the Bruins' ability to stage their second half comeback was because West Virginia was missing shots that they were making in the first half.

Offensively, the Bruins did a better job of attacking the Mountaineers regardless if they were in a zone or playing man. The Bruins began aggressively driving the lane for both shots and kick-outs, and this led to them either making some easy baskets or getting to the foul line. It also helped that the Bruins began making some shots from beyond the arc, which helped open up greater seams in the West Virginia defensive scheme.

To fully understand how the game went, though, you need to look at the individual performance of the Bruins.

When you look at the game as a whole, Farmar had a decent game. But the halves he played were polar opposites. In the first half he scored 8 points, but he appeared lazy on defense, as Clark Kellogg pointed out in the second half, as his man continually beat him into the lane and he wasn't doing a good job of fighting through screens. On the offensive end, Farmar seemed just as lazy, even letting a pass go through his legs, and then giving up on it when a Mountaineer came over to steal the ball for an easy 2 on 1 lay-up. The second half, however, we saw a different Farmer. He hit some big shots, finishing with 22 points, and even though he took some ill-advised 3-pointers towards the end of the game, that was more a product of his recognizing that he probably had to carry the team at the end, which, scoring-wise, he did. He drove the lane with purpose and did a good job of running the offense, particularly when he was receiving the ball in the middle of the West Virginia zone. It allowed him to turn and find open shooters or simply drive to the hoop. On defense he seemed to feed a bit off his offensive energy. He did a decent job of keeping his man out of the lane and rotated better in help.

Arron Afflalo had arguably his worst game as a Bruin. He was 1-10 from the floor, including missing all of his 3-point attempts and was forcing shots at the end of the game. He had some dreadful turnovers, both through poor passing and poor shots, including one where he drove the lane and threw up an air ball. He was so frustrated by that shot that he resorted to complaining to the officials that he was being fouled, when that clearly wasn't the case. On defense he let Mike Gansey go off for 24 points, and while that wasn't entirely his fault, Afflalo clearly allowed Gansey to have his way with him. Afflalo has played many minutes this season and it may be starting to affect his play on both ends of the floor. Today he looked like a young man who was hitting the proverbial "wall", with tired legs on his shots and tired defense on Gansey.

Ryan Hollins continued his inspired play. He finished with 11 points and 9 boards and was a big catalyst for the Bruins' comeback in the second half. He was rotating well again on defense and was the most aggressive Bruin on both ends of the floor in both halves. He had one or two balls that he let go that he should have handled, but his hands appear markedly improved since his return from injury. On defense, Hollins held West Virginia star Kevin Pittsnogle to only 8 points on 4-14 shooting, including no threes and he out-rebounded the Mountaineer big man. The Bruins can only hope that he continues his inspired play.

Darren Collison got starter's minutes today and he generally did a good job with his time. He, too, finished with 11 points and his aggressive drives to the lane helped to take a bit of pressure off of Farmar in the second half. He did commit some freshman mistakes, but he really helped to keep the Bruins in the game. On defense it was primarily Collison who gave the full-court pressure necessary to force Collins and Nichols into a couple of poor decisions and turnovers.

Mike Roll is a shooter and with his athletic limitations, he has to be able to hit his outside shots. Roll finished scoreless, including missing all 6 of his 3-point attempts. Defensively he was burned on a couple of plays by West Virginia's back door cuts. In short, Roll just didn't have a good game.

Mbah a Moute was saddled with the three early fouls, but he had a fairly good game. He dominated the boards, collecting 13, and he made all of his free throws. The problem is that Mbah a Moute needs to be able to step up his scoring, especially if Afflalo has an off game like today. Right now he gets many of his points off put-backs and other "garbage" plays.

The bench was essentially reduced to Collison, and that seemed to be a coach's decision. You could have guessed that Ryan Wright was not going to get many minutes if for nothing else than the fact that he would have struggled defensively against the West Virginia offense. Alfred Aboya didn't play much either, but that may have been the result of Hollins' inspired play as much as it did with Aboya's inability to defend the post the way Howland was looking for.

If you had told me before the game that Roll and Afflalo would combine for 4 points, I would have said that the Bruins would have gotten crushed. Conversely, if you had said that the Bruins would have held Pittsnogle to only 8 points and West Virginia to only 60, I would have said the Bruins would have won fairly easily. Neither was true. Ultimately, the Bruin defense did enough to win the game. The Bruins lost the game on the offensive end, particularly in the first half. Much of the offensive problems for the Bruins today stemmed from their top scorer, Afflalo, having a poor offensive game. This is a problem that could possibly be there for the remainder of the year. Other teams are going to watch the tape of this game and realize that if they stop Afflalo, they stand a good chance of winning. Farmar has been shut down in the past and the Bruins have still won. Not so with Afflalo. The Bruins also showed their youth at the end of the game with the poor shot selection in the last 2 minutes. The return of Cedric Bozeman might mitigate this somewhat as he is a senior, and he will help give Afflalo some relief by providing another source of a good perimeter defender, but it will be hard for Bozeman to come in and become that third scoring option the Bruins desperately need. Still, the Bruins came back from a large deficit to put the game in doubt, even with all of the issues they had today. They will have to address these issues quickly, though, if they want to get back on the winning track in what now appears to be a difficult trip to the Oregon schools.

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