The keystone to the Bruins success this season has been effort, especially on the defensive end. Last night the Bruins allowed the Trojans to shoot 56% percent from the floor for the game. You aren't going to beat anyone at the Division 1 level if you let them shoot at that high a percentage. The reason that USC shot so well had less to do with the Trojans and more to do with a lack of effort on the defensive end by the Bruins.
When UCLA won the opening tip and quickly moved into the front court, it appeared that they had the fire and intensity that was necessary to win the game. They were playing like a team that wanted to bury Southern Cal early. Then the Bruins turned the ball over again, again and again. They had 5 in the first 4 minute of the game. But by the 14:00 mark, the Bruins held a 6-4 lead in part because they were forcing the Trojans into bad shots, rotating and not letting the quick Trojan guards into the lane. But as has been written countless times before, very often, especially with a young team, when the offense isn't clicking then the defense suffers. UCLA ended up with 10 turnovers in the first half and seemingly couldn't make a shot when they weren't giving the ball back to the Trojans. A 6-4 Bruin lead stayed that way for a couple of possessions because the bruins simply couldn't operate their offense. Then the defense started to get lax and the lead turned into a 7 point deficit fairly quickly. Defensively the Bruins never recovered, at least not in the first half. Sure, there were very good defensive plays, like Ryan Hollins taking his obligatory charge, but they became fewer and farther between. The result was a 4 point lead for the Trojans at the half. All this with the Bruins holding a 23-11 rebounding advantage over the Trojans.
After the Trojans opened the 2nd half by extending the lead to 7, the Bruins went on a 13-0 run in a little more than 4 minutes. It would be the only stretch of really good basketball that the Bruins played all game. They worked their screens, found open post players for lobs and Jordan Farmar, and to a lesser extent, Darren Collison were able to drive the lane and either get off a good shot or dish to a cutting teammate. Then the floodgates opened. The Trojans then went on a 13-0 run of their own and after trading some baskets; the Trojans eventually got the lead to as much as 11. The Bruins used a furious rally to close within 3 on two occasions before the game ended, but that should be considered an afterthought. This was a bad game by the Bruins and for the Bruins…and here's why.
As a team, the Bruins simply looked like a team that expected to show up and win. Every time USC made a hustle play the Bruins looked disinterested or far too cocky. There is a difference between being confident and not letting the opposition's nice play get to you, and being cocky and not recognizing when a game is getting away from you. The Bruins, including Coach Howland either didn't recognize that the game was escaping them or realized it far too late. There was no sense of urgency when the Bruins first went down by 11 even though there were more than 7 minutes left in the game. There was no flow on the offensive side of the court at that point except for the Bruins to run ball screens and then jack up the first semi-open three point shot that came their way. On defense, there was no rotation and Ryan Francis and Dwayne Shackelford were able to get into the lane and score at will. Now there are many who will say the both Farmar and Collison got beat far too many times into the lane and that's why the Bruins lost. Watch the game again. When the Bruins went on their 13-0 run, Francis was still getting into the lane but the defensive rotation that the Bruins had was very good, thus cutting off both the driving lane and the passing lanes out. This means that ALL of the Bruins rotated correctly, both in the post and out on the wings. When this ceased after the run both of USC's diminutive guards were able to drive and dish, mostly to Loderick Stewart, when they weren't able to get to the basket.
On the offensive end the Bruins played a horrible first half. It was a matter of time before poor fundamentals and poor execution caught up with the Bruins. It probably should have before last night but the UCLA defense has masked some offensive issues. The Bruins point guards don't get the offense started deep enough. They pull up their dribble just outside the halfcourt circle and look to pass. This led to several turnovers in the first half. Howland corrected this at the half because I only noticed it once in the second half, but the damage had been done. Combine this high start on offense with the wings not coming to the ball but simply flaring out and suddenly you have a 20-25 foot pass to initiate the offense. Again, something corrected at the half as the Bruin wings began curling to the ball, but isn't that something that should be corrected in a timeout, or even by instructing the players as they are coming up the floor? Finally, the Bruins have got to learn that post touches help loosen a defense. Not post shots or points, but touches. Basketball is all about angles and when the ball goes into the post, as it did several ties in the first half, even if the post doesn't shoot, there are good passing lanes to kick to for open shots. The Bruins had virtually zero post touches in the 2nd half after the 13-0 run. All of this adds up to the Bruins shooting a paltry 41% form the floor for the game.
Individually there was not a single Bruin player that could say he had even a decent game. Farmar finished with 21 points and 5 assists with only 3 turnovers but he defensively he looked like the Farmar of December and early January, constantly getting beat in the lane and failing to rotate on the wing properly when he wasn't. Collison was worse. He has to use his quickness to keep guys like Francis out of the lane and he simply got beat badly by both USC points, both of whom are very average at best players. Collison did hit some big threes, but he also took some ill advised outside shot early in the shot clock and he still can't finish around the basket.
Arron Afflalo started well both offensively with 7 quick points and defensively by stopping Nick Young. But then Afflalo disappeared on the offensive end, having only 10 at the half, and on the defensive end as Young became the crux of the ball movement that helped USC take their halftime lead. Afflalo finished with 19 points but he was obviously out of his offensive flow for large portions of the 2nd half and only finished with 19 because of a late flurry. Mike Roll took some horribly bad shots before hitting the two three pointers with under thirty seconds left. Defensively he ran into screens rather than going over them or under them. He looked slow and indecisive on the defensive end. Ryan Hollins has played very poorly. The epitome of his night was the goaltending on the Young shot in the 2nd half that appeared to have no chance of getting to the rim. Even Cedric Bozeman was exasperated, looking at Hollins and mouthing, "What are you doing?!" Hollins let a very average post player, Abdoulaye Ndaiye, beat him for some easy baskets. And Hollins simply wasn't strong around the basket on the offensive end. Finally Alfred Aboya and Luc Mbah a Moute looked a bit out of sync, especially with regard to finishing, but they aren't generally players the Bruins can rely on to carry them anyway. Luc finished with 10 boards and the two combined for 14 points.
What is most disturbing, though, is what to take from this game. The Bruins brought no focus and a serious lack of discipline. In all honesty, the Bruins should have run this USC team off the floor. But the Bruins didn't come to play. It was very close to a complete collapse by the Bruins. Don't let the score fool you; this game was not nearly as close as the score. The only team that beat the Bruins soundly, in a way that made you just know that the Bruins were going to lose, was Memphis. Now we can add the Trojans to that.
Now the Bruins have put themselves into a bind of pressure. They did get one favor this weekend when Arizona State defeated Cal. But now there are three teams within one game of first, and the other two are Washington and Cal, teams who are 3-0 versus the Bruins this year. In short, the Bruins have put themselves in position to have to win out in order to win the conference and with the way they played last night, you can actually see the Bruins going 1-3 to close the season. I wrote in the preview that the Bruins we see on Sunday are the ones that we should expect to see in the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament. Well, let's hope not because if the Bruins play like they did last night for the remainder of the season then their season is going to end on a Thursday or a Friday.
The motto has been "take one game at a time." That is true now more than ever. This Thursday's game at Pauley against Oregon State has become what I didn't think it could possibly become…the next "biggest game of the year."