Bruins Finally Get it Rolling on Ducks

The Bruins start out slow again and then turn it on in the second half to beat Oregon, 70-53. UCLA's defense and a couple of timely Mike Roll three-pointers key the second half surge...

For the second game in a row, the Bruins started out slowly against an opponent from the state of Oregon and trailed at halftime, only to come on strong and overwhelm the other squad in the second half, ultimately beating the Ducks, 70-53.

This game is rather easy to analyze. From the opening tip, Ernie Kent put his Ducks in a 2-3 zone. He's obviously aware that the Bruins have struggled against zones all season long. And the Bruins struggled mightily to score against the Ducks. Repeated turnovers didn't help matters (I counted 10 for the Bruins in the first half), but more importantly I think the Bruins just use a zone offense which doesn't work well with the mindset of UCLA's current personnel.

Howland uses an "overload" scheme. The idea is for constant motion to bring 3 and sometimes 4 men on the same side of the court at the same time, hopefully forcing the zone to overreact and allow for one-on-one and two-on-two isolation match-ups on the other side of the floor. When you have strong one-on-one players, you can get scoring opportunities off dribble penetration against the zone. Or, if you have players with a quick trigger on their J, you can get open looks from 3 as the zone overcompensates for the overload and leaves the deep corners on the other side of the court unguarded.

Unfortunately, UCLA only has one strong one-on-one player on the team. That would be Jordan Farmar. Now, theoretically, Darren Collison should be another strong one-on-one player, but he often seems to lack confidence to take his man off the dribble. Similarly, Farmar is the only Bruin with a consistent quick trigger from 3-point land. Arron Afflalo and Mike Roll usually take their time setting up their shots, and Collison and Bozeman often just lack the confidence to take the outside shot at all, despite the fact that both players are shooting relatively well from that area on the season.

So, when you combine UCLA's turnovers with its personnel and put them in an overload offense against a zone, they are going to have trouble scoring. That's a simple fact, and the Bruins struggled to score 23 points in the first half. Fortunately, the Bruin defense was generally very strong throughout the half as well, with Cedric Bozeman and Arron Afflalo trading off to hold Oregon star Malik Hairston to just 4 points in the half. The Bruin guards did have trouble sticking with quick Aaron Brooks and Chamberlain Oguchi and each player scored 7 points, so together they got half of the Ducks' 28 total points in the half. So, we had another case where the Bruin offense seemed incompetent, but the Bruin defense kept them in the game.

The second half started as if it was going to be a replay of the first half, with UCLA managing to outscore Oregon 4-2 in the first 4 minutes. But two changes, one obvious and one subtle, had already occurred. First, the Bruins had apparently settled down mentally and they just stopped making turnovers. Second, UCLA's defense became even more intense and focused, especially with Afflalo tracking Oguchi and Bozeman handling Hairston. Both Oregon players were having trouble even getting their hands on the ball, let alone shooting it. The Bruin post players, mainly Luc Richard Mbah A Moute, Ryan Hollins and Alfred Aboya, were doing a very strong job of rotating over and blanketing the lane in case one of the Ducks beat his man off the dribble. Brooks was Oregon's only really effective offensive player, using his great quickness to shake Farmar again and again.

The next major change in the game occurred at around the 14 minute mark. On two successive possessions, Mike Roll did not hesitate to fire up an open 3 when he got the ball deep in the corners after an overload of the zone. Mike nailed both shots. Perhaps his coaches had said something to him at halftime, but Mike was finally doing it right. UCLA went from being down 30-27 to being up 33-30. But there was still no reason to expect any real change in the tempo or style of the game. To all appearances, the game would continue to be a grind-it-out affair.

But now Ernie Kent made a fateful decision, to abandon the zone and guard UCLA man-to-man. Apparently, Kent forgot that his team proved unable to guard UCLA man-to--man up in Eugene a month ago. And that's exactly what happened in this game as well. UCLA's set offense tears up most man defenses. A series of illegal screens set by quick, athletic posts like Mbah A Moute, Aboya and Hollins opens driving lanes. Farmar and Afflalo both have the size and strength to overpower a man who's fighting a pick at the same time as he's backing up trying to stop the drive. When UCLA's men drive into the lane, its big men roll to the basket for layups and dunks unless the ballhandler just takes it himself. The ballhandler will also find men on the perimeter for open 3s. Ben Howland's man offense is simply very strong and hard for most college teams to handle for any length of time. Oregon is a mediocre team in general, and its coach doomed them to extinction when he ordered them to leave the zone.

UCLA scored 47 second half points, shooting over 62% from the floor. With Mbah A Moute and Aboya banging the glass and Farmar, Bozeman and Afflalo getting to the long rebounds after Oregon would launch an ineffective jumper, the Bruins even got out and scored some in transition. The Oregon frontcourt players appeared nailed to the floor compared to their UCLA counterparts, and all of the Bruin frontcourt players racked up inside baskets either off a short dish by a penetrating guard or by grabbing the offensive rebound. UCLA outrebounded Oregon 31-26 for the game, but Oregon had one sequence where they grabbed 3 offensive rebounds and another where they grabbed 2, so the margin was actually much larger. When UCLA drew fouls, its players knocked down the free throws. The UCLA onslaught was a true joy to watch after the slow initial 26 minutes of the game. UCLA got 37 points in those final 14 minutes. I make note of the fact that Howland shortened his bench substantially during a key 10-minute run, a rarity for him that I personally hope to see more of come tournament time.

Apart from some truly astounding jumpers by Aaron Brooks, Oregon was stymied by the UCLA defense throughout the second half pummeling. Hairston only got one field goal in the second half against Bozeman and Roll, and Oguchi, a very dangerous offensive player, failed to score a basket in the final 20 minutes with Afflalo and sometimes Roll right in his face the whole time. Although Washington State gets the lip service as the top defensive team in the Pac-10, no one can convince me that the Bruins aren't the best in the conference on this side of the ball.

Afflalo scored 12 points in the second half and 14 overall while also grabbing 4 rebounds and handing out 2 assists (these are my stats, not the official stats). Mbah A Moute equaled him with 14 points while pulling down a team-high 9 rebounds. Farmar had 11 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists, and just 3 turnovers, only 1 in the second half (the Bruins did not make a turnover in the second half until less than 5 minutes remained in the game). Ced Bozeman had 8 points and 3 assists, Ryan Hollins scored 7 points and had 2 great blocks rotating over to shut down a penetrating guard, Alfred Aboya got 6 points and 4 assists and played some of his best defense of the season, and Mike Roll added 6 points on those two key 3-pointers. Collison and Mike Fey each added a basket.

For Oregon, Brooks led the way with 19 points and 5 assists, and he played a superb game on offense. Unfortunately for him, none of his teammates could shake the Bruin defenders. Oguchi wound up with 10 points and 8 rebounds, Hairston scored 6, 7-footer Ray Schaefer had 6 points to go with 6 rebounds and Jordan Kent, a surprise starter as a 6-5 power forward, also finished with 6 points. His father, Ernie Kent, should be fired for making the kind of decisions he made in this game.

This game really doesn't teach us a whole lot. We already know that UCLA's zone offense is consistently inefficient. Apart from Farmar, our ballhandlers aren't aggressive enough, and apart from Farmar, our 3-point shooters take too much time to line up their shots. Unless Roll, Collison and Afflalo are going to start pulling a quick, accurate trigger on their 3s and/or taking their men to the basket in isolation situations, the offense will fail to produce a lot of useful shots. Coach Howland apparently prefers the overload to a high post offense, and who's to say he's wrong? His only reliable high post players are Mbah A Moute and Bozeman, and Bozeman is often too laid back to make the quick, decisive passing and/or driving decisions necessary to make a high post offense effective. Neither Hollins, Aboya nor Fey are reliable passers or ballhandlers in the post. So, overload it is. Howland must look to more commanding play from Roll and possibly Afflalo and Collison if the Bruins are going to take advantage of the isolation matchups which this kind of zone offense creates. It seems pretty late in the season for us to hope for major changes, but I guess no one really knows what the future may bring.

Fortunately, the present includes UCLA's very strong team defense when the players come out with passion and focus, especially when the defensive rotations by the big men are working. Both Ryan Hollins and Ryan Wright were called for malicious elbows thrown at guards running past them in the lane. The rest of the Pac-10 doesn't appear to be ready for facing the challenges that this style of play presents, at least not for more than a half of a game, and of course games contain two halves, so the UCLA defense inevitably grinds most opponents into the dust. Even Washington barely beat UCLA in Seattle notwithstanding UCLA's numerous turnovers and missed jump shots and the refs' happy whistles.

Now the Bruins travel to the Bay Area for the final 2 games of the season. These games will decide the Pac-10 regular season title, seeding for the Pac-10 Tournament and will weigh heavily when it comes time for the NCAA Selection Committee to place the Bruins in the Big Dance. It's a sure bet that both Cal and Stanford will throw a zone at the Bruins. It's also a sure bet that Ben Howland will have his team prepared to play some hellacious defense. But it'll be how the Bruins come out mentally prepared to take advantage of the opportunities their zone offense will present to them that will determine whether the Bruins win or lose these games.

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