Bruins Are Champs; Close out the Card

UCLA wins the Pac-10 Championship outright, and does it in style, dominating the Cardinal in Palo Alto by playing one of its most sound games of the season, 75-54...

UCLA (24-6, 14-4) defeated the Stanford Cardinal (15-12, 11-7) in convincing fashion, winning 75-54 Saturday afternoon to wind up the regular season as the Pac-10 champions for the first time since 1997.

Although the Bruins are not yet a great team (they are 0-4 against Top 25 competition this year), they have played like a great team in their last two games. Coach Ben Howland and his staff have instilled a level of fundamentals, intensity and execution that many of us thought we'd never see again from our team. With top recruits Kevin Love and Kyle Singler giving the Bruins serious consideration, UCLA has reestablished itself as a force to be reckoned with on a national basis. Despite the team being wracked by injuries this season, UCLA has won 24 games and the Pac-10 title. Just as impressively, UCLA's 6 losses this year, 4 of them to ranked teams, have come by a grand combined total of 29 points. All of the key players on this team except Cedric Bozeman and Ryan Hollins will return next season, and the team will add Josh Shipp, Lorenzo Mata, James Keefe and, probably, Marko Spica and, possibly, Russell Westbrook.

Given the improvement of every player on the roster this season other than Mike Fey, one can assume that all of the current players will come back next year even better than before. All of the signs point to a run to the Final 4 next season. And with the Bruins playing their best basketball of the season at this moment, a deep run into this year's NCAA Tournament certainly seems within the realm of possibility, even for a team dominated by sophomores and freshmen. The one caveat, perhaps, would be the long TV timeouts in the Tournament, which help teams lacking depth (like Duke) and hurt teams like UCLA, which rely on their depth and system to grind down their opponents over the course of the contest.

But back to the Stanford game. Unlike its past five starts, UCLA came out firing, quickly erasing a 5-0 deficit with an 8-0 run keyed by 3-pointers by Jordan Farmar and Mike Roll against Stanford's 2-3 zone. The Cardinal then switched to a man-to-man defense, with perhaps predictable results, with the Bruins' screen and motion offense producing numerous open looks both under the basket and from the perimeter. The Bruins quickly added runs of 6-0 and 5-2 to push its lead to 19-9. By the time Darren Collison came around a high screen to lay the ball in the basket at the rim at the 5:23 mark, the Bruins had doubled the score on the Cardinal, 30-15, and the game was effectively over. If Ryan Hollins and Ryan Wright had done a better job of finishing around the basket, the Bruins might have tripled the score. The half ended with the Bruins up, 38-24.

While its offense was producing all those high-percentage shots, UCLA's defense was simply too much for the Cardinal to handle. Arron Afflalo limited Chris Hernandez to one shot attempt in the first half. Matt Haryasz managed a single free throw. Only Dan Grunfeld (10 points) and Anthony Goods (7 points) were able to generate any offense as the Bruins forced Stanford into hurrying up its offense, producing 12 first-half turnovers (for the first time in quite awhile, the Bruins took good care of the ball, making just 5 turnovers in the first half and just 6 in the entire game). The Cardinal shot just 37% from the field in the first half, compared to 50% for the Bruins. One notable feature of the first half saw the Bruins break out a high-post offense to attack the Stanford 2-3 zone. It was interesting to watch the Bruins post up Jordan Farmar twice in a row; Cedric Bozeman, Arron Afflalo and Luc Richard Mbah A Moute also occupied the high-post position on occasion.

The second half featured more of the same, although both Hernandez and Haryasz did a much better job of getting their shots, with Hernandez scoring 9 points in the second half and Haryasz adding 7 points. Although Stanford was able to close the lead to 51-42, the Bruins promptly went on a 12-2 tear to push the lead up to 19 points, 63-44. With each offensive possession, the Bruins ate up between 25-35 seconds of the shot clock, denying the Cardinal any hope of making a comeback. The Bruins shot 50% in the second half, the same as the first half; on the negative side, the Cardinal were also able to hit 50% of their shots, but the Bruin offense simply limited their touches by using up so much of the clock. UCLA again won the battle of the boards against a bigger team and probably executed its offense more efficiently in this game than at any time of the season, making few mistakes, with their lowest turnover total of the year against a solid defensive team.

Jordan Farmar got the Bruins going, scoring their first 5 points, and 11 at halftime. He finished with 13 points and 7 assists (my stats, not the official stats), and made only 1 turnover, playing nearly flawless basketball at the offensive end of the floor (his defense got him yanked by Howland twice, but eventually even Jordan got with the program). Afflalo led the Bruins once again, this time scoring 16 points, with 11 in the second half, the 4th straight game he has scored in double digits in the second half of a game. He also added 3 assists of his own and did not make a turnover. Ryan Hollins had one of his best games as a Bruin, scoring 13 points and grabbing 6 rebounds despite early foul trouble. Luc Richard Mbah A Moute had 12 points and 9 rebounds and was particularly effective on the offensive glass, where he might've had 5 boards. He also played excellent d on the much taller Haryasz for much of the game.

Mike Roll hit all three of his 3s en route to 9 points and continued to play excellent d. Darren Collison also continued his fine play from Thursday night with 6 points, 4 assists, only 1 turnover and superior defense. Ced Bozeman had trouble handling the stronger Grunfeld on defense, but hit a key 3 en route to 5 points, 2 rebounds and 2 assists. He seemed a little more aggressive on offense than usual, perhaps as a function of playing the high post on several sequences against the zone. Alfred Aboya had 1 point, 4 rebounds and a huge block and contributed physical defense, committing 4 fouls in limited minutes. Mike Fey grabbed a rebound, and Ryan Wright contributed 3 fouls of his own to the banging beneath the basket. All of the physical play by the Bruins' post players helped limit the impact of Haryasz and Stanford's ability to score in the paint.

For Stanford, Grunfeld finished with 14 points and Goods, a surprise starter, surprised even more by stroking three 3s and finishing with 13 points. Hernandez had 9 and Haryasz 8. Lawrence Hill, a good-looking 6-8 FR SF/PF, contributed 5 points for the Cardinal, all in the second half. Jason Haas, Peter Prowitt and Taj Finger each added 2 points.

Now the Bruins face the Pac-10 Tournament and a chance to redeem themselves somewhat if they get a chance to square off against the Washington Huskies for the third time. A Pac-10 Tourney championship including a victory over the ranked Huskies would possibly set the Bruins up for a 3 seed in the West Regional for the NCAA Tournament. Anything less, and I would expect the Bruins to get a 4 seed. All in all, it was a great way to finish off the regular season, and a great way to lead in to the post season, which begins for UCLA next Thursday at the Staples Center. In any event, I hereby nominate Ben Howland as the national Coach of the Year, having accomplished so much while facing so much adversity, although I expect Bruce Pearl of Tennessee to get the award.

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