I'm sure that many other BROs are feeling the same way this Sunday morning after UCLA's hard-fought 62-59 victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide in a second round game of the NCAA Tournament. The game was a lot closer than necessary and the game highlighted some inherent weaknesses in UCLA's play, but the game also pointed out some glaring strengths that the Bruins bring to the court every time they play.
The essence of the game was that neither the Bruins nor the Tide could really take control of the game at any one point. The Bruins opened the game with 8 straight points, but Alabama eventually clawed their way to a 17-16 lead. I say "clawed" because it took the Tide nearly 12 minutes to make up the original early deficit. With the game tied at 30, the Bruins scored the first 5 points of the second half and then Alabama slowly caught the Bruins at 38. That tie score again took more minutes than would be typical for teams the caliber of UCLA and Alabama. And once again, with the game tied, the Bruins immediately took the lead again on a Jordan Farmar 3-pointer. The final "run" of the game took place around the mid-point of the second half. With the score 46-44 UCLA, the Bruins went on a 7-1 run over an almost 5-minute span to hold a 53-45 lead with a little over 8 minutes left. This proved to be the decisive run of the game, capped off by an Arron Afflalo dunk, and Alabama couldn't make it all the way back. That "run" was probably the closest that either team got to taking control of the game. So why was the game so herky-jerky?
Coach Ben Howland's Bruins start each game plan with defense. Alabama seemed no different. People who know basketball will agree, the game was more about good defense than it was about poor offense. The Bruins played their standard man-to-man that is beginning to remind me of the Stanford teams of several years ago, except the Bruins have better athletes. UCLA put little pressure on the ball until it got within several feet of the 3-point line. Then the Bruins tried to blanket the Tide shooters and force them to put the ball on the floor. Last night the Bruins did this with varying degrees of success. Once again the Bruins gave up dribble penetration early and fairly often to Alabama's guards, especially Ronald Steele, who finished with 21 points. This isn't a bad thing in UCLA's defensive strategy as the Bruins continually funneled ‘Bama's penetrators to the paint. For this to work, though, the Bruin post players must rotate into the lane to cut off the drive while others rotate around and down to cut off the entry passes. In the first half last night the Bruin post rotation was late often. That's part of the reason Ryan Hollins got into foul trouble. It appeared that UCLA simply wasn't used to the kind of athleticism that Alabama was throwing at them. Across the board, this was probably the second most athletic team the Bruins faced this season, after Memphis (Yes, Alabama is more athletic than Washington). Anyway, the Bruins improved their rotation drastically in the 2nd half and forced Alabama into some bad shots when it really mattered. Alabama is a difficult match-up for the Bruins primarily because of their length. Alabama played an active 2-3 zone for much of the game and it really gave UCLA some fits in terms of letting the Bruins attack the basket, etc. It was clear that the only Bruin wing/guard who was capable of consistently seeing over the top of the ‘Bama zone was Cedric Bozeman. Because of this, the Bruin offense sputtered at times as the ball was swung aimlessly around the arc with no real hope of getting it inside. And when the Bruins did get the ball into the high post, primarily to Luc Mbah a Moute, he had nowhere to really go with the ball because the quickness and length of the Tide cut off passing lanes that Luc is used to seeing. This defense forced the Bruins into shooting a lot of three-pointers, especially in the beginning of the game. Bruin fans have to be happy that Jordan Farmar's shot was on early from outside because as on as Farmar was, that's how off Arron Afflalo was with his shot.
Coming out of the half, Howland appeared to make better adjustments than his counterpart, Mark Gottfried. The Bruins clearly came out of the break determined to get to the basket through penetration off the wing. Cedric Bozeman did a very nice job of getting to the basket for both a lay-up and an assist to open the half for the Bruins. It was also after the break when the Bruins used the high-ball screen on the zone to free up both Farmar and Darren Collison to get into the lane and either shoot or look for the dump down. The Bruins did lose the ball on several occasions in the lane because of Alabama's length, but the change in strategy, couple with a change in UCLA's defense was the difference. The change on defense was that the Bruins clearly were told to do everything they could to keep the ‘Bama guards in front of them no matter what. This opened up some entry passing lanes that the Tide took advantage of by getting the ball to post Jermareo Davidson, who hit several turnaround jumpers from his sweet spot just off the baseline. The Bruins tried to counter this with double teams and that worked to an extent. But what really helped was when Davidson picked up his fourth foul on a silly over the back play and then he ceased to be a factor. The Bruins didn't need to double anymore and that affected the Alabama offense. There was a at least a 7-minute period in the second half when Alabama only scored 2 points, much of it with Davidson on the bench and the Bruins keeping the Alabama guards out of the lane. In the second half, even Farmar, who has been much maligned for his on the ball defense. was very good at keeping his man out of the paint.
Make no mistake, the adjustments that Howland made at the half were working well. Had the Bruins hit even 50% of their free throws, this game would have been over earlier with the Bruins winning by about 10-12 points. This is remarkable considering that UCLA shot horribly from the foul line, got out-rebounded by 11 and generally looked slower than Alabama. The reason these stats didn't mean a Bruin loss was because the Bruins held the Tide to 49% from the field, which is much better than it looks because ‘Bama was 61% in the first half. Conversely, the Bruins shot 51% for the game. Add to that the Bruins made 7 more threes than did Alabama, and there are there the most meaningful underlying stats.
The Bruins played good, but not great defense in this game. It was good enough to win and that is the key to the Bruins' season so far and from here on out. This is a good sign. Even when the offense is off the Bruins can still win against good teams because of their collective defensive effort. This will be big on Thursday night as they will play a very efficient and potent offensive club in Gonzaga, but one that plays very average defense themselves. The key may very well be the Bruins improving what they did poorly yesterday; the Bruins have to shoot better from the charity stripe, with 39% not getting it done on Thursday. But, with how well UCLA has shot free-throws this season, you'd expect that last night was the exception rather than the rule. The Bruins must also shore up their rebounding, which should be easier as the Zags aren't as athletic, quick or long as ‘Bama.
One last thing: Alfred Aboya and Lorenzo Mata looked a little lost and certainly slow last night. Thankfully Ryan Hollins was there. In many parts of the game he single-handedly held down the paint against two and three Tide players. His development this year, along with what Cedric Bozeman has done, should make them Bruin players who will be appreciated, respected and cheered long after they have graduated. They were here for the "dark days," and have now helped lead the Bruins back to an area they are familiar with. If the Bruins follow their seniors, rebound and shoot even 65% from the free throw line then Thursday should be a different game than this one. But that's a different story…