Hopefully, Washington State will turn out to be one of the toughest teams in the conference since it took just about everything UCLA had to squeak out a come-from-behind win, 55-52, Thursday, in the conference opener.
This is also what happens when the team decides to really play for just 28 minutes. From the time UCLA actually started to play the game, at about the 8-minute mark in the first half, UCLA won, 47-33, which is about the more fitting margin of victory.
But you can't take away credit from Washington State. They were the best team UCLA had faced yet this year, even better than Texas A&M. It's easy to see why the beat Gonzaga, and you can easily project them to beat some of the more highly-touted, more athletic and less disciplined teams in the conference like Arizona, Washington or Oregon. Head Coach Ben Howland says that many of UCLA's opponents are NCAA tournament teams, but when he said last night in his post-game comments that WSU looked like one, he wasn't stretching it.
UCLA, quite simply, needs to lose. It needs a wake-up call like the USC loss last season. If that's what it's going to take to get this team to play 40 minutes, then that's what has to happen.
Because UCLA wasn't in the game for the first 12 minutes. Washington State was, by far, the superior team, out-executing UCLA on offense and playing stifling defense. In fact, Washington State, in its first four possessions, got four very good open looks, which it missed; had it made its open shots in the first half when UCLA wasn't playing defense, the Bruins easily could have gotten the wake-up loss it needs Thursday night.
Even if you're not a basketball expert, you could see that UCLA was slow, lazy and unfocused in the first 12 minutes. It was its worst defensive effort of the season, against a well disciplined team that has a very high degree of precision in its offensive execution. The Bruins were slow pushing through screens and closing out, lackadaisical in moving their feet, leaving their feet on shot fakes, and not blocking out. At the nine-minute mark, with WSU up 19-9, there was a part of me that was almost rooting for WSU to beat UCLA, just to deliver the message.
When Luc Richard Mbah a Moute hit a three to draw UCLA to 19-12, Howland called a timeout. From that timeout on, UCLA played with intensity. The difference on defense coming out of that timeout was pronounced, with Bruins now being very active on the ball and more physical off screens. That push was led by Mbah a Moute. On the next possession after his three, his ball pressure caused WSU to turn over the ball, their first turnover of the game. On UCLA's ensuing offensive possession, he had UCLA's first offensive rebound, and then followed it up about a minute later with another offensive rebound. He went to the line and knocked down both free throws, and now UCLA is in the 4-6 point deficit range it was in until it overtook WSU late in the fourth quarter. It was a critical push at the end of the first half; if UCLA hadn't cut the deficit to a 4-to-6-point range, a 10-to-12 point deficit at halftime almost assuredly would have been too much to overcome in the second half.
Mbah a Moute finished with 10 rebounds and 7 points, and was the most effective Bruin for the entire game.
Now, if you're talking who was the most effective Bruin for a half, it was easily Darren Collison. The point guard had his worst 20 minutes of the season in the first half, registering 0 points, 0 assists, 3 turnovers and 3 fouls. But he finished the game with 13 points, going 2 for three from three, 7 rebounds, and four assists – with no turnovers in the second half. Without Collison in the second half, UCLA easily loses this game. He was critical in just about every key possession down the line in the second half, and had the big block on the three-point attempt by WSU's Derrick Low with 12 seconds left and the score 53-52.
His first half wasn't great, committing foolish fouls, making a few bad decisions. It wasn't horrendous, but when you're UCLA's point guard and the entire offense is run through you, it's particularly magnified. He had picked up his second foul on a very poor charge call with 3:48 left in the second half, and Howland took him out. He then, however, returned to the floor after Russell Westbrook had given him just one minute of relief. Collison was then called for his third foul about a minute later, which made him start the second half on the bench.
Collison definitely got a bad deal on at least one of his personal fouls in the first half, but some of the responsibility for getting three fouls is on him. It's also debatable whether Howland should shoulder some of the responsibility. Putting Collison back into the game with almost three minutes left in the first half when he has two fouls is questionable. What it is, mostly, is an indication that Howland simply doesn't trust his bench much, which is a key issue here. Howland clearly doesn't trust Westbrook enough at this point to allow him to play out the last three minutes of the half. It's interesting, too, since last season Howland would have trusted Collison more as Jordan Farmar's back-up in the same situation, and to our eye Westbrook is at least as trustworthy as Collison was in the 12th game of his college career.
It's pretty plain that Howland is going to have to trust his bench, that is, Westbrook and James Keefe, down the stretch of the season if UCLA is going to have the depth it needs to be successful. Westbrook and Keefe both offer the team some capabilities that other players don't. Last year, Howland did trust his bench down the stretch. Last night, Westbrook got just two minutes in the second half and Keefe none. Keefe, in fact, played just one minute in the first half.
Howland tends to pull the bench players from the floor as soon as they make one mistake. Not even a mistake; sometimes it's if they simply miss a good shot. Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp certainly don't have such a short hook, as was evident last night, with both missing bad shots repeatedly but staying on the floor. Of course, Howland should trust his starters more, but he's going to have to trust his bench a bit more than he does now if he's going to get any solid productivity out of them down the line.
Shipp did get taken out of the game after making a few mistakes, but we learned after the game that he was nursing a sore ankle he injured in practice this week.
But with the offense stagnating like it did Thursday, it wasn't a good time for Shipp and Afflalo to revert to their selfish play, which they did at times. They repeatedly attempted to drive into the lane where there was no room and forced shots. It appears, however, that this is part of the game plan and what Howland wants them to do – at least to a degree. We understand that you need dribble penetration and can't just be a catch-and-shoot team.
But isn't it clear that, first and foremost, Collison is the guy who can take defenders off the dribble and penetrate? And after Collison, it's Westbrook. If there is some real off-the-dribble penetration going on among Bruins, these are the two guys that should be doing it. Collison just isn't doing it enough, and it could be a matter of him just not being aggressive enough. Not only would it free up Collison in the lane, but it opens up other opportunities for his teammates, like with the pick and roll he and Mata executed during a huge possession with the game tied, 43-43, at nine minutes left in the second half. And Westbrook isn't getting the opportunity. And this isn't to say that Shipp and Afflalo should never put the ball on the floor, but they should do it under control, and look more for the two-dribble, pull-up midrange, both something they're good at, rather than trying to penetrate too deep into the lane.
That trend was definitely a factor in UCLA's offense being so poor Thursday night. Perhaps, though, the biggest factor was, again, UCLA's lack of an inside offensive game. Yes, UCLA doesn't have great post scorers, but when you're not even attempting to get the ball into the post and become an entirely perimeter-oriented team, as many have pointed out, you're going to have poor offensive games like this one. Lorenzo Mata isn't Lew Alcindor, but he certainly could have provided some inside scoring chances against WSU's average post players. The one time he did get fed a post entry, from Mike Roll, Mata spun right around his defender going to the basket and was fouled. WSU was doubling the post, but you didn't necessarily see it that much since UCLA didn't get the ball into the post. It seems that UCLA is very reluctant to get the ball into the post regardless, and as we've pointed out before, a factor is that not many of UCLA's perimeter players can execute a post feed besides Mike Roll.
As is the trend against UCLA since the first game of the season, WSU had a good defensive game plan against Mbah a Moute. They sagged off him, and cheated over a second player when he was looking like he was going toward the basket. They also doubled him when he caught the ball with his back to the basket. Mbah a Moute's shot is looking much improved, hitting a three last night again, and that's critical for his offense; defenses will have to honor his outside shot and guard him on the perimeter, which will enable to him to take the bigger, slower fours that are guarding him off the dribble.
But it seems that UCLA also needs to get Mbah a Moute closer to the basket on offense. In Howland's offense, the four primarily faces the basket, but it might be time to work up some plays that get Mbah a Moute fed the ball in the low post. He's easily UCLA's best low-post scorer, being very difficult to stop with his size, strength and long arms when he gets the ball in the block.
Something has to be done to get UCLA more scoring opportunities in the post. More has to be done to get players posted up and more has to be done to get perimeter players to feed the post. If not, when UCLA faces strong, disciplined defenses like WSU's, ones that take away all of your transition baskets and make you execute your offense, UCLA is going to need more scoring than merely from the perimeter.
Overall, while you're impressed with the team for having the fortitude to pull out this game, it's all a wash since UCLA, if it had played in the first 12 minutes of the game, wouldn't have needed such fortitude.
The best thing to see was the sellout crowd getting excited and showing some energy. They weren't out of their chairs much until a few big, decisive possessions, particularly Mike Roll's big three-pointer at 3:25 left in the game that put UCLA up 53-47, its biggest lead of the game. In fact, without the energy from the crowd, UCLA might have continued to sleep through this game like it did in the first 12 minutes, and found itself with that wake-up call loss.