He said he couldn't make it, but he said that, regardless, I could write this: "UCLA started out with inconsistent effort and the game remained close through half time. UCLA came out with a much greater focus and effort in the second half, especially on D, and pulled away for a 20-point win."
Pretty close. UCLA did indeed not play with a consistent effort before pulling away against Oregon State, 71-56.
The #1 Bruins didn't look great, playing slack, lazy defense for a majority of the game, and again struggling on offense against a zone. This was very similar to the games against all the mid-major non-conference foes in December – the Bruins not showing a great effort, lacking sharpness on both ends of the court and relying on the fact that they're just plainly better and will eventually out-last and beat their inferior opponent.
Josh Shipp this week talked about having the killer instinct, the kind where you put away lesser opponents early. The team definitely didn't have it Thursday.
We haven't criticized Luc Richard Mbah a Moute much over the last two seasons. And, to be candid, we feel he's probably been the biggest key to UCLA's success in these two seasons (without his accomplishments inside, UCLA would never have made that run to the final game last season and wouldn't be the team they are this season). But Mbah a Moute, at times, doesn't seem to play hard, and UCLA is definitely a different team when he does. Against OSU, he showed intensity in spurts, and they were directly correlational to how UCLA did in this game: If Mbah a Moute was playing with intensity, UCLA made a run; If he wasn't, OSU made a run. A typical sequence was in the second half, with UCLA up 56-40, with about 7 minutest left. UCLA looked like it had the game in hand, even though there was still time for OSU to threaten. OSU's Sasha Cuic catches the ball on the wing and Mbah a Moute doesn't even attempt to push through a screen to get to him and Cuic hits a three. About two minutes later, Mbah a Moute allows Cuic to get some space again beyond the arc and Cuic hits another three, and it's 60-48 with five minutes left. It was just a few minutes after Mbah a Moute had missed two free throws.
So many observers think UCLA will go the way Arron Afflalo or Josh Shipp go on any given night. But really, while Afflalo and Shipp can make some mistakes, they've been fairly consistent night in and night out. UCLA truly goes up and down with Mbah a Moute. If he's playing with focus and intensity, UCLA is probably the toughest team in the country to beat. When he's not, they look like they deserve to be ranked about #12. Remember, he was in what many called a "slump" during that mid-major stretch in December, when UCLA looked just like it did Thursday night against OSU.
It's such a marked difference since Mbah a Moute is such a difference maker, and there aren't many times when he doesn't play with intensity. In this game, when he played hard, it looked like a man playing against his 10-year-old son on the driveway of their home. He's just too big, strong and fast. He had one baseline drive where his first step was a blur. He had a back-to-the-basket move where he spun and laid it in. He fouled out OSU's Kyle Jeffers since Jeffers had no way of staying with him. UCLA is a different team when Mbah a Moute is crashing the offensive boards. When he turns up the intensity on defense, there isn't a three, four or even a five in the country he couldn't guard.
Mbah a Moute finished with 11 points and 9 rebounds, which anyone would think is a very good night. But it's now developed to the point where there should be more asked of Mbah a Moute; He should be getting a double-double almost every night, and would if he played with intensity all the time.
But with Mbah a Moute's intensity going hot and cold, it wasn't a good night for point guard Darren Collison to not be all there either. Collison looked a step slower than usual, and not greatly focused himself. Perhaps we all under-estimated the talent of OSU's freshman point guard Josh Tarver, and he did look quicker than anticipated. But he also looked better because Collison didn't look like his usual self on defense, being a step slow and not nearly as active. He did have one of his signature dagger threes, which he hit at 8:15 in the second half to put UCLA up 13 when the offense was struggling. He had 11 points and six assists, but 5 turnovers, and Tarver went right around him a number of times.
The national perception is that Afflalo and Shipp carry the Bruins most of the time, and most of the time, that's a misconception. But in this game against OSU, that misconception was accurate. Josh Shipp is, more and more, limiting his mistakes, particularly the out-of-control, where-are-you-going drives into the lane. He's driving the lane with a better burst, more under control and with more purpose, and his forays into the paint basically kept UCLA in the game in the first half. He had a game-high 18 points and hit all seven of his free throws. Afflalo kept UCLA ahead in the second half, getting 9 of his 14 total points in the second half. He had a big three, and hit a couple of very nice, under-control mid-rangers on possessions where UCLA critically needed a basket.
Lorenzo Mata played solidly, showing a couple of nice baseline moves, one step-through that he finished with his left hand stood out. There are a couple of finishes he's missing per game, but you'd probably expect it since the finishes are always inside, where there are bigs hanging on him. He played good defense against OSU's bigs in this one, and had three nice blocked shots.
With Mata scoring 10 points, UCLA showed good offensive balance, with all five starters in double figures.
The offense, however, struggled, against both man and the zone. OSU used the zone sparingly, probably on 15 or so UCLA possessions, and it was effective the majority of the time. OSU used it only when Mike Roll wasn't in the game; whenever he came in, they went back to their man D, probably thinking that Roll gives UCLA that one more outside shooter that makes the zone too vulnerable. And Roll did hit a three against the zone, and it was a big one, putting UCLA up 32-28 with three minutes left to go in the first half when UCLA was looking shaky. UCLA looked stagnant against the zone, not moving the ball to get a better outside look and not attempting to penetrate enough to get the D to collapse. And against OSU's man defense, UCLA went one-on-one far too much, looking more like the rest of college basketball than the offense that executes with screens and passing that we've seen this year. OSU made a little run in the second half to pull within 40-34, when Ben Howland called a timeout. UCLA came out of the time out and executed a play to get Afflalo open for a three, which he hit. UCLA's offense executed better over the next five minutes or so, and that was enough to stretch its lead to 12 to 15 points, and put the game on ice.
What was curious, though, was how OSU really beat itself, not really because of anything UCLA did. It had a good game plan, trying to slow down the tempo a bit and limit turnovers, which would have killed them against UCLA, a team that is very good at, first, getting turnovers and, second, converting them into points. It crashed the offensive boards, getting 13 on the night, taking advantage of UCLA's lack of effort in rebounding. It then also took advantage of UCLA's sleepiness on D and executed its offense well, getting a number of easy baskets off good movement and execution in their offense. But OSU has enough knuckleheads on the team that, down the stretch, it took some horribly ill-advised shots, drove the lane out of control a number of times, and turned the ball over at critical times. OSU was obviously out-manned, but if it had stuck to its game plan, and had a better shot selection down the stretch in the second half, it very well might have been in the game at the end. OSU Head Coach Jay John was seen sitting on the sideline shaking his head, ruing the poor choices by his players.
Perhaps UCLA was looking ahead to Oregon on Saturday, a game whose allure has been diminished since the previously undefeated Ducks lost to USC. Perhaps it was UCLA getting used to its first true road game of the season, which, luckily, came against OSU.
But you have to, again, think about the Dark Years. Because this is a game that UCLA would have either lost or barely won during the Dark Years. Now, in this era, UCLA doesn't look stellar but still wins 71-56, and we criticize the defensive effort when they only allowed OSU to shoot 38% from the floor.
So far this season, UCLA has played with intensity when it needed it. But, as Josh Shipp alluded to, it would be good to see the killer instinct all the time.