There were a number of games on the schedule you'd have to concede were games UCLA could more than likely lose – at Oregon, at USC, at Washington, at Washington State and at Arizona. The outcome of those games could determine the Pac-10 championship.
UCLA needs to steal a couple of those games, and couldn't do it this time, losing to Oregon at Eugene, 68-66.
The Bruins will obviously lose their #1 ranking.
There were some disappointing aspects of this game, but there wasn't anything particularly surprising. For one, again, you have to expect UCLA was going to lose. And when teams lose they don't necessarily look very good, and UCLA didn't. But UCLA also lost due to some factors that we've been talking about all season – stagnancy on offense, a trend to be selfish among some players – and mostly the fact that the defense isn't near what it was at the end of last season.
When UCLA essentially traded Cedric Bozeman for Josh Shipp, we all knew that it was trading defense for offense. This season, in its first 14 games, UCLA is averaging 82 points per game, while in its first 14 games last season it averaged 74. While, of course, that isn't entirely because of Josh Shipp, there is a considerable part of it that is. He gives UCLA that extra scorer, averaging 14.7 points per game.
Defensively, though, there is a trade-off. UCLA just simply isn't the defensive team it was in the second half of last season. Admittedly, that's a tough act to follow, but it was what got UCLA to the title game – make no mistake. UCLA's offense wasn't very potent, and UCLA won those 12 games in a row on defense.
Shipp, in this game, showed his defensively liability. There were a number of times when Oregon guards simply went right around him. A few times Bryce Taylor went around a screen and Shipp didn't make much of an effort to push through it and Taylor had easy lay-ups. In the second half, during a critical stretch with about 7 minutes left, Shipp was lackadaisical in closing out on Chamberlain Oguchi, and Oguchi went right around him, drove the basket, scored, was fouled and made the free throw. UCLA had cut the lead to 53-51 and was mounting its real shot at winning the game at that point, and that started an Oregon run the other way.
Now, we know that athletically, Shipp can't be the defender Cedric Bozeman was, and there's going to be some drop-off on defense at that position. But this season there have been times when Shipp just doesn't look like he's playing hard on defense, and this game showcased it.
Shipp does tend to make up for it a bit with his ability to force turnovers with his craftiness and hands, but it's still not enough to make up for what looks like a simple lack of effort in guarding his man.
But you can't blame this loss on just Josh Shipp's defense. UCLA's defense, overall, wasn't good. Arron Afflalo looks considerably less energetic on defense than he did last year. Darren Collison found his match in quickness in Oregon point guard Aaron Brooks, and Maarty Leunen proved to be a match-up problem for UCLA's bigs.
Brooks had his way with UCLA. UCLA would switch Afflalo on him, and he even burned Afflalo.
The difference between Brooks and Collison right now is two years more experience. If you remember, two years ago Brooks was an out-of-control nightmare at times. If it's any consolation, Collison is much better than Brooks was at the same stage.
UCLA's defense, though, couldn't get enough stops, allowing Oregon to score too consistently and easily, unlike late last season, but actually, a bit like the first half of last season. Maybe another good omen: It was reminiscent of UCLA's defensive performance in the loss to USC last season (Or maybe it's just UCLA has had just three losses in the last 28 games that losses tend to appear the same). Perhaps this will send a message to UCLA – that it needs to play with defensive intensity every game, because it still just doesn't have the offense to rely on out-scoring every opponent. If UCLA's going to do anything significant this season, defense is still the key.
The question is: Can this team improve like last year's team did? If it stays at this performance level, it's probably a Sweet 16/Elite 8-level team. It will take some improvement to make it to the Final Four. Again, using last season as a comparison, the team a year ago got considerably better as the season progress, and at a rate that was unusual. The freshmen came into their own, Cedric Bozeman found some offense, and Ryan Hollins became a player. For UCLA to, say, go 27-3 this season, win the Pac-10 and get a #1 seed, it's going to need some similar substantial improvement and development.
Defensively, Josh Shipp has to become a better on-ball defender. The perimeter players have to step up their intensity in general on defense.
On offense, UCLA has to go back to executing its plays. In this game, UCLA tried to rely far too much on one-on-one play, which we saw as a developing trend against Oregon State. There are many possessions when players are standing around, not moving or setting screens and then one player tries to over-penetrate or take an ill-advised shot. It would also be a huge development if UCLA could get more out of its low-post scoring. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute looks to be the best candidate, and UCLA looked like it had started to get him the ball in the block more often. Mata also has some considerable room to improve offensively, and has shown flashes. Both had poor offensive games against Oregon, with Mata fumbling four easy baskets and Mbah a Moute uncharacteristically missing a few gimme lay-ups, one completely uncontested.
One area where UCLA could get a boost for the second half of the season is called Russell Westbrook. He was a bright spot against Oregon, looking fearless as he penetrated what looked like a weak match-up zone to get good looks. He had 10 points in 13 minutes, hitting nice mid-ranges and nailing a big three in semi-transition in the second half. Defensively, he's big enough to guard a strong two and quick enough to guard a point guard. He was just too big for Tejuan Porter and was the defender who consistently cut off lanes against Oregon's guards. He gives UCLA so many more facets that they don't have with their other personnel, and getting him experience so that his mistakes will get minimized by Pac-10 tourney and NCAA tourney time would be crucial.
Arron Afflalo had a Cal-like game, playing pretty poorly in the first half and then lighting it up in the second half. He scored all of his 14 points for the game in the second half, hitting four three-pointers. His threes were key to keeping UCLA close.
Mbah a Moute, as we said, had eight rebounds, but it didn't seem like that many, and he missed a few chippies that would have made a big difference. He usually is such a big force in games, and he wasn't Saturday. A point of emphasis for the rest of the season is Mbah a Moute playing at the top of his game.
Darren Collison, like we said, was neutralized by Brooks. Brooks drove around him numerous times, which was the first time we've seen that all season.
So, with Collison neutralized by a superior player, it wasn't a good time to have Mbah a Moute and Mata have mediocre games. Perhaps if just one of them does better – even just converts some of the missed easy lay-ins – UCLA wins.
While UCLA didn't play well, there was still a couple of sequences in the second half where it appeared liked they had a chance to take control of the game. At about the 14-minute mark, UCLA's mini-run was actually first squelched by a bad call by the referee; down just 45-41, a shot by Brooks wasn't blocked and wasn't touched by a UCLA player, but the refs called it for Oregon. Oregon then got two offensive rebounds, but UCLA still got possession and missed a few easy shots. Brooks hit a three, and Afflalo answered with a three, but over the next couple of minutes, with Oregon faltering a bit on offense, UCLA couldn't put the ball in the basket.
At close to 7 minutes left in the game, Russell Westbrook instigated a run to bring UCLA within two, 53-51, but then Shipp was lazy on his close out of Oguchi, and Oguchi turned it into a three-point play.
There was also the last couple of minutes of the game, which were fraught with poor performances and decisions: Shipp throwing an ill-advised alley-oop to Mata down just by three points with 2:48 left; Mbah a Moute missing a gimme, and Shipp getting called for a charge.
Credit has to go out to Alfred Aboya, who is a guy you can always expect will give a great effort. He played hard on both ends and was key on the boards, getting 8. James Keefe also played well in five minutes, getting four rebounds. Mike Roll, in his 14 minutes, had 4 points and four rebounds. Roll also had his first two free throws of the season, which he buried, and had the first dunk of his UCLA career. These three were a big reason why UCLA, amazingly, won the battle of the boards, 33-21.
You do have to hand it to Oregon; having played a pretty easy non-conference schedule and assuming they were like they've been for the last several years, you could have thought their record was a fluke. Perhaps they're not quite as good as 14-2 suggests, but they're much better than they've been in recent seasons. They execute their offense far better and play much better defense.
. For UCLA, it's a matter of where they can go from here – down a similar road as last season, with improvement and development, which led them to the Final Four – or not? UCLA fans, after just a short stretch of some great success, are now used to the program going beyond expectations. Last season, they far exceeded expectations, as did many players – like Hollins, Collison and Mbah a Moute. It's not unreasonable to think that they could get similar improvement this year: Mbah a Moute playing more consistently, Shipp with more effort on defense, Afflalo stepping up his D down the stretch, Mata continuing to get better and generally more use of Westbrook.
The first step, probably, is improved defense. It was the difference last year, and it is probably the answer again this season.