But first, let's concede that UCLA is 16-1, rated #2 in the country and tied for the lead in the Pac-10 at 5-1.
We want to fully acknowledge that all of that is vastly appreciated. All you have to do is think a bit about the Dark Years and a deep, cold shudder goes through you.
We also have to concede that Arizona State, last night, did not play like the worst team in the conference. In fact, for the first half, they looked like one of the top four teams in the conference.
And UCLA looked like one of the worst.
So here comes the venting:
UCLA played one of its worst games, and possibly its worst half in several years against ASU Thursday night. UCLA was horrible defensively, perhaps the worst they've been defensively in years, in that first half. Offensively, when this team goes up against a zone it's like fingernails on a chalk board.
The first ten minutes of the first half were horrendous. UCLA struggled against the zone, turned over the ball repeatedly, missed open shots and played lax defense. ASU, with its great use of screens, was getting open looks, and UCLA looked like a bunch of blue-haired old ladies trying to fight through them.
UCLA found itself down 17-6, and up against the same issue they've been repeatedly this season – playing with little energy or focus in the first half, and then having to come from behind and sneak out a win by the second half.
UCLA has been trailing at halftime in four of its six conference games. In those four games, it's losing first halves by a combined score of 136 to 114, or, on average, 34 to 28. In the second half, UCLA is out-scoring the opponents in those four games 132-98, for a 33-24 average.
The marked difference is: UCLA is holding its opponents, on average, to ten less points in the second half compared to the first. Usually, in college basketball, teams score more points in the second half, once they're warmed up, realize what the other team is doing defensively, and teams tire defensively, etc. So, the difference in UCLA's defense between the first and second halves is even more pronounced.
A win is a win, yes. But heck, is it really too much to expect the #2-ranked team in the country to maybe get up by a comfortable 15 points or so, at home, against the worst team in the conference, and cruise to a win? We're not even asking for a 30-point blow-out, like fans of North Carolina or Kentucky might demand. Do we really have to be subjected to a come-from-behind victory against 6-12 and 0-7 ASU?
So, why is this happening?
A bit of it could be that it takes UCLA a half to understand what the other team is going to throw at them and to adjust.
Obviously, UCLA is struggling against the zone.
But truly, the reason UCLA is finding itself having to come back from a bad first half is mostly a lack of focus and intensity, and really poor defense in their first halves. UCLA allowed ASU to shoot a whopping 58% in the first half. ASU got easy baskets and dunks because UCLA was so slow to switch on screens. ASU got completely wide open shots because UCLA practically gives up in pushing through screens. This isn't last season, fellas, when UCLA players first were bumped by a screen and then energetically pushed through it. This year, with this team, when they first hit a screen, they tend to give up.
That's right. Give up.
Why? It's a mentality. Just like last season, a mentality tends to permeate through a team. Last season, the mentality was defense, led by the defensive energy of Arron Afflalo. This year, he's not as energetic. And then you had that energy continued by Cedric Bozeman. This year – Josh Shipp. And while Darren Collison is basically a better defender than Jordan Farmar was, Collison's defense has gotten far less consistent and aggressive in recent games.
If you listen to the video interview done with Darren Collison this week, he says some pretty striking things, if you actually noticed. When asked generally about why UCLA plays so differently in the first and second halves, and why he's so much more aggressive in the second half, Collison explains that the team is more tentative in the first half, trying to make good shot selections. But in the second half, when they're up against it, they have to be more aggressive.
There might be some of the problem. UCLA has to play with aggressiveness from the tip-off. It needs to adjust its mentality – maybe, in the first half, play with the urgency of being down by five in the second half.
This lack of aggressiveness on defense is now manifesting itself more vividly on offense against a zone. A zone can be beat, if you're aggressive, moving the ball quickly or penetrating. UCLA is the anti-thesis of this. They're tentative, moving the ball slowly, with very little threat of penetrating. While Shipp and Afflalo do have their offensive benefits, they aren't naturally great against zones since they don't naturally excel at driving and penetrating. This leaves it up to Collison, and he's been poor at it, at least in the USC and ASU games.
You all have to know where this is leading:
Free Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook clearly showed last night that he is, by far, the best perimeter player against a zone. He has a good natural instinct on when to penetrate, and he's naturally aggressive in doing it. He's also bigger than Collison and, once he's in the lane, he can hold up better physically. When Westbrook came into the game in the second half at about the 17-minute mark, the Bruins were trailing 39-34. He then took them on a 7-0 run over the next six minutes. He did it by penetrating and getting better shots against a zone, and he stepped up the pressure on defense, creating turnovers and stops.
Will Westbrook make mistakes? Sure. But he hasn't made many, given the fact that he's a freshman and how many positives plays he consistently pulls off.
Collison, for all of his speed and quickness, doesn't have a great natural feel against a zone. Neither do Afflalo or Shipp. So when you have the starters in, they struggle against a zone.
So here's the case to put in Westbrook more often, and for longer periods of time, against a zone:
-- He's better at penetrating than anyone on the team against a zone.
-- He's shooting 50% from three, while Josh Shipp is shooting 33%. Yes, Shipp has taken four times as many threes, but it still doesn't explain the disparity in three-point shooting percentage. You'd have to say, at the very least, Westbrook is at least as good as Shipp shooting from three, and if he's better at penetrating, why not put Westbrook in for Shipp against the zone? It is, really, a mystery why anyone thinks Shipp is a good three-point shooter, shooting 33% so far this year and 25% from three as a freshman.
-- If you had Westbrook and Collison in the game against the zone together, that drastically increases your chance at breaking down a zone with penetration.
It's clear that the UCLA coaching staff is starting to get more confidence in Westbrook. He actually played for a straight six or so minutes in the second half. But after he went out of the game, and UCLA started, once again, struggling, on both ends of the court, Ben Howland doesn't have enough confidence in Westbrook to put him in down the final stretch. UCLA, simply, is going to need Westbrook down the stretch of the season, and it should really be getting him more minutes now so that he's seasoned enough by then. He's one of the best players on the team and has the tools to really provide dimensions to this team that no one else can.
Even on defense, Westbrook, in his short minutes, was better than Collison. It was mind-boggling why Collison didn't get up into the slow ASU point guard, Derek Glasser. And then when Glasser got a ball screen, Collison didn't show much energy getting through it, allowing Glasser to drive and dish, especially in the first half. Westbrook did, in fact, get up into Glasser, and trapped him quickly after hedging on that ball screen. It caused two turnovers in a row during that key second-half run that Westbrook led to put UCLA ahead.
Collison, generally, didn't play well. He led the team in scoring, getting 16 points, and he scored 12 of those in the second half. He, again, made some big threes, the dagger-types, but he missed many gimmes in the lane, played sloppily for stretches, didn't show enough energy on defense and, again, isn't being near aggressive enough against the zone.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, again, missed some gimmes around the basket. Offensively, Luc is in a bit of a funk; those easy baskets around the basket he was automatic on before he's missing now. It could be that he used to get most of his looks on the low block, and used his length and strength to get the ball up on the backboard. If you've noticed, many of his misses now are from in front of the basket, after a drive. He's doesn't have a great natural touch and when he doesn't have the backboard to exploit, he misses more often. But his 14 rebounds, and seven offensive rebounds, in particular, were a huge key to the game.
Alfred Aboya provided a spark defensively when UCLA looked dead. He defended ASU's Jeff Pendergraph well, and got some big rebounds. Aboya's two offensive rebounds that resulted in a putback and a foul was a huge sequence, as well as his steal on Pendergraph and a pass to Collison for a lay-up to go up 50-41 with 7 minutes left.
Luckily, ASU came back down to earth, and played more like the worst team in the conference in the second half. Definitely some of that was improved defense by UCLA, mostly switching on screens much more swiftly, but some of it, too, was ASU playing quite a bit worse in the second half.
Many of you might think, "Geez, if they play this way against Arizona, they're going to get smoked." That really isn't necessarily the case. ASU's zone is far better than Arizona's zone, and ASU, in the first half, played just as good as anyone on both ends of the court. But yes, Arizona's overall talent could make it far more difficult for UCLA to mount a comeback on Saturday.
It'd be nice if they didn't have to.