We did it last year, and heck, we did it again.
#2 UCLA, without one of its best players, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, out-played the visiting #12 Wildcats, 63-59.
The game wasn't, by any means, a blow-out, but it wasn't as close as the score either. UCLA had a 6 to 10 point lead most of the second half, but you still never thought they'd lose the game.
I went out to lunch before the game with Frank Burlison, and he pointed out that our BRO writer, Rob Carpentier, had picked Arizona to win the game, even before the news of Mbah a Moute not being able to play.
Frank said to me, "It was a good analysis, but he missed one thing. Arizona isn't ever as good as they appear on paper."
And UCLA's better than it appears on paper.
Have to remember that.
Seriously, if you look at UCLA and Arizona, man for man, you'd probably think Arizona is more talented. But UCLA, as a team, is better.
The Bruins, in recent years, and particularly this year, seem not to be as good as they are. This season they've played down to competition, but they've also played up to competition. When they needed to bring their "A" game, almost every time they have. But they also are better than they seem because they're smart, they play intelligently, and they're well coached.
It seems that many teams, who are just as talented as UCLA, or even moreso, play the Bruins fairly evenly for a while. But then there's a critical period in the game where the opponent makes some bad decisions and bad plays, and UCLA counteracts it with smart decisions and intelligent plays. It gives UCLA that slight edge, and lead. There's a great deal to be said for having intelligent players, and UCLA's Ben Howland repeatedly says that coaching players at UCLA, who are generally brighter, definitely makes a difference.
You have to also credit Howland, not just for recruiting smarter players, but coaching them so well. When UCLA plays Arizona, it's clear to anyone who knows basketball even slightly which is the better coached team. In crunch time, which is the team taking care of the ball, re-focusing on defense and executing an offense, and which is the other team making careless turnovers, letting down on defense and desperately going one-on-one on offense?
This was a game that illustrated the difference between smart players that are well-coached, and more selfish players that lack discipline and focus.
It's a perfect game for someone like Mike Roll, one of the headiest players around, to get the game ball. With Arizona hanging around, trailing by 41-37 a few minutes into the second half, there was a sequence where Roll really made UCLA own this game. First, he hit a three, to put UCLA up 44-37. On the next trip down, he hit another three – 47-39. On the next possession he laid off a beautiful pass to Josh Shipp under the basket to make it 49-39, to open up UCLA's largest lead of the game and put them in a dominant position. From that point on, you didn't think UCLA would lose.
And you have to mention that Roll nailed two huge free throws at the end of the game. After Darren Collison and Arron Afflalo, both very good free-throw shooters, missed front ends, giving Arizona some life in the last couple of minutes, Roll calmly swished two free throws. Roll finished with 13 points.
Arron Afflalo played one of his best games of the season, getting a game-high 22 points. He hit some big threes, and played great defense against the leading scorer in the Pac-10 conference, Marcus Williams, holding him to 11 points.
Alfred Aboya, also, was key. Getting most of the minutes available with Mbah a Moute unable to play, Aboya played a season-high 25 minutes, scored 6 points and had 11 boards. He was boarding like a man in there among the Wildcats, getting six big offensive rebounds. Aboya actually started the Roll run, getting a big offensive rebound and put-back to make it 41-37.
Collison played one of his most complete games of the season. He's been prone to playing a poor first half and a better second half recently, but he put together two good halves against Arizona. He finished with 14 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds. The game flowed in a pretty predictable way. Without Mbah a Moute, Arizona out-rebounded UCLA, especially early, and got some easy baskets on UCLA missing switches on defense. Early on, too, UCLA got some easy baskets off Arizona's man D, and Afflalo hit some threes against the zone. But then UCLA and Arizona both tightened up their defenses and both offenses went into a funk through the middle of the first half. UCLA found itself down 25-17, unable to negotiate Arizona's zone, which isn't generally a good one. Russell Westbrook then came in and played alongside Darren Collison, and UCLA went with four guards and one big, and that definitely worked. With Westbrook on the court, usually athletic Arizona looked too big and too slow, and Westbrook and Collison found seams. On the defensive side, too, against that quickness, Arizona turned over the ball and couldn't get a good look. When Westbrook found a crack in the zone, pulled up for a 15-footer and hit it, UCLA was up 26-25. The defense then created more opportunities on turnovers and UCLA completed its 13-0 run, up 30-25. The Bruins then hung together until Roll keyed the run in the second half, and the game was relatively in hand.
The other freshman, James Keefe, played nine very productive minutes. He hit a three from the top of the key, blocked a shot and played good defense on Ivan Radenovic, the one guy UCLA would struggle to match up against with Mbah a Moute out of the game.
In fact, Radenovic really presented the only dilemma for UCLA. When they doubled him early, Arizona exploited it on ball movement, finding the open man, which they do well. When UCLA stopped doubling him, he worked Lorenzo Mata in the low post, scoring a team high 20.
So, if you're a UCLA fan, you have to think: If UCLA had had Mbah a Moute as an option to guard Radenovic, say, and there hadn't been that dilemma, this game might have actually been a blow-out.
Without Mbah a Moute, the game hinged on UCLA's ability to play smart, and be more intelligent in crunch time, and that also counts for their coach. Howland had Arizona well-scouted and UCLA well-prepared. He recognized what Westbrook and Keefe have to offer and got them more minutes, which was critical to the win. He also controlled the tempo and momentum, calling key timeouts that changed the game.
I guess, besides having smart players, it dramatically helps to have a smart coach, who is proving to be one of the best in college basketball.