For one thing, if UCLA had to lose a game, this was the one to lose.
Of course, it would have been quite a bit better if UCLA had won, in terms of its potential seeding in the NCAA tournament.
But losing a probable tournament team in West Virginia, on the road, without your star point guard and your center missing the second half, isn't something to be ashamed of.
And it's not something that the NCAA Tournament Committee is probably going to put much weight in.
UCLA didn't play horribly, but didn't play well either. Just about the level of performance you might have expected, given the circumstances.
Freshman guard Russell Westbrook, starting in place of Darren Collison, struggled, scoring 4 points, going 1-for-11 from the floor, with three turnovers. He made some poor decisions, tried to force some plays and got caught on West Virginia's back doors a couple of times. But, on the other hand, on a couple of the turnovers it looked liked he was fouled going to the basket, and he did create some baskets on his dribble penetration. In this environment, he just plainly didn't shoot very well, missing a number of open jumpers. It's a good sign, however, that Westbrook didn't shy away from his game, and was aggressive offensively.
It's tough to be too hard on Westbrook. He's a freshman, stepping into a tough situation. It wasn't as if he played 32 minutes with Darren Collison, but it was without Collison, so Westbrook was the sole ball-handler. And it's not as if the veterans on the team stepped up and carried the team, which is what you need them to do when you're starting a freshman point guard for the first time on the road.
Perhaps if Westbrook had gotten more time earlier in the year, perhaps in November and December when UCLA was playing Cal State Sam Houston, Westbrook might have had more experience and done better against West Virginia Saturday.
Westbrook truly didn't get much help from the veterans. Josh Shipp had another poor game. He was non-existent offensively for 30 minutes, and a liability on defense, again. When you're starting a freshman point guard for the first time it's not a good time either for your two frontcourt veterans, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya, to not play really well. Mbah a Moute had three points on 1-for-6 shooting, and missed a couple of easy gimmes at critical times in UCLA's second-half run that would have been significant. Aboya also missed some gimmes, and even though he had 11 points and 9 rebounds, it actually wasn't one of Aboya's best games. For the first, time, perhaps, there were some signs that Aboya got out-hustled. And, even though Arron Afflalo finished with 27 points, and came on in the last ten minutes, he didn't do much to carry the team in the first 30, when Westbrook needed to be carried.
It truly does illustrate how good Collison is, and how this team wouldn't be close to what it is without him.
Losing Mata in the second half to a hip injury, too, made UCLA very thin, and didn't give them enough firepower to complete the comeback.
It's not hard to speculate that if UCLA had Collison and Mata, they probably would have won. They played fairly well for the first 15 minutes of the first half, then went into a funk for the last five, and then the first five of the second half. At that point, they found themselves down 19. But they came back to make it a game, pulling within four, with possession of the ball with a little over a minute left. That long funk was mostly caused by UCLA missing open shots. UCLA didn't make a basket for over 9 minutes, and it wasn't like West Virginia's defense was stifling. The Bruins just missed open looks. Afflalo, Shipp, Westbrook and Mike Roll missed outside shots and Mbah a Moute and Aboya missed easy close ones. And UCLA was still in the game. Add Collison, who is their best outside shooter and best creator, and Mata, whose playing time would have kept Aboya fresh, and you have a different game with more than likely a different outcome.
The NCAA committed will take note of that.
One thing to possibly worry about in the aftermath of this game is not how it affects UCLA's NCAA seeding. It's how UCLA matches up against some things that West Virginia did. Rob Carpentier, in his previews for BRO, has said that UCLA struggles against the spread-type offense that West Virginia runs, and they did. They didn't close out really well on the Mountaineers' outside shooters, and then allowed too many cutters open off backdoors and screens. Aboya, you would think, would really be the answer here, since, unlike Mata, he has the quickness to guard good-shooting big men who will step out. But, still, missing Collison, that one more very good perimeter, on-the-ball defender, was also a big key. West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone, too, gave UCLA some difficulty, but really not as much as you might think if you were told UCLA lost this game and didn't see it. The Bruins had opportunities. Westbrook found some seams, as did other Bruins, and they had open looks, but they went cold shooting the ball for 9 minutes.
So, UCLA is 21-3, still in first place and in the driver's seat in the Pac-10. They'll slip in the polls, probably down to #4-ish. But if UCLA can win the conference title, with their great RPI, they more than likely get the #1 seed in the west regardless of how they do in the Pac-10 tournament. What UCLA is playing for in its last six remaining Pac-10 games is the #1 seed overall in the NCAA tournament.
So, really, the biggest worry coming out of the West Virginia loss is the status of Darren Collison and Lorenzo Mata as they go on the road this week to the Arizona schools.