They were on the road, against a quality opponent, without their star point guard.
But now they barely win against Arizona State, the last-place team in the Pac-10, pulling out a come-from-behind victory they didn't deserve, 67-61.
Now it's time to worry.
First, though, ASU is not as bad as they look on paper. As we said in our preview, they are well-coached, and any well-coached team is going to give you problems. The Sun Devils are severely under-manned, but they execute their offense efficiently and play good defense. We've said it before; When Herb Sendek gets more talent, ASU is going to be a force in the conference.
But for now, they just don't have the talent to get it done. UCLA should wipe the floor with them, and the Bruins didn't. And that's very worrisome.
In the preview, we said that UCLA needed to step it up on defense for the crunch time of the season, heading into post-season play.
They answered by playing probably their worst defensive game of the season.
Sure, UCLA can play good D against teams that don't execute an offense well, like Washington, Oregon State or even Arizona. But when they go up against a team that really plays basketball and executes an offense, the limitations of their defense are exposed. ASU uses a great deal of screens, and tries to find mis-matches on switches, and they did it very well Thursday night. It works especially well when the defense is lackluster, doesn't put energy into pushing through screens and is very slow to the ball, as UCLA was.
No one played well on defense for UCLA Thursday. Even Arron Afflalo was taken out of his defense by ASU's execution. Darren Collison, perhaps still hampered by the shoulder injury, was not good defensively. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was a step slow and inactive. Josh Shipp was extremely poor and lazy. ASU got many easy baskets, and converted the first 8 of 10 possessions, mostly on good looks that opened up because UCLA was slow against ASU's screens.
UCLA got confused, too, many times on ASU's screens, with the UCLA guard switching onto the ASU big man rather than staying with the ASU guard. As long as UCLA was going to keep doing it, ASU would take it, and they gave the ball to the mis-match for an easy score repeatedly.
So, UCLA played lousy defense, probably its worst of the season, and ASU was hot. They were hitting everything in the first 30 minutes. When they came back to Earth, and started shooting at a level commiserate with their ability in the last 10 minutes, UCLA quickly took ownership of the game. The Bruins went on an 18-2 run, coming back from 10 down, to go up six with a few minutes left.
But UCLA should be good enough at this point where they could weather a shooting streak by the last place team in the conference better than this. It's, again, all about defense, and the brand of D UCLA played against ASU, and West Virginia, is a huge cause for concern. This does not look like the UCLA-type of defense we're accustomed to seeing under Howland, with lazy ball pressure, no intensity pushing through screens, a lack of discipline and bad decisions – like leaving your feet on shot fakes, etc. It was a brand of defense that the rest of college basketball is playing, but not UCLA for the last couple of years.
If this continues, it's simple: Don't expect the Bruins to be alive long in March. They're just simply not good or talented enough not to have to play good defense.
They won't last long, either, if they don't get some more contributors offensively. Right now, it's Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison. Nothing personal, but when Lorenzo Mata is your third scoring threat, you're going to have problems. Afflalo and Collison scored 42 of UCLA's 67 points between the two of them. Mata had 10. Josh Shipp had six, mostly because he made four free throws in the last couple of minutes when ASU was fouling. He was 1-for-5 for the game from the field. Mbah a Moute provided no offense, getting no points, going 0-for-6. Thank the basketball gods for Mike Roll, who had 7 points in 15 minutes. When Afflalo and Collison went silent for a while, it was Roll who kept them in the game. ASU was on a run coming out of the second half, and Roll kept UCLA close with a jumper and a three in succession.
Then Collison stepped up, in a big way. He scored 11 consecutive points for UCLA, on some pretty dramatic plays. He hit a 23-foot three as the shot clock was about to expire, made a runner in the lane and was fouled, and hit two more threes. Before he went on his tear, UCLA was down, 49-43. When he was done, they were up 54-51 and in control with a few minutes left. He finished with 18.
Afflalo kept UCLA alive early, scoring 15 of his game-leading 24 points in the first half, to keep UCLA in the game. Without Afflalo, UCLA very well might have fallen behind too far to mount a comeback.
But then again, this team does have the strength of will to come back from seemingly any deficit.
Mbah a Moute had a poor game, in both phases. He missed a number of jumpers, and looked slow and tired both on offense and defense.
Josh Shipp had another poor game. You just can't say that, since he hit his free throws down the stretch or got that one big dunk off an offensive rebound in the second half that it makes up for the amount of negative plays he commits. Shipp's defense is as poor as it's ever been, constantly allowing opponents open looks because he loses his man. And his offense has disappeared. He's struggling with his outside shot, and most of the time forcing drives where he travels or commits a turnover. He is shooting 28% from three for the season, and 16% in conference. Shipp is supposed to be UCLA's second (or, at least, third) scorer, and his fall-off offensively is a huge reason why UCLA's offense is struggling and the Bruins find themselves playing lesser opponents even for most of the game. And then there's his defense; if he can't give you 14 points a game, his defense is going to severely hurt you.
If you might have noticed, Howland's hook is getting a little quicker on Shipp. He played 25 minutes in this game, when he usually averages about 30. When Shipp used to make a poor play, Howland left him in. Now he's coming out of the game quicker.
Russell Westbrook played just five minutes – seemingly an indication that, after he struggled against West Virginia, Howland doesn't have confidence in him. He was good in those five minutes, though, with a nice assist and steal. He also brings defensive intensity to the floor. Offensively, he still gives UCLA more ability to penetrate and score, especially against a zone, like the 1-2-2 ASU was running. Hopefully Westbrook can have some kind of break-out game here toward the end of the season so Howland will gain confidence in him.
This game was definitely one to worry about. It's not a good time in the season – with UCLA trying to win the Pac-10 and secure a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament -- for your defense to lose its trademark intensity and your offense to be limited to basically two players.
Like against West Virginia, without Darren Collison, UCLA loses this game.
For basketball purists, even if you're a UCLA fan, you almost wanted to see ASU be rewarded with a win. They out-played UCLA for a vast majority of the game and deserved it.
With UCLA's modus operandi this season, of starting slow, even getting behind, and then mounting a comeback, you still thought UCLA would win every game. But when UCLA was down by 10 with ten minutes left and not playing well against ASU Thursday night, there was a sneaking suspicion that UCLA was going to lose. It's a matter of odds; I mean, how often can UCLA mount a comeback and pull out a game? But it's also a matter that these Bruins have seemingly hit a wall in terms of improvement and are back-sliding.
UCLA is going to need a revolution of sorts. It will be interesting to see what players provide it other than Afflalo and Collison. Mbah a Moute could come on. Shipp could turn around his offense. Roll could step up. Westbrook, as we said, could have that break-out game.
And they all could get back to defense.
Something needs to happen or there's going to be a lot more worry in Bruinland in the next couple of weeks.