In losing to Washington, 61-51, in Seattle, there were so many things that just weren't right.
Washington was actually playing good defense, which just isn't right.
UCLA shot 40% from the floor, which is absolutely not right, for the team leading the Pac-10 in field goal percentage.
For most of the game, Lorenzo Mata was UCLA's leading scorer.
UCLA, you could tell, wasn't right in terms of energy and intensity. Washington was pumped.
It's not hard to understand. UCLA has won the Pac-10 and is a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies were playing for their post-season lives.
While most of the UCLA players didn't have a good game, a lapse in performance is understandable and really not that worrisome – except that of one player. Darren Collison has now had three poor games of his last four. He had been leading the Pac-10 in three-point shooting, but has now hit just one three-pointer in five games, going one for 11, missing ten in a row. Except for the last one he made against Washington, he's looked tentative in shooting them, and also doesn't look confident shooting anything else, missing mid-ranges and floaters, too. UCLA is going nowhere in the post-season without Collison. It's probably not anything that he's necessarily doing wrong, he's just in a relative slump, and you have to hope that he gets out of the slump by NCAA tournament time.
While UCLA, in no way, deserved to win this game, and Washington did, you have to give credit to Washington – and to the refs. After being down by 16, UCLA, improbably made a comeback to draw within one point with a few minutes left in the game. The refs, though, definitely ended that run more than Washington did with a series of bad calls that handed the game to the Huskies in the last couple of minutes. At 54-51, Collison was clearly fouled on a drive to the basket, but there was no call and the ball went out of bounds to Washington. On Washington's possession, UCLA played good defense and it looked like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute had position for the offensive rebound when Brockman undercut him and stumbled, and a foul was called – on Mbah a Moute. Those two possessions were enough to give the game to Washington in the last couple of minutes.
But as we said, UCLA didn't deserve to win the game anyway. If they had, UCLA fans would have a considerable beef with the refs in this game, but the way it is, the poor officiating was only worthy of a mention.
The one constant of the 2006-2007 season has been that UCLA's motivation and intensity have basically determined the outcome of a vast majority of their games. Going into this one you had to wonder if UCLA would have that much motivation to play hard. Yes, they could tell themselves that they're playing to secure the overall #1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but there had to be a significant emotional letdown after winning the Pac-10 when they beat Washington State Thursday night. While there are factors on paper that can get a team motivated in a game like this against Washington, they still need to translate into the minds and hearts of the players. It was easy to see that this one could get lost in translation.
Really, UCLA didn't necessarily play horribly in this game. The big difference was Washington actually playing good defense and UCLA missing some open looks. If Washington could play defense like that every night, they'd probably be a Sweet 16 team. They closed down Arron Afflalo with a tag-team of defenders probably as good as anyone had all season. Guys like Justin Dentmon and Ryan Appleby, guys who when these teams faced each other in L.A. didn't play a lick of defense, did today.
UCLA's offense wasn't bad. Really it executed well, getting many good looks, a great deal of them lay-ups. But they missed quite a few of them and Washington is such a good rebounding team the Bruins commonly only had one shot and were out. One concern for most of the season has been UCLA's inability to make short, gimme shots, and the bug hit them again against the Huskies. Mbah a Moute missed a couple of 3-footers in critical times of the game. Then they missed at least ten mid-rangers and a few three-pointers that looked like the ball was a foot down in the cylinder before coming out.
UCLA's D didn't have a stellar performance, probably as a result of some strategic mistakes as well as execution. This was a good illustration of how critical Alfred Aboya is to this team, with Aboya missing the game with a sprained knee. Without Aboya, the Bruins can't pnysically match up against the likes of bruising Washington forward Jon Brockman and talented center Spencer Hawes. They are left to using Ryan Wright and James Keefe as back-up posts, and both played poorly. We're not even going to talk about their offense, but defensively both were significant in allowing Washington to get its key points inside. It's not coincidental that Brockman led Washington with 18 points and Hawes had 15, most of those points coming on lay-ups after passing out of UCLA's double team. Wright and Keefe were very poor in switching off double-teams, as was Lorenzo Mata. But also, it was probably a strategic error by UCLA to keep doubling the post for so long in this game. With Wright and Keefe being very inexperienced at doing it, Brockman and Hawes got most of their points when the other was being doubled. You'd probably rather force Hawes to shoot a jump hook over Wright than have him pass out of the double-team easily to Brockman for a lay-up, which they did far too many times, when it was that easy.
Josh Shipp, to his credit, led the late-game rally that almost brought UCLA all the way back. He hit a three-pointer, then, after a steal, on a break, made the lay-up and was fouled, to supply a quick, 6-point turnaround and a 14-2 overall run to bring UCLA to 50-46, with five minutes left. The game was very winnable at this point, especially after Collison picked a great time to hit his first three in five games to bring UCLA to 52-51. But after Washington made a basket to go up 54-51, Shipp then made a bad decision. On the biggest possession of the game, the one where UCLA actually had a chance to tie the game for the first time since the jump, with two minutes left, Shipp attempted a three-pointer far out of his range. He missed it, and you combine that with a few unfortunate calls from the refs and the game's over.
UCLA finishes the regular season with a 26-4 record (funny, that record sounds strikingly familiar) and almost certainly still retains a claim on a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. They probably were the odds-on favorite for the #1 seed overall before this game, and could still be, with a good performance in the Pac-10 tournament. With maybe a few losses by the other top 5 teams in the nation and just a relatively strong showing in the Pac-10 tournament, UCLA could probably still get it. So, the loss, really, wasn't that significant and, thus, didn't do much to motivate the Bruins.
At this point, with this UCLA team, the difference in the season could be how motivated they get for the Pac-10 tournament. Why, you say? While they surely would get up for an Elite Eight game, or a Final Four game, the way to get the opportunity to play in those games is to help your chances of getting there – like with winning the #1 overall seed. Getting the #1 overall seed gets you a potential Elite Eight match-up against the #8 overall seed rather than the #5, which is huge. We've said how mature and poised this team is, but it's now time to take that maturity and poise to even another level – and recognize that winning the Pac-10 tournament could get them the #1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and be the key for them returning to the Final Four.