And there are, clearly, a few things to worry about it terms of this team.
But the sky isn't falling.
We'll take you through the worries, and the things to not be so worried about.
You can probably assume that UCLA has kissed goodbye the #1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. There is some worry over whether UCLA will now get a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament at all. It will probably all come down to whether Florida, Ohio State, Kansas and North Carolina win their respective conference tournaments. If each of them do, or say, Wisconsin does, instead of Ohio State, then UCLA could get bumped to a #2 seed.
There is a significant difference between being a #2 seed and a #1 seed, in terms of your chances for going to the Final Four and winning a national championship. Of course, though, these are all about the odds. That doesn't set anything in stone. The games all still need to be played. There wasn't one #1 seed at the Final Four last year.
So, we'll concede that how this loss to Cal impacts UCLA's NCAA seeding is definitely a worry.
But, on the other hand, the NCAA tournament is all about who gets hot for six games. While you might not think UCLA is "hot" right now, you can't tell. Florida played poorly at the end of its regular season last year, and then put it together for its conference tournament and the NCAA tournament. Just about a week and a half ago, after UCLA beat Washington State and the other #1-seed contenders in the country were dropping games, it looked like UCLA was playing the best basketball in the country. This stuff is extremely fickle and can change with the breeze.
There is a good argument that, with conference tournaments taking so much energy from teams that win them, having to play three games in a row in a battle-like atmosphere, in recent years many teams have fared better in the NCAA tournament that didn't advance as far in their conference tournaments. Perhaps this is why all the #1 seeds were bumped from the tournament last year before reaching the Final Four.
It's difficult to say exactly what can get you the "hottest" in March. There is a theory that it's better to be well-rested than win the conference tournament. For UCLA, right now, that's what they definitely have to hope. They'll play two less grueling games, and have more time to rest, and practice. Perhaps for a team like UCLA that has had a demanding season, having two games off might be a good elixir. In the post-game comments, Ben Howland wouldn't admit that there could be a silver lining to the loss, but we will.
After Arron Afflalo had one of his poorest games as a Bruin against Cal, many are worried about him. He actually didn't score in double figures for the first time in 29 games. Perhaps Afflalo did look a little tired against the Bears. Cal did, in fact, do a great job of shadowing Afflalo in UCLA's offense, not allowing him to get good touches and definitely very few open looks. It kept him to 0 points in the first half, and 1 point by the end of regulation. But we're not too worried about Afflalo. If there is a kid that is the most warrior-like in college basketball, it's Afflalo. And if there's someone who could benefit from some unexpected time off, it could be him. He's not your usual All-American, many of whom get their 20-or-so points on the offensive end but rest up on the defensive end. Afflalo is UCLA's defensive stopper, often expending more energy on the defensive end as he does scoring. Those 29 straight games in double figures attest to Afflalo's consistency, so it'd be really bizarre-o if he went into an NCAA-tournament slump.
There might be a little bit of worry about other teams in the NCAA tournament being able to now shadow Afflalo as well as Cal did, but most likely it's not a big cause for concern. Teams have done it before, but then, the next opponent couldn't. Cal, for one thing, has seen UCLA three times this season, and knows UCLA pretty well – better than any team UCLA will face in the NCAA tournament. The Cal coaching staff did a great job of preparing its team to face UCLA, truly taking the Bruins out of their offense with a very good defensive effort, one that kept UCLA from scoring in the first half for almost five minutes, which allowed the Bears to build that 16-point lead. In that stretch, Cal did it with good defensive energy, but also with a great scouting report on UCLA's offense. Everything UCLA usually attempts to execute offensively wasn't there. Ayinde Ubaka and Omar Wilkes switched off on shadowing Afflalo and did an excellent job.
But it's unlikely that an out-of-conference team, facing UCLA for the first time, is going to be as familiar with UCLA's offense. It's not just a matter of scouting it well, it's also a matter of knowing it on a first-hand basis, seeing how it all works on the court, being familiar with where the screens are set and the cuts are made, and how and where UCLA bumps you.
One little aside about Ubaka, who was easily the star of the game, scoring 29 points, and many of those coming on improbable, clutch shots down the stretch. Ubaka's all-time favorite school growing up was UCLA. When we first talked to him the summer going into his sophomore year (which was very early in the recruiting process back then), he literally said his dream was to be a Bruin.
If you're worried about personnel, Afflalo isn't the worry. Right now, there are two worries. The first is Darren Collison, who has been in a slump in the last several games, and UCLA's bench.
Collison didn't score in the first half of this game, while also committing five first-half turnovers. At halftime, he had missed two threes, which made him 1-for-11 from three in the last four and a half games. This was the guy who was leading the Pac-10 in three-point field goal percentage. He hit three threes in the second half, but went three for ten from behind the arc for the game. In his last five games, he's 4 for 19. The turnovers were probably the most worrisome, with Collison sloppily throwing away the ball in the first half. Collison's late-season slump is something to worry about. As we've said, UCLA isn't going anywhere without Collison playing at his optimum. Perhaps he's a bit fatigued, playing 32 minutes a game at point guard, a position that holds an extra amount of pressure on a Ben Howland team. Perhaps the time off will also be good for Collison.
It might not be that Collison needs rest, however, but needs to get into the habit of putting it into a higher gear in the first half of games. UCLA has notoriously started slowly in games this season, and probably much of it is because Collison has started slowly. In one interview this year, Collison told BRO that he thought he started slowly in games because he was determining what the defense was going to give him, and then in the second half (many times when either trailing or leading by a slim margin), he said he got aggressive and started penetrating. Well, that's exactly what happened in this game against Cal. UCLA was sloppy and tentative on offense, with Cal shutting down its execution, in the first half. Then, finally, in the second half, UCLA got aggressive offensively, which mainly means that Collison looks to penetrate. Collison finished with 20 – that's 20 second-half points. It's pretty clear that, when he plays with urgency, Collison isn't slumping. So, therefore, Collison needs to play with urgency from the first jump.
From what we've heard, it's not a matter of Howland telling Collison to try not to penetrate in the first half, but Collison being unable to do both – to execute an offense and penetrate aggressively. It seems that, in his mind, they're almost mutually exclusive. When Collison doesn't penetrate, and just executes the offense, he's doing what he thinks his head coach is telling him. Howland, though, we're sure, wants Collison to aggressively penetrate in the first half also, so there seems to be something missing here in translation. Collison struggles to do both – execute the offense and be in a mode to aggressively penetrate. He seems to not be able to reconcile one with the other. This goes back to Collison's inexperience at point guard. While, of course, he's a phenomenal player, there are parts of his game – particularly having the feel of playing point guard -- that are still lacking, something that all the national pundits, who are hailing him as the best point guard in the country, fail to see.
The other personnel worry is UCLA's bench. Or lack thereof. Howland is now playing, essentially, 6 ½ players. That's the starters, along with Alfred Aboya, and half of Michael Roll (and a very small fraction of Russell Westbrook). Roll got just 10 minutes in regulation. He'd go in and get pulled after just a few minutes. Westbrook got three minutes.
You could make a case that UCLA's bench isn't trustworthy, but then again – why is that? It's mostly because the bench wasn't developed extensively during the season. It's a tough call: If you don't develop your bench, and you win a couple of early games that you might have lost if you played your bench more, your starters are going to be tired at the end of the season, when you really need a bench, and you could lose games that are, well, far more important. In this game, it looked like the starters were fatigued, chasing around Cal's spread offense and trying to get open as the Bears shadowed them. And not only was it a matter of not trusting a bench to give UCLA's starters enough of a blow, not trusting the bench also contributed to Afflalo's foul trouble. In the first half, when Afflalo got his second foul with just about five minutes to go, Howland kept subbing him back in when he could on offense for the remainder of the half, not trusting his bench. Afflalo, then, picked up his third foul – on the offensive side of the floor – with 1:43 left in the half. Getting Afflalo a third foul and keeping him on the bench to start the second half and forcing him to play far more tentatively, trying to keep himself from getting more fouls, wasn't a great remedy for getting him out of his game-long slump.
Also, ironically, when Collison is faltering, and not aggressively looking to penetrate, you have the one guy on the team who is probably the best penetrator sitting on the bench in Westbrook. If, earlier in the season, Westbrook had been played more, and gotten those mistakes mostly out of his system, he'd be a very valuable option right now – much like Collison was a season ago when he averaged 19 points a game backing up Jordan Farmar. But, at this point, Westbrook hasn't had enough playing time and is still inexperienced, and Howland doesn't trust him.
Should we worry about free-throw shooting? While there are many reasons why UCLA lost to Cal, the most blatant one is free-throw shooting. Ubaka tied the game with a floater in the lane with 16 seconds left to send it into overtime. But the game never should have been tie-able. UCLA was 14 of 27 from the free-throw line in regulation. And it wasn't caused by Lorenzo Mata going 0 for 8 (he was 2 for 4, actually). It was Afflalo going 1 for 4, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute going 3 for 9 and Shipp missing his one attempt. Those three, combined, are shooting 74% from the free throw line for the season. If UCLA makes 74% of its free throws in regulation, it makes 5 more free throws and Ubaka doesn't have a chance to tie the game in the end.
Josh Shipp is the anti-thesis of the team. The team surges in the middle of the season, and he slumps. They slump at the end of the season, and Shipp surges. Maybe for the good of the team, Shipp should throw up some bricks and drive into the lane out of control (kidding). Without Shipp Thursday UCLA wouldn't have even been in the game. He made 15 of UCLA's 25 first-half points, hitting five threes. When Cal was following around Afflalo, Shipp was open and he hit his open looks, which he needs to do.
If you have a little bit of worry left over for personnel you might want to expend a little on Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Against an average team in terms of rebounding, Mbah a Moute had four boards, and only 1 in the first half. He turned it on in flashes in the second half, but, for the most part, looked like he was in cruise control. You can tell when he is – when he catches the ball at about 15 feet, being guarded by Theo Robertson, a guy he torched the last time he faced him, and Mbah a Moute gives up the ball readily.
The real worry isn't whether UCLA is a #1 or a #2 seed. It is whether they can play with the intensity and urgency they did in the second half against Cal – all the time. If they can, they can beat anybody. If they can't, anyone can beat them, whether it's a #2 seed or a #16 seed. The real work that needs to be done with these unexpectted days off is to get Collison, Mbah a Moute, etal, to plazy with aggressiveness in the first half. This late in the season, with the players' gas tanks almost on empty, UCLA only has so many comebacks left in them. And obviously, their ability – and luck – in being able to mount successful second-half comebacks might be starting to wear out.