#1 UCLA lost to #8 Texas Sunday, 63-61, and you have to put it in perspective.
First, a loss in December against a top ten team in the nation will have little, in any, impact on UCLA's seeding in the NCAA tournament in March. If UCLA wins the Pac-10, it will get a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament regardless.
It wasn't an embarrassing loss – a loss that, say, exposed UCLA for being over-rated and not worthy of the hype. In fact, it shows that UCLA deserves to be considered among the best teams in the country. And, when it has everyone back to health, probably does, in fact, deserve the #1 ranking.
The loss could be, also, what every good team needs every year: The proverbial wake-up call.
The turning point of Ben Howland's program at UCLA came on February 19th, 2005, when UCLA lost at USC. UCLA didn't come to play that day, and a good USC team out-played and out-hustled the Bruins. That was the quintessential wake-up call – for that team, for the season and for Howland's program. Up until that time, the players hadn't completely bought in to Howland's philosophies, but that loss seemed to convince them.
UCLA went 12-1 the rest of the 2005-2006 season, only losing in the NCAA championship game. Since that game, UCLA is 48-8, which is an 85% winning percentage, and have gone to two Final Fours.
That loss definitely seemed to inject the players with a newfound urgency that drove them to the championship game that season, and was really the seminal touchstone of Howland's program that has carried it since.
To a lesser extent, last season there was the loss to Cal in the Pac-10 tournament. Perhaps without that loss UCLA wouldn't have built the fortitude it needed to win four games in the tournament and go to its second consecutive Final Four.
Florida, last year, the reigning NCAA champ from 2005-2006 and easily the best team in the country, needed five regular-season losses to get it ready to make its second consecutive NCAA championship run.
It's why teams don't go undefeated, well, since John Wooden.
And in watching the team lose to Texas Sunday, it was definitely a constructive loss that you could see this team building from.
It showed some things UCLA needs to work on if it does, indeed, hope to get back to a third consecutive Final Four.
But mostly, like the other wake-up calls this program has had under Howland, the Texas game mostly showed that, no matter how good you are, no matter that #1 ranking, you have to come ready to play for 40 minutes if you want to beat a good team.
UCLA didn't come to play for the first 20 minutes. The first half was abysmal in terms of effort and intensity. The Bruins found themselves down 12 at halftime, 37-25, but it could have been worse.
And no matter how much the focus tends to shift sometimes to offense, you have to remember – and this game was a reminder – that it is all about defense.
This game hinged on three aspects: UCLA's poor defense in the first half, Texas' good defense in the first half and UCLA's good defense in the second half. Those were the three determining factors of the game.
UCLA's defense in the first half was mediocre, at best. There was very little energy in its on-ball defense, a lack of urgency in switching on screens, poor hedging, and slow help defense. Primarily, the on-ball defense was poor, with Texas's quick perimeter players being able to take UCLA's defenders off the dribble with ease. Darren Collison, in his first start back from a knee injury, looked at least a step slow in the first half guarding D.J. Augustin. Josh Shipp was beat a couple of times off the dribble by Justin Mason. Kevin Love was poor defensively in the first half, slow and ineffective to hedge, leaving his feet on pump fakes, and not as physically active as he needs to be to deny position in his post defense.
Russell Westbrook was, perhaps, the only defensive bright spot of the first half.
But overall, it was a great offensive game plan by Texas coach Rick Barnes; with Collison probably still not 100% and Shipp not a great on-ball defender – to clear out and let his quick guards try to create.
You really understood just how poor UCLA's defense was in the first half when you saw it in the second half. It was as if all the Bruin players had taken five expresso shots in the locker room. Collison looked like he lost the tentativeness from his injury, and his on-ball defense of Augustin in the second half was critical. Augustin still got some points, but he wasn't near as effective in penetrating. Texas scored on 12 of its last 13 possessions of the first half, which ballooned the score from 14-13 in favor of UCLA to 37-25 Texas. UCLA couldn't get a stop. Then, to start the second half, UCLA had four stops in a row, which spurred some easy baskets on the offensive side and the Bruins were back in it at 37-33.
It's all about defense, people.
Speaking of which, Texas stopped down UCLA in the first half for nine minutes. UCLA went without scoring from 13:31 to 4:38. And it was mostly because Texas was running a strong zone defense that UCLA couldn't break.
So, here we go again. A familiar subject. UCLA's zone offense.
First, let's say it's definitely better than it's been in season's past, with the addition of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love. Westbrook is very good at penetrating the zone and Love gives UCLA some inside scoring. Up until those nine minutes in the first half against Texas, UCLA's zone offense had been pretty good so far this year.
But, in analyzing those nine minutes, there were a number of factors that contributed to UCLA's drought. First, UCLA has always relied far too much on shooting out of the zone. Of course, the primary philosophy of beating a zone is to shoot effectively over it. But UCLA has tended in recent years to live and die by shooting from the perimeter against a zone. And Sunday, in the first half, it died. It wasn't as if UCLA didn't get good looks; it did, but it missed the shots, which is going to happen, and that's why shooting over the zone as your predominant zone attack isn't a great thing.
I could understand how UCLA's attack of the zone was primarily to shoot over it in the past – without Love and Westbrook, and with also Arron Afflalo.
But especially with Mike Roll, perhaps UCLA's best shooter, not really able to contribute, and with the addition of Love and Westbrook to the starting line-up, it's time UCLA had a more multi-dimensional attack against a zone.
For one thing, Texas' Rick Barnes was very crafty. If you might have noticed, every time Mike Roll came into the game Barnes went back to a man-to-man. When Roll stepped off the court, back to the zone. Roll isn't the quickest player to begin with, and with his mobility limited since it was his first game back from his injury, Barnes wanted to make Roll move to get space to shoot, rather than allow him to just spot up against the zone.
So, Roll was taken out of UCLA's zone offense since he never really faced it.
UCLA is then left with the outside shooting of Collison, Shipp, Westbrook and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to bust the zone. Collison is still rusty and a bit tentative offensively because of his return from injury, so he wasn't himself, passing up some open shots, missing some others and taking some other ill-advised ones. Shipp didn't shoot well, going 1 for 5 from the field and 1 for 3 from three in the first half. Westbrook only attempted one three and, perhaps because he's still just starting to learn how to assert himself, passed up some open looks against the zone during that first-half scoring drought. Mbah a Moute, despite the improved outside stroke, is still not a reliable shooter.
So, bottom line, it wasn't a good shooting line-up to shoot you out of the zone.
UCLA's offensive attack against a zone, too, is to rotate the ball pretty casually around on the outside to look for a clear open shot, but then if it doesn't come, with about ten seconds left on the shot clock, for someone to penetrate to the top of the key to try to create something. It was effective against some of UCLA's weaker non-conference opponents this year, but not against Texas.
The thing is, UCLA now has the weapons to have that more multi-dimensional attack against a zone. Kevin Love touched the ball in the post twice in the first half, which is the fault of UCLA's perimeter players as well as Love, who didn't do much to get himself open in the zone. That, first, has to be UCLA's priority. Probably the best thing to do with Love against a zone is have him flash to the high post. Defenses would have to honor him there since he can hit that shot and, being such a great passer, he'd be able to find teammates for easy buckets.
Secondly, UCLA has a gold mine against the zone in Mbah a Moute, which they've never tapped. Mbah a Moute can't shoot against a zone, but he certainly has a gift for being able to take one- or two-dribble drives, jump stop and then get to the rim right through a zone. He did it in the second half very effectively. Mbah a Moute, too, is a very effective option flashing to the high post, being a very good passer, too. If Mbah a Moute catches the ball at the free-throw line the defense will have to collapse on him, getting Love some space down low. Again, when Mbah a Moute continues to realize what makes him special, his ability around the basket, and doesn't try to be a perimeter player, he's a huge factor for UCLA's zone offense, and its offense in general.
Then, you have Westbrook and Collison, who are good at finding seams in the zone.
What it comes down to is: This edition of the Bruins has to attack the zone equally as much on the ground as through the air. It has to start at the beginning of the shot clock trying to get inside against a zone and get an easy basket, and perhaps look to kick out as a second option. It's interesting to contemplate just how much really good work UCLA gets against a zone in practice. Howland doesn't use a zone, so when they try to simulate it against their own offense in practice, just how formidable can it be? It's probably, really, the biggest downside to never using a zone – not being able to work against a good one in practice.
UCLA in the second half, though, showed why it has the potential to be the best team in the country. Texas shot 53% in the first half, and 40% in the second. It limited the high-scoring Texas offense to just 3 points for the first 8 minutes of the second half, with UCLA going on a 16-3 run and taking a 41-40 lead. UCLA was able to do this with Collison still not himself, and two other players missing from what will be their 8-man rotation – Roll and James Keefe.
UCLA, in the second half, was the better team. And actually, it should have gotten the win. Texas, to be blunt, was lucky. They had some very fortunate calls by the refs throughout the game, but not calling Augustin for a travel on his last drive was incredibly fortunate for the Longhorns. Collison gave Augustin too much space and he nailed a 24-foot three to tie the game in the last few minutes; Mbah a Moute missed the front end of a one-and-one, and then two Bruins had the offensive rebound but knocked it away from each other; Connor Atchley, Texas's 6-10 center, who is a good outside shooter but not exactly their first option behind the arc, hit a three to tie the game with a minute left; and then Augustin, after traveling and not getting it called, threw up a prayer and Damion James was luckily there to slam it home for the game winner.
So, it's not the end of the world, Bruin fans, that a very good Texas team needed some luck to beat a UCLA team, in December. And this is a UCLA team that has a great amount of potential to improve. Love will be a different player by March, particularly defensively (Howland took him out of the game for most of the last few minutes and went with Lorenzo Mata because of Mata's better defense). UCLA, which is bound to see more zone, will undoubtedly improve against it, with the weapons it now has to beat it. Collison will get back up to full speed. Westbrook will continue to get more comfortable in his expanded role. Roll will return, as will Keefe.
And hopefully this will be a wake-up call for the team in terms of realizing it has to play with intensity on defense for 40 minutes.
If it is indeed that wake-up call, we could look back on the Texas loss as a key factor in UCLA's third consecutive run to a Final Four.
And by the way, we predicted in our season preview that UCLA would lose once in its non-conference schedule....