Anyone else had enough silver linings this past weekend?
Lots of storm clouds surrounding the football program, to be sure.
But the basketball game against Texas on Sunday was supposed to lift the spirits a bit, to shine some light on a dismal weekend, to be the Advil that would patch up the ‘SC hangover. A home win against a top 10 team— the best non-conference foe the Bruins face (apologies to Michigan State ) — would refocus the mind on all that was right with UCLA athletics: the number one-ranked hoops squad, led by Coach Howland.
Scratch that. More rain.
So much for the number-one ranking and the Bruins' 25-game home win streak, and the idea that the transition from Arron Afflalo to Kevin Love, from outside team to inside team, would be seamless.
If I had to find a silver lining in this tough loss? It's clear UCLA is a work in progress —which means, from a Ben Howland-coached team, plenty of improvement can be expected (so basically any real hand-wringing is unnecessary).
And on the plus side, the Bruins did survive a 26-2 run against a top-10 Longhorns team (whose point guard, D.J. Augustin, seemed to be channeling Chris Paul) and scrapped their way back to the lead in the second half. Up three with a minute left. Still tied with 30 seconds left and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute stepping to the free-throw line, for the lead.
Then that very un-UCLA type of finish.
And after Luc's missed front-end free throw, after Augustin's uncalled travel/no-look prayer that was answered by Damion James, after a weirdly casual end-of-game UCLA possession that ended with a Luc three-point miss…there were a couple of things that stood out to me.
First, the Bruins aren't sure who they are, yet.
Part of this mini-identity crisis, no doubt, is health. Darren Collison is not himself; still rusty, horribly tentative in the first half, much better in the second, but still feeling his way. Mike Roll isn't ready yet, playing his first five minutes of the season and having no impact. And James Keefe is still in street clothes. It's difficult to gel with key players out of commission.
But another part of it — which was wholly predictable and not necessarily even worrisome — is determining how UCLA fills the void left by Afflalo. Who takes the crunch-time shots? Who guards the other team's best perimeter player? Who exudes toughness, and will, and fire? Who takes losing so personally he doesn't allow his teammates to come out flat for two big games in a row?
Texas knows who it is, seemingly. D.J. Augustin is clearly their guy.
And is it any wonder their stud point guard had a hand in the last three Texas baskets: A long trey, a nice assist for another three-pointer, and the crazy, almost accidental alley-oop for the win?
UCLA needs to figure out who their D.J. Augustin is. I would think that some combination of Collison and Kevin Love would be the obvious choice.
But go-to guys don't sit on the bench during Winning Time — which is what Love did for the final two minutes, replaced by Lorenzo Mata-Real. It will be interesting to see how Howland plays this whole Love-on-offense, Lo-on-defense substitution pattern thing as the season progresses (and if Howland is going to do that, he should probably have a timeout saved for the end). It's entirely possible that this was kind of a one-time thing, a learning experience for coach and players alike, and that Love will never be on the bench in crunch time again.
But figuring out the lineup and combinations was one of the expected challenges coming into the year.
Point Number Two: As well as the Bruins have played in the second halves of the games against Michigan State and Texas , that's how tentatively and uninspired they played in the first half of each game. Against the Spartans, they looked a bit soft. Against Texas, they looked a bit slow. And they can't keep doing that and expect good things to keep happening.
Howland really is a master of halftime adjustments, though. Witness those second-half turnarounds, providing the blueprint of how UCLA needs to play: physical, smart, and aggressive (especially against a zone defense). Winning against Michigan State, without Collison, was one of the more impressive regular season wins in Howland's tenure, I thought. Thoroughly clutch.
But each of these barometer games ended with Mbah a Moute shooting a three pointer to decide the game. And I know his jump shot — this summer's Pauley Renovation project — is improved, but if UCLA's tight games are going to come down to Luc hitting a last-minute trey….well, there will probably be some more silver linings to look for.
But the prediction here: Sunny skies ahead.
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