UCLA Comes Back Again, 69-54

UCLA has to come back from a very poor first half, again, to pull out a victory over a bad Michigan team in Ann Arbor. Does this team really want to win or are there too many players pre-occupied with going to the NBA?

UCLA, once again, had to pull out a game in the second half, ultimately beating Michigan, 69-54.

This is essentially the same game they played against Michigan State, Davidson and Texas. But Michigan is pretty bad so UCLA won.

If this had been a good opponent, UCLA would almost certainly have its second loss of the season.

The Bruins definitely have some issues, and they seem to predominantly come out in the first half of games. In this one, UCLA came out pretty strong, playing actively on defense and getting the ball low to Kevin Love on the other end. But when they went up 8-0 and Michigan couldn't get a decent look, you could see UCLA quickly lose interest. Michigan went on to out-score the Bruins 27-16 for the half. So, once again, UCLA showed complacency in the first half and got themselves in a hole.

Why? What's up with this?

It's pretty clear the team lacks the killer instinct – at least so far this season. There seems to be a lack of leadership – without the player or players to get the team to play aggressively from the first jump ball and keep them focused.

You hate to use the Arron Afflalo card, but it's probably appropriate. Aside from what Afflalo brought to UCLA in terms of production, he also was the team's spirit and heart. No one on this current team has stepped into the leadership vacuum created with Afflalo's departure.

Darren Collison, being the veteran point guard, is the obvious candidate, and he's doing a poor job of it. You have to concede that Collison might not be himself because of the knee injury, but that can't absolve him completely. For lack of a better way of putting it, Collison just doesn't seem like he's into it.

You have to wonder if there's an element going on here on this team that players are looking ahead to the NBA. It's pretty well known that Collison, Josh Shipp, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Kevin Love all would ideally like to jump to the NBA after this season. With Collison, it's been practically ordained since he almost put his name in the draft after last season. Mbah a Moute came close to putting his name in last year also. Shipp, it's pretty well known, is playing with the assumption that this is his last season in a Bruin uniform. With Love, it's been in the plans since his junior year in high school that he'd be a one-and-done.

Afflalo, of course, also intended to go to the NBA during last season, but his natural competitiveness and heart forced him to come to play every game. Even though he wanted to go to the NBA, he wanted to win more.

It doesn't seem like this group of players has that same level of competitiveness.

It doesn't necessarily have to come from just one player. But right now, it doesn't seem those guys, except maybe Love, look like they're playing with the same level of competitive fire.

Collison doesn't look as quick as he was last year, and that could be the injury. But his intensity seems to come and go also, especially on defense, and it's hard to attribute that to the injury. Despite what the naïve national pundits say sometimes, Collison is not a natural point. He doesn't have a great natural feel for the position, so what makes him a good player – like his ability to play defense – he has to bring to every game. He was hyped as the best point guard in the country at the beginning of the season, but he's not close to that right now, and it's not because of the injury. He should realize that before you can get to that lottery pick in June you have a lot of basketball to play. Right now, you'd have to think that NBA general managers aren't impressed with his decision-making, defense and competitiveness this season.

Collison, of course, had a much better second half, as did Shipp and Mbah a Moute. Shipp didn't play necessarily without intensity in the first half compared to the second, but he was far more effective in the second half. He had four points in the first half and 15 in the second to finish with a game-leading 19. When he missed his three-point attempt in the first half, after he shot the ball poorly against Western Illinois, there was some worry that he was going into a shooting slump like he had last season. But he made all three of his attempts in the second half. Luckily, Michigan gave him wide open looks. With the score tied at 43, UCLA went on a 10-0 run with Shipp scoring 8 of those ten points.

Mbah a Moute must have missed five lay-ups in the first half. The entire team, in fact, attempted lazy, weak lay-ups, with Mbah a Moute being the primary culprit. He, also, seems susceptible to the first-half lack of intensity. UCLA needs the version of Mbah a Moute that plays within the team concept to win, and doesn't force things offensively (like he has in some games so far this season).

Love is probably the guy among the potential NBA jumpers on this team that gets it – that you can play hard, with intensity and within a team concept and that's going to help your NBA stock, much like Afflalo. Love was superb in this game, finishing with 17 points and 16 rebounds. In one sequence toward the end of the first half, he kept a play alive, getting a number of rebounds and putbacks before scoring, getting fouled and making the free throw.

One guy you don't have to worry about is Russell Westbrook. His defense was very good, going up against Michigan's top scorer, Manny Harris, holding him to 11 points and 3 for 12 from the floor. He also scored 12 points and hit a big three in the second half to fuel the comeback. Hopefully, Westbrook will retain his intensity next season – when he becomes an early NBA candidate himself. Ironically, not only is Westbrook a better prospect than Collison but, right now, he's a better player.

UCLA's zone offense was a curious thing in this game. With Michigan's 1-3-1, UCLA spread the court to try to create some space. But that forced them to use lob passes, which UCLA was very lazy about, causing a number of turnovers, especially when no one would flash to the high post. That and a general lack of care with the ball resulted in 17 UCLA turnovers (which is tied for the most in any game this season).

But collectively, with so much focus on going to the NBA early on this team, with guys probably always thinking in the back of their mind that they need to get theirs, it doesn't make for strong team leadership, which tends to make a team flat in the first half – until they have to pick it up to win.

That's not going to get it done in March. Heck, that won't get it done in Pullman.

This is what it comes down to: Are these guys willing to put winning first?


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