In the last several weeks, who woulda thunk it'd be the Washington Huskies that give UCLA the game.
And they did, beating the Bruins, 71-61, for the fourth year in row in Seattle.
If you're looking for some kind of explanation on why Washington is tough for UCLA in Seattle, it's not necessarily attributable to Washington "having the number" of UCLA. It's more that, in the last several years, UCLA has been the team to beat in the Pac-10, the Huskies are usually playing for their post-season lives, and just the way it's worked out every time UCLA hasn't had good match-ups in the game – and Washington has been particularly fortunate.
Those are some pretty powerful forces.
UCLA thought it could escape in the state of Washington without the force of Luc Mbah a Moute, but it got caught.
Usually when UCLA doesn't have Mbah a Moute, it creates a bad ripple effect in UCLA's defensive match-ups. In this particular game, lacking Mbah a Moute affected UCLA's offensive match-ups. Washington, then, was able to use both 250-pound Jon Brockman and 250-pound Artem Wallace to double Kevin Love, with or without the ball. They basically bracketed him like two defensive backs would a wide receiver, and they could do so because they were fine with leaving Alfred Aboya or James Keefe alone. Lorenzo Romar made a very good decision – he'd much rather make Aboya or Keefe beat him than Love. If you have Mbah a Moute, Romar wouldn't have been able to do that – leave Mbah a Moute alone offensively. Mbah a Moue would have torched the Huskies for 20 or so points.
So, with that defensive adjustment by Washington, UCLA is immediately playing at a deficit offensively. Then it really compounds the issue when Love and Darren Collison, who have been the best 1-2 combination in college basketball over the last two weeks, both coincidentally have bad games on the same night.
It wasn't so much Love. And it's almost absurd to say that someone didn't play well when they have 13 points and 10 rebounds. He didn't horrible game, but he didn't have a great game because Washington limited his touches, and, with the combined 500 pounds of Wallace and Brockman bumping him around, he was a bit out-of-sync shooting the ball. He missed a couple of turnarounds and some putbacks that are usually automatic. He also didn't have his best defensive game, hedging pretty poorly on screens a couple of times and allowing easy baskets.
The biggest impact was Collison's game, or lack of it. Collison had been playing his best basketball since last season in the last couple of weeks, but he showed he was definitely human in Seattle. Collison had three points on 1 of 8 shooting (making just one three), and had an astounding eight turnovers. He was horrendous defensively, giving Justin Dentmon the best offensive game he's had in a very long time, allowing him to score 20 points. Dentmon did it consistently by easily beating Collison off the dribble. And it wasn't as if Dentmon was playing out of his mind – it was that Collison was playing with a complete lack of fire.
It's funny how an impression of a player can change so quickly. In the last several weeks, the way Collison has been playing, you'd say he was a lock to be a first-round NBA draft pick. But if you're an NBA GM and you watched this game, you'd have to conclude: Who the heck is he going to guard in the NBA if he can't stay in front of Justin Dentmon? Yeah, Collison is a very good on-ball defender, but he has struggled at times this year to stay in front of some good – and some pedestrian – players. And the concerns that have come from that came to a huge crescendo against Washington.
It got so bad that, after Dentmon had abused Collison about a half dozen times, they had to switch Russell Westbrook onto Dentmon.
I would bet Collison himself would tell you he was a mess today. Not only his defense, but he was guilty of jumping to pass, over-dribbling, lazy passes, jogging back in transition D, napping on an in-bound play, getting called for a five-second call, over-looking open teammates, and shooting horribly. And then, he allowed Vernoy Overton to get in his head, talking trash and getting T'd.
Collison, since he allowed the USC game to get out of UCLA's control three weeks ago, had really been doing particularly well with maintaining his poise since. His leadership, and ability to affect the flow of the game, might have been the primary force behind UCLA's recent big wins.
It doesn't really have to be said, but we all know that there is no way UCLA can win when Collison goes 1 for 8, has eight turnovers, plays horrible D and loses his head like he did in this game.
Pray, Bruin fans, that this was an aberration. We were told that Collison was suffering from flu-like symptoms, so hopefully this is cause of the alternate-universe Collison.
It's a strange, psychological thing, too, that seemingly when Love or Collison have a bad game Shipp tends to have a good one. It's almost as if Shipp senses he needs to step up. He definitely did in this one, leading UCLA with 19 points, with most coming on mid-range jumpers and some improbable fall-aways. If you might have noticed, too, Shipp played some decent defense, showing energy and moving his feet well.
When you don't have Mbah a Moute, though, it's tough to also get a bad game out of Aboya. He started out taking advantage of Washington ignoring him, hitting a couple of 18-foot jumpers. But he's so unrefined in his game at times that it can really hurt him – and UCLA when he has to play prolonged minutes. It's just not the fouls that he tends to give out at a rapid pace, but his lack of quick defensive rotation, his poor blocking out and weakside rebounding at times. Because Aboya is a 6-7, 240-pound stud, you kind of lump in your mind that he's a good rebounder, and he really he isn't that great because he's very inconsistent in terms of rebounding fundamentals – blocking out, positioning, cleaning up the weakside, etc.
If you weren't keeping track, you wouldn't have realized that Westbrook scored 18 points. That many points usually signifies a clearly well-played game, but Westbrook's wasn't. It wasn't, overall, horrible. He did some good things and he mixed in some not-so-good things. As is his tragic flaw, Westbrook looked a bit wound up again, which forces him into mistakes – over-penetrating, traveling, reaching on D, etc.
What was a bit interesting about this game is that, when a team actually plays an active man-to-man against UCLA like Washington D, the Bruins now don't do near as well as they've done recently against a zone. Against a zone they tend to pass to find seams. In this game, against Washington's man D, UCLA went one-on-one more in their offense than I ever remember in the last several years in one game. UCLA didn't seem to try to execute many of Howland's set plays, but initiated their offense mostly through Collison over-dribbling and then the ever-present ball screen.
You also have to mention that, with all of these forces going against UCLA, there was also the unlucky-bounce-of-the-ball force. It was one of those games when the ball just seemed to bounce Washington's way. If there was a scramble for the ball on the ground, it popped out to a Husky. A critical Washington free throw bounced long off the back of the rim to a Washington player. In one sequence, Washington's offense was out of control, with the ball flying around, until it actually hit the bottom of the backboard and perfectly caromed into the hands of Quincy Pondexter who was coming down the lane and had a lay-up. It popped into his hands so perfectly it almost looked like a set play.
In the end, yes, this win hurts the Bruins. It knots them up at 9-2 in the Pac-10 standings with Stanford. It's going to make winning the conference – and getting that #1 seed in the NCAA tournament – a bit tougher.
What is probably the most worrisome is UCLA being susceptible, again, to a team trying to wind them up, get them out of their game, and also get into their head. USC did it a few weeks ago, and Washington did it Sunday. The Bruins looked like they were starting to put together that championship-like demeanor in the last couple of weeks, especially with the poise and veteran leadership Collison had been displaying.
We'll see if they can get it back. More than likely, the UCLA team we've seen in the last couple of weeks is more often the real Bruins. For one thing, this wasn't the real Bruins without Mbah a Moute.
But hopefully that one Bruin team that seems to come out every 8 or 9 games or so will take off the month of March.