UCLA Plays Poorly But Keeps Going

The landscape has definitely changed when UCLA can go to Tucson, not play well, and still beat the Wildcats. On Sunday, UCLA rode Kevin Love to the 68-66 win, and they kept their hopes of a third consecutive Pac-10 championship and a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament alive...

This is how far UCLA has come in recent years. They beat Arizona in Tucson, 68-66, and they did it without playing very well.

That's also an indication of how far we've come as UCLA observers -- to watch UCLA beat Arizona on its home floor and conclude it wasn't a good game by UCLA. If you would have told us a few years ago that we'd have the capability of making this point we would have said you were high.

Yeah, we'll concede that UCLA played good enough to win. But this isn't a very good Arizona team. So, it didn't take much from a good UCLA team to do it.

You can capture this game in a couple paragraphs. UCLA went on an 11-3 run in the first half to take an 11-point lead. It did so not because it played so well, but because Arizona was stinking it up. UCLA's defense left Arizona's best shooters – Jerryd Bayless and Chase Budinger – open for threes, but they couldn't make them. Arizona couldn't get a rebound. They were slack on defense and allowing UCLA easy transition baskets. It felt like Arizona also could only make a basket on lay-ups and dunks, and that's when UCLA's defense – particularly its transition defense – was as bad as Arizona's.

Arizona then started playing better, drew to within 41-39 at halftime, UCLA tightened up, didn't really play much better, but basically gutted it out possession by possession and eked out a victory.

I guess you could say it's quite an accomplishment; With Arizona playing pretty well – for them -- for 3/4s of the game and UCLA pretty mediocre, the Bruins still won, in Tucson.

Really, it's a testament to the impact made by Kevin Love. Love did play well, with 24 points and 15 rebounds. He truly was the difference-maker in the game. When UCLA needed a basket down the stretch, they went to Love, and he either scored or was fouled – or both. He's definitely now UCLA's go-to guy. And you have to give him, the team and the coaching staff credit for continuing to work hard to get him touches while opposing teams are dedicating all of their defensive effort to keep him away from the ball.

Darren Collison's shooting was very good in the first half and his defense was consistent throughout. He finished with 16 points, making two big three-pointers in the first half. As Greg Hicks has said, though, UCLA is missing on so many potential points because of Collison's lack of true point guard vision, which was very evident in this game. In the first half, on two consecutive plays, he missed Love on a pick and roll, and Alfred Aboya on a switch, just basically too late to recognize the play developing. There were a couple of other instances in this game, too, where it happened. UCLA finished with just 7 assists as a team for the entire game.

With Josh Shipp continuing to struggle shooting (3 for 7, 1 for 5 from three), it seems logical that UCLA should maybe tweak its offensive approach at times. Collison is shooting 47% from three, and UCLA needs to run the same screens for him that it runs for its wings/shooters. Russell Westbrook possesses so much more natural ability of getting the ball into the hands of scorers, and it would seem logical on offense for Collison to be the designated "shooting" guard. Because, right now, UCLA's weakness is definitely its outside shooting. With Shipp's slump, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute still not a threat from the outside and Mike Roll in street clothes, UCLA needs to do something to balance its offense, and pull defenders away from collapsing on Love – and Collison's shooting ability seems like the best option.

It would also tend to create some headaches defensively for the opposition. Opposing point guards, who would still presumably guard Collison, would struggle trying to come around the staggered screens set by UCLA's big men. If they then switched a bigger, more physical defender onto Collison, he'd be able to take them off the dribble far easier, and it also would put the smaller, weaker opposing point guard on Westbrook.

A key to UCLA making a big run in March (and the beginning of April) could be that Luc Richard Mbah a Moute avoids having games like the one Sunday. He had five lazy turnovers, some poor fouls, took bad, quick shots, and was slow and lethargic in guarding Chase Budinger, who led the Wildcats with 24 points. Arizona didn't do anything different in trying to get Budinger open than it did the first time UCLA and Arizona met. The difference was Mbah a Moute played good defense in the first meeting, basically staying glued to Budinger, not allowing him much space off those curls, or even the ability to catch the ball, limiting him to 9 points. Mbah a Moute was so poor defensively in this one that Ben Howland switched Westbrook onto Budinger in the second half, which helped. But then, amazingly, there were a few times in the second half when Mbah a Moute got burned by the other guys he was assigned to guard. He was so slow on a hedge that Kirk Walters beat him on one possession. When he even got switched back onto Budinger toward the end of the game, in one critical Arizona possession, Mbah a Moute let Budinger float alone on the perimeter after a missed Arizona shot, and Budinger nailed a three to bring Arizona within 2 points with 4 minutes left.

Whenever this kind of lapse in defense has happened this year, it seems a couple of days later we hear a report that the player had the flu. Hopefully this is the case. If not, Mbah a Moute has to put his defensive head together. He needs to realize that, if he wants to get to the NBA, he needs to do what set him apart as a freshman, which was his near-freakish ability to defend – anyone – and rebound. And it would help his NBA draft stock if he helped get UCLA deep into the NCAA tournament.

So, UCLA kept its NCAA #1 seed hopes alive. With Texas having lost on the road, the prevailing sentiment by various pundits now is that UCLA would be ear-marked for a #1 seed, as long as it doesn't trip up. It just has to beat Stanford Thursday, not let down against California on Saturday and, probably at minimum, make it to the Pac-10 tournament final.

It's amazing to think, also, that the potential for that #1 seed almost slipped out of the hands of the Bruins as that last rebound on Jerryd Bayless' free throw slipped through the hands of Love and Westbrook. If Arizona had, in fact, converted that last possession and beaten UCLA, it would have been one of the most tragic moments in recent UCLA history that the Bruins let a #1 seed slip from their hands by two Bruins making a bonehead play fighting for a rebound amongst themselves.

But hey, UCLA fans, you have to look at it this way: Remember the Dark Era, when a letdown game like this would have meant a 20-point blow-out. Now, it means a nail-biter, but a win, in Tucson. You might have to all lower your expectations – if your expectations are a National Championship or nothing, because it's just not fair. Even with Love, the Bruins might not be the best team in the country, but be thankful that you now have a team that is capable of winning the national championship. Be thankful the team, and the program, is on such a level as this, where they can have a letdown game in Tucson, and win, and are still good enough to be on the verge of winning a third Pac-10 championship.


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