UCLA beating Stanford Thursday in overtime, 77-67, was certainly a March Madness kind of game.
While in the NCAA Tournament, it's one-and-done, which heightens the drama, this certainly had that kind of atmosphere.
There was just too much riding on the game. UCLA won its third consecutive Pac-10 championship. The Bruins, more than likely, also secured a #1 seed in the Big Dance.
It was probably the most dramatic – and biggest win – by Ben Howland as the Bruin coach in Pauley Pavilion. Not only because of what was riding on the game, but the drama of the game itself.
There was overtime, UCLA being down by 16, never leading (other than 2-0) until overtime, clutch play after play by Darren Collison down the stretch, the offensive rebound by Russell Westbrook, Westbrook's bouncing free throw, Collison being fouled, etc., etc.
There were probably too many huge plays even to mention them all. You'd say to yourself, "That was the play of the game," only to have it topped a minute later.
Perhaps, in retrospect, the quintessential Play of the Game, despite all of those clutch plays by Collison, was Westbrook's offensive rebound off Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's missed free throw with 50 seconds left and UCLA down by three. With Mbah a Moute's miss, if Stanford had gotten the rebound, they would have been in the driver's seat up three points with the ball. Westbrook said he faked inside and then stepped outside and then slipped to the baseline to pick up the errant shot and lay it back in to bring UCLA to within 1.
That play had some magical Gonzaga game dust on it. It felt very much like Mbah a Moute's lay-up against the Zags two years ago.
This game, in many ways, was similar. Against Gonzaga, UCLA was down 18, and in this one the Bruins were down 16. UCLA came back in this one in a different way, through waves of pushes, that seemingly it looked liked Stanford was going to be able to weather.
Because of the many pushes and rebukes, it created a very unique drama to the game. There were a number of times that it looked like UCLA had made its last push, and that Stanford had gotten the ultimate upper hand. When Alfred Aboya missed a jumper with a little over five minutes left, Stanford had a 9-point lead and the ball, and then Brook Lopez made a jumper on the other end, and Stanford had an 11-point lead. Even the most diehard UCLA fans had to think that it was then over, that UCLA had made its last push and Stanford had, like it had all night, beat them away.
But that's not how it was.
Howland pumped his fists as his players at that point, and UCLA, once again, came back with resolve to make a final, last push.
Resolve. That was definitely the theme of the night for the Bruins. You can argue that they didn't play well for large portions of the game, and that the team has some issues that you can only hope will be fixed come NCAA Tournament time. But this team definitely has a champion's heart and the desire to win.
Even though Westbrook might have had the play of the game, Collison might have had the game of the season. The fact that he finished with 24 points means almost nothing compared to the actual game he had. Possession after possession, when UCLA needed a basket, Collison somehow did it, and in miraculous fashion. We can't possibly list them all, since it truly was a case where one kept topping the last. You do have to mention the three-pointer from the corner with about 9:50 left, when he was fouled and converted the free throw to complete the four-point play, which pulled UCLA to within 45-43.
You could also make the case that the penetration and dish to Mbah a Moute, the first basket in overtime, was bigger.
You could easily make the case that his two free throws with 2.5 seconds left in regulation to tie the game and put it into overtime was even bigger. How about drawing the foul to begin with?
See. You could argue with yourself endlessly about which Collison play was bigger.
And then there was Westbrook's bouncing free throw. Westbrook went to the line, with UCLA down 2 with 20 seconds left. Stanford's Trent Johnson called a timeout to ice Westbrook. He then stepped to the line for that first free throw, took a deep breath, and the shot went up, and all of UCLA's hopes for a Pac-10 championship and a #1 seed went with it.
Fittingly, since so much of basketball does come down to the luck of the bounce, the ball skipped around on the rim for what seemingly was about 45 minutes. It wasn't one of those sure, soft free throws that you thought would eventually bounce around and fall in, but was so errant and reckless the way it was bouncing around, you thought it was truly destined to not deserve to go in.
But it did.
And despite what USC's Tim Floyd says, UCLA, with its third straight conference championship, can certainly claim to be the "yardstick" of the Pac-10. The dominance is now irrefutable, and the shift of power is complete.
While the drama was pervasive, the game itself, for the Bruins, wasn't a great one. Given how meaningful the win was it almost doesn't seem right to analyze it but, alas, that's what we do.
The game, probably, was a good example of a number of things that garner some worry about this UCLA team heading into the post-season.
The biggest worry is outside shooting, clearly. Josh Shipp is the designated shooter on the team, and he's now become the designated snoozer. He went 1 for 9 in this one from the field, and 1 for 6 from three. UCLA, more than likely, isn't going to win a national championship unless Shipp pulls out – and completely – of his shooting slump.
The element of this that is most worrisome is that it might not, actually, be a shooting slump. A "slump" implies that he's getting the same looks he was but he's just not hitting the shots. That's not true with Shipp. He simply isn't getting the same amount of clean, open looks he was. Now, throw in that he's hesitant, and obviously second-guessing his shooting capability, and you have a shooter that can't shoot straight. So, why isn't he getting the same looks? Defenses are keying on him, working hard to not give him space after he catches the ball. Is there a solution? UCLA, probably, needs to make some adjustments in how they get Shipp open, namely develop some other screening patterns that aren't as predictable or scoutable.
And Shipp's issue could be deceiving. He very well could have a couple of good games shooting the ball in the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournmanet, and we could conclude the "slump" is over. But it could be just a matter that, against first- and second-round competition, UCLA can get Shipp better looks. It might be a different story if Shipp goes against Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four competition.
Another element that could help, as we've suggested before, is to get more outside open looks for the best shooter on the team, Darren Collison. And it seems there was a little bit of that element coming into play in this game. It was Collison, not Shipp, coming off UCLA's standard baseline screens to get looks. In fact, the three pointer and subsequent four-point play was one of those instances where UCLA's offense ran a specific play for Collison to come around screens and get an outside look and not Shipp.
Fans tend to want to complain about UCLA's offense, and its ineffectiveness at times definitely is a cause for concern. But you hear fans complain about the stagnancy, that UCLA just passes the ball around the perimeter, that there is no movement, and all of these complaints are naive. UCLA executes set plays, so many times the players start in a set position, rather than what most college basketball fans are used to watching, a motion offense, which, as the name implies, has a lot of motion and then improvisation.
There are some valid issues to take up with UCLA's offense, however. Much of the time, UCLA starts its offense with a high ball screen, which has its pluses and minues. UCLA's ball screen is set by its five man so if forces the opposing team's big man to come out to hedge against the screen, opening up, presumably, space in the paint. Collison is pretty good coming off the hedge and, with his quickness is many times able to still get into the paint and create, for himself or others. But against Stanford, there are two shot blockers, and while, say, Brook Lopez could come out to hedge you still have Robin Lopez underneath the basket ready to swat away your shot. While Howland loves the ball screen, it would seem, at times, such as against Stanford, allowing Collison to take his man off the dribble without a screen might be at least as good an option. Collison, easily, can take someone like Mitch Johnson off the bounce. If he's doing it without a ball screen, he generally wouldn't get pushed so far out that it's too late for any open seams. In this game, there were a number of times when UCLA's offense broke down and Collison took Johnson without a ball screen, getting into the lane quicker, before the Lopezes could rotate in front of him. The first basket in overtime, where Collison dished to Mbah a Moute for a dunk, came from Collison merely taking Johnson off the dribble from the wing and getting into the lane quickly. Clearing out for Collison (which would also entail bringing the opposing big men away from the basket), and letting him create off the dribble isn't done enough, especially when you have a guy like Collison that very few players in the country can defend.
Besides outside shooting, perhaps UCLA's next-worse offensive issue in this game was shot selection. It's a Howland point of emphasis, so it's curious when UCLA's offense struggles because of poor shot selection. This team does have a tendency to get wound up and rush bad shots, and it's something that will haunt it in the NCAA Tournament in the final three rounds against very good competition. Simply, there is no way that Mbah a Moute should be taking 17-foot jump shots. That's poor shot selection. He did it a couple of times in the first half, at critical junctures in a grind-it-out situation against a team that wasn't going to allow UCLA much transition scoring. And Mbah a Moute simply can't do that, especially against a great rebounding team like Stanford when, more than likely, you're only going to get one shot per possession. Mbah a Moute, thankfully, did, though, show how he can greatly affect a game – by playing defense and rebounding (getting a team-leading 11 boards on the night). And it's not that Mbah a Moute shouldn't be part of your offense; he very much should, but not as a shooter. Mbah a Moute, because of his combination of size and quickness, gives UCLA a very good chance of having an advantage in match ups. Most of the time Mbah a Moute is going to be guarded by a slower defender, so when he catches the ball at 17 feet, even if he has an open look, he has to take his two-bounce drive and get to the hoop. That's where his offensive advantage is. He's open for those 17-footers because the opposing coach wants him to take those shots. It's a trap and he's falling into it.
And simply, when it's a tight game down the stretch, Alfred Aboya can't be allowed to shoot the ball. I'd rather have Collison take a 28-footer at the shot-clock buzzer.
This season there has been the lingering offensive issue of not getting Love enough touches. It got worse as opposing teams did whatever they could to keep the ball out of Love's hands as the season progressed. UCLA, though, has done a very good job of getting him the ball inside, and not just with better post feeds from the wing, but from Mbah a Moute or Westbrook from the high post.
UCLA's offense, admittedly, hasn't had a few good weeks. The only "good" offensive game it's had recently was against Arizona State, while it registered some duds in games at Washington, at USC, Oregon, Arizona and Stanford. While, of course, as we've said, UCLA's offensive effectiveness is a big worry, then again, it did go 4-1 in those games, against some pretty good teams. UCLA, despite its offensive drawbacks, is still good enough to win.
Really, the offensive issues would, more or less, be solved if UCLA can get some outside shooting.
Again, how much do the Bruins miss Mike Roll? Not only is he probably the best three-point shooter on the team, without him Collison and Westbrook are playing Iron Man minutes (both played 43 minutes against Stanford, as did Shipp).
Last night, after the game, a journalist said to me, "UCLA could win it all, but I think they're one player away."
And that player is Roll. If you have the Mike Roll of November, how he was playing then, it's depressing to think about how good this team might have been.
But injuries are part of the game, and UCLA, knowing this, finds itself short that one man – a guard – when it very well could have had another on its roster that could have helped.
But that's recruiting, and we're getting off-track here.
It really, probably, isn't a question of stamina when it comes to Collison and Westbrook. Despite playing 43 minutes apiece, they still looked fresh in overtime, as opposed to Stanford, who looked fatigued.
Love took some criticism about stamina earlier in the season, but give him credit: He looked raring to go in overtime while the Lopezes looked like they were dragging. You can't give Love enough credit in general. Not only is he UCLA's go-to guy offensively, but there were long stretches in this game, especially in the first half, when Collison wasn't effective, that Love seemed to be UCLA's entire team. He had UCLA's first six points, and was responsible with his great passing for two more baskets. That made Love directly responsible for 10 of UCLA's 18 first-half points. He also played good defense on Brook Lopez, not allowing him to turn inside, forcing him to take tougher shots along the baseline, many of which Lopez hit. Lopez went 8 for 22, and started to lose focus on his shot, after Love had been beating on him and making him take many shots slightly out of his range.
As we stated, basketball, sometimes, is about lucky bounces, and particularly in this game. Not only was there Westbrook's lucky-bouncing free throw, there were many others, for both teams. With under two minutes left and UCLA down three, it was playing hard defensively, and had Stanford deep into its shot clock when Taj Finger made an uncanny 17-foot bank shot. There were a number of UCLA shots, gimmes, that barely rimmed out throughout the game. Again, there were a number of Stanford possessions where the offensive rebound seemed to have eyes, looking for a red jersey.
And there were the referees calls. If Stanford fans want to complain that Lawrence Hill cleanly blocked Collison on his shot with 2.5 seconds left, which then sent him to the line for the game-tying free throws, UCLA fans could easily make a case for the rest of the game. Many believe, in fact, and Collison implied it in the post-game interview, that that call was a make-up call, probably for the non-call on a clear charge by Hill just a few seconds before.
But again, even the reffing is all part of the lucky bounces of the game.
UCLA, though, has been good enough to weather the ups and downs of the bouncing ball to win the Pac-10 championship and almost certainly secure a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Yes, there are some worries on offense, and UCLA is, probably, one man short. But looking around the country, there aren't any Floridas out there. This is a year when there is no team clearly head and shoulders above the rest, and all of the top teams in the country have considerable flaws.
There is one thing, though, that a team definitely needs to win the national championship, which UCLA is showing it possesses: Toughness and heart. It's something you need to make that six-game run through the NCAA Tournament. These UCLA Bruins are battle-tested by two Final Fours, and you can see that the veterans like Collison and Mbah a Moute are starting to put on their NCAA Tournament faces.
It's definitely March, as this game reflects, and the Bruins, despite their flaws, look ready.