Steve Lavin, in a recent ESPN game telecast, working as the commentator, cited the "bad calls" in UCLA's last couple of regular season games as the catalyst for UCLA to get a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Lavin said that poor officiating would impact the entire country and many teams, implying that UCLA, because of those calls, didn't deserve a #1 seed and that other schools, deserving of the spot, would be denied.
It's, then, pretty sweet to prove that there is no doubt UCLA deserves a #1 NCAA seed like it did Saturday, and to silence critics like Lavin who, once again, proved his ignorance and thinly-veiled agenda. Beating Stanford for the Pac-10 Tournament championship and being able to shut up the national critics, and especially Lavin, was definitely something to play for in the Pac-10 tournament.
Leaving No Doubt. That's the theme for the 2007-2008 season.
It's taken us 34 games to understand that about this team – that you just shouldn't doubt them. Yes, their personality and approach to the game can make it dramatic, but they finished the season with a 31-3 overall record, 19-2 against the Pac-10, and potentially one of the top two seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
They've made believers of us.
We just needed to get to know them.
The 2007-2008 UCLA Bruins are a team with a unique personality. They don't play with urgency all the time. Darren Collison, at the press conference before playing lowly Oregon State at Pauley Pavilion this year, was asked if they were really taking the game seriously, and he said something like, "Yeah. You know how we can play sometimes."
So, in getting to know their personality, you have that – the fact they don't play with urgency all the time.
But then you have another personality quirk – that uncanny ability to never doubt they're going to win. They have proven to be very tough-minded when it comes to winning time, like they were again against Stanford Saturday. When it came to crunch time, and it's tied 43-43 with 12 minutes left, UCLA played with fire, as if they weren't tired at all and just stepped out on the court, while Stanford was visibly fatigued and packing it in.
That's another aspect of their personality that we've seen and come to understand: They wear down opponents.
These personality traits, collectively as a team, has made this one of the most memorable UCLA seasons in quite a while. Even if they don't make it to the Final Four like the last two years, this season stands on its own as one of the most exciting.
So, we apologize to the team that we've taken an entire season to really get to know you, and had our doubts because we really didn't understand you. But we won't doubt anymore.
Against Stanford, UCLA fell into the same pattern it had in so many games this season – against Maryland, Michigan State, Davidson, Oregon, Cal, Stanford, etc. – getting down early only to come back and overwhelm its opponent. You can endlessly argue what team is the best in the country, but UCLA has to be the best with 10 minutes left in the game.
Why does it fall behind? Because of a number of contributing factors. Some of them vary, also, from game to game. In this one, playing without Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and then Kevin Love experiencing pain in his back early definitely impaired UCLA in the first half. Love played 14 minutes in the first half, but looked tentative, and had perhaps his most unproductive half of the season, scoring just 3 points and getting 4 rebounds. It's tough to beat a team like Stanford when you're missing a three-year starter and perhaps one of the handful of best players in the country.
But heck, UCLA did beat Stanford.
This team, though, from game to game, also tends to feel out its opponent in the first half, which makes it play tentatively. Collison is notorious for this. He has made a career of being practically non-existent in the first half, except for his very common prayer at the half-time buzzer. Against Stanford, you couldn't say he was non-existent in the first half, since, in this game, Collison carried the team throughout. But even though he scored 13 points in the first half, you could still make the case that he didn't play nearly with the urgency he played with in the second half.
So, with this team, and led by their point guard, sometimes they need a half to get warmed up, while they're feeling out their opponent. Then they have that incredible amount of relentlessness, that lends itself to great comebacks, and that tremendous toughness that wears down opponents.
Voila. There's your team. Get to know it and expect it. Because there's bound to be at least one more come-from-behind drama sometime in the NCAA Tournament.
On Saturday, against Stanford, UCLA faced some considerable obstacles, once again, and prevailed. Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez are two of the toughest players in the country to guard, especially when they're allowed to travel repeatedly in the post. The Bruins held Brook to 15 points and 6 rebounds, on 5 of 14 shooting. Robin had just 9 points and committed 3 turnovers.
One new factor to UCLA's personality we saw, really, for the first time, was Lorenzo Mata-Real playing alongside Love. In the first half, UCLA was falling behind, and trailing 20-13 with about 9 minutes left. Mata-Real came on the floor to join Love and UCLA went on a 15-4 run over the next five minutes and, really, looked its most dominant it has all season. Mata-Real is so tough and physical, and playing him with Love makes for a scary frontline. It will be interesting to see if Coach Howland opts for this combination in any significant time in the NCAA Tournament. He did it here only because, first, he was down Mbah a Moute and needed another frontcourt option, and to match up against the twin-tower Lopezes. But, even if UCLA doesn't face two 7-footers, it would be interesting to see how UCLA would do with so much power on the baseline against even a smaller team. It would create headaches for other teams having to match up defensively. Sometimes it might be interesting to give up the defensive match-up advantage for such a significant offensive match-up advantage.
That combination of Love and Mata-Real really turned the tide for the Bruins. Stanford did pull ahead again in the second half, but those five minutes of Love/Mata-Real in the first half seemed like a significant punch to Stanford's gut that really took some life out of them.
It was, also, a strange game. It's not often you beat a good team when you shoot 38% from the field and allow them to shoot 47%, or when you shoot 26% from three and a shocking 39% from the free-throw line. UCLA was 9 of 23 from the free-throw line, and basically fell behind and trailed in this game because of that. If UCLA just makes 65% of its free throws, it has five more points (and possibly even more since many of those missed free throws were front-ends) and has a far more comfortable cushion in the second half.
The game did have some definite strangeness to it when UCLA shoots 1 for 9 in its free throws in the first half, and the one made free throw came from Mata-Real. Strange, indeed.
UCLA also missed out on quite a few points from failed easy lay-ups. While you have to concede that the Lopezes alter shots, UCLA, still, missed many little gimmes. Love, Mata-Real, Russell Westbrook and Alfred Aboya must have missed half a dozen in the first half. Thank God for James Keefe, since he was the only one who could actually put the ball in the basket from two feet away.
There was also the factor that it seems the Pac-10 refs were trying to compensate for the perception that they were giving UCLA unfair calls. In the last two Pac-10 tourney games against USC and Stanford, was it just me, or could Love not draw a foul call? I know it wasn't just me because I saw Howland jumping up and down screaming at the refs for a good part of both games. Love must have been hacked three or four times in the first 20 minutes against Stanford but didn't get a call.
But you know, it might not be that the Pac-10 officials were knowingly trying to compensate for their pro-UCLA reputation. It could just be, once again, that they're not very good.
So, between the officiating, the poor free-throw shooting, UCLA's inability to make a lay-up and its usual first-half tentativeness, it was actually encouraging that the Bruins went into halftime with the scored tied at 32-32. Maybe that's a sign of progress.
In the second half, Stanford held on for a while, leading by 43-49 at about 14 minutes left. But the Cardinal didn't have much left in its tank. UCLA's defense was frustrating the Lopezes, and they got fatigued and sloppy as a result. UCLA finally did get a traveling call on Robin when he posted up on the baseline. In fact, the Cardinal guards also got fatigued and sloppy, turning the ball over a number of times in the last 12 minutes or so to help key some easy Bruin baskets.
UCLA, uncharacteristically, struggled a bit against Stanford's zone, which helped to stem UCLA's momentum repeatedly throughout the game. Stanford's Trent Johnson would throw a zone at the Bruins, and UCLA would go into its tentative offensive approach. It did look like it was hard to switch gears for Collison and UCLA, after you clearly had found a way to break down Stanford's man defense then to be thrown a zone with two 7-footers anchoring it.
Collison, though, found a way, against man or zone. He had a spectacular game, scoring 28 points, when the next highest UCLA scorer was Love with 12. Collison is now, offensively, playing a strange combo guard role, where he's still initiating the offense like a point guard, but is also UCLA's #1 perimeter scoring option. In fact, even despite the 28 points, it didn't seem like UCLA exploited Collison enough in this game. The biggest mis-match on the floor (even with the Lopezes playing), is Stanford's Mitch Johnson trying to guard Collison. Collison beat him like a drum for most of the game, but it could have been easily worse. Collison used the ball screens to free himself up, but he was at his most effective when the offense had broken down and Collison was free to create against Johnson one-on-one with no ball screen. He flat out destroyed him. UCLA probably could have gotten 40 points out of Collison if it had isolated him with the ball on Johnson and let him go to work.
Even though Collison had too many beautiful plays to list, the one that made the most impact was probably at about 4:30 left in the game. UCLA was up 55-51, but Stanford had switched to its zone and UCLA, again, was out of sync offensively. Collison got into the lane with a quick move and hit a floater to make it a more comfortable 57-51.
Then Love went to work. He had hit a three-pointer in the offensive possesion before Collison's floater, then in the possession following it finally got a foul call and hit his two free throws, the first time a Bruin had made two free throws in a row the entire game. Then, in the next possession, UCLA pounded it back inside to Love, recognizing that the Lopezes were losing their fight, and he converted a nice lay-up, and put UCLA up by its biggest lead of the game, 61-51.
First it was Love and Mata-Real landing a few jabs on the tiring Cardinal, and then it was Collison and Love as the one-two punch that came through with the upper cut in winning time.
You have to, though, give a great deal of credit to the rest of the cast. UCLA's only statistical edge in this game was in rebounding, which is astonishing since Love finished with just 6. But Westbrook had a career high in rebounds with 11, and Josh Shipp collected 9. The Bruins had a whopping 21 offensive rebounds, which allowed them 13 second-chance points to Stanford's 5. Because of the rotations, Westbrook and Shipp recognized seams in the paint and were flying in for rebounds, especially on the offensive boards.
A great deal of credit goes to Keefe, also, who played one of his best games as a Bruin. Even though he made the game dramatic by missing both of his last-minute free throws, and air-balling the second one, his play other than that was critical. Without Mbah a Moute, Howland has discovered someone else who can rebound and defend, and also make put-backs, which Keefe did for 8 points. In a really physical game, Keefe was right there, not backing down against the Lopezes, and actually looked like he was relishing the contact. Perhaps the one big advantage to Keefe not getting a lot of playing time this season is that he definitely looks fresh-legged on the court.
There is one personality trait of this team, though, that I also realized in the middle of this game. They run on emotion. They respond to emotional moments in a game and that revs their engine. In the first half, after Westbrook literally threw down a dunk on a break-away, the crowd roared and UCLA surged with inspiration for the next few possesions. Of course, any team feeds off the excitement of the game, but this team especially so. It's funny, too, because, in this way, they're kind of not geared well as a Howland-coached team. They want to rev it up, while Howland wants to feel out his opponent, value every possession and run deep into the shot clock. With Collison and Westbrook, two guys who seem that they never get tired and are very emotional players, you would really love to see them be able to go one-on-more more to create, and even early in the shot clock, and take more risks defensively. They'd make more mistakes, probably commit more fouls, but they'd also get easier baskets and then create the emotion the team feeds off.
It's truly a shame that UCLA doesn't have the depth at guard it would need to press because this team has the personality of a pressing team. The idea of Collison and Westbrook pressuring opposing guards in the backcourt and creating turnovers and easy baskets is like thinking of Jessica Alba sun-bathing in your backyard.
But so much for fantasies. The team and their approach to the game has proven to be very effective. It's carved out an astounding 31-3 record. And even though its personality, the way it fits into Howland's philosophy, tends to get it into some holes, the resiliency and toughness, and ability to wear down opponents is truly champion-level quality.