We told you it would be this way. Knowing this team, if you're a UCLA fan, the NCAA Tournament is not for the faint-hearted.
It wouldn't have been surprising if you would have seen Bruin fans fainting around the Honda Center Saturday night as UCLA made one of its most dramatic comebacks to beat Texas A&M in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, 53-49.
If you're comparing dramatic wins, you could say this rates even bigger than Cal, Stanford or USC, since this was a lose-and-you're-done scenario.
Let's get some of the obvious observations out of the way:
Everyone in the nation, every pundit, is spouting that UCLA needs to get some scoring from someplace rather than Kevin Love and Darren Collison. Really? But in his last 14 games before this one, Russell Westbrook had been averaging 14 points per game. Even through Josh Shipp's shooting woes, he's still averaging double-figure scoring, finding a way to manufacture points. It's essentially the same as North Carolina's Ty Lawson and Danny Green, their third- and fourth-best scorers. So, the fact that both of them combined for 7 points in this one, you could logically assess as an aberration. Could it happen again in the Tournament? Of course. But, getting points from Westbrook and Shipp isn't the key to the rest of the Tournament. Heck, they were cold as ice against A&M and UCLA won. There probably isn't a better one-two scoring punch in the nation than Love and Collison, and they probably do have strong enough backs to carry this team, even if the rest of the roster scored a total of 13 points per game (which they did in this one).
We're going to go out on an illogical limb here and say: Shipp is going to have a big game in the NCAA Tournament. It's based on absolutely no fact or basketball acumen. It's just one of those gut feelings. It'd be easy to see Shipp, who got bombarded in the locker room after the game Saturday with insistent questions about his lack of shooting, miraculously hitting five threes in a Sweet !6 or Elite Eight game. He has that kind of aura around him – a guy that always seems to land on his feet.
The fact that he got away with a foul on A&M's last shot might be filed under this category. Shipp clearly grabbed Donald Sloan's wrist while he was shooting the final shot with 4 seconds to go.
But again, if the pundits out there are attributing UCLA's win to a missed call, it's short-sighted. Games are never won or lost on last-second calls. You have to take the entire canon of work in a game by the referees to determine if it really affected the outcome.
In this game, it probably all evened out. There was a stretch in the first half where a series of bad calls by the refs definitely gave A&M a boost. The one foul called on Darren Collison when he was hooked and thrown to the floor was one of the worst calls in recent memory. There were a number of poor calls in the second half, then, going against both teams. Overall, it really wasn't flagrantly pro- or con-UCLA.
The most obvious observation, again, as we've repeated throughout the season, is exactly what Ben Howland repeats in his post-game interviews: This team has an uncanny knack for believing they can win despite their situation. And, amazingly, they do win.
It's like an incredibly lucky streak in Las Vegas, though; You wonder how long it can go.
But, on the other hand, it's happened so many times you have to start entertaining the idea that it's not based entirely on luck – or even predominantly. UCLA, in the way it plays, creates these come-from-behind scenarios. For whatever reason, it doesn't play with a great deal of urgency to begin most games, and then, when it has its back against the wall in the second half, there isn't a team in the country who plays with more urgency. It'd be really exciting to see UCLA play with the same intensity it played with in the last five minutes of the A&M game throughout 40 minutes. But perhaps that's just not possible – for any team – and even this one. Maybe UCLA fans should just be thankful that this team has this capability. You have to look at it less as just a string of lucky games and more like an incredible weapon in its arsenal. As everyone says, champions know how to win.
And UCLA fans definitely seem to get this about this team. In the second half, when UCLA fell behind by 10 points, the Honda Center crowd got on its feet to try spur on a UCLA comeback. The fans know what this team is, what it has, and the incredibly loud crowd had to be given some credit for providing a little nudge to the Bruins to get in their come-from-behind mode.
But if we're talking lucky, we have to, again, return to our theory of basketball's lucky bounces. Three things have been UCLA's problems this year (by far more than the scoring woes of Westbrook or Shipp) when they compounded in specific games. On defense, UCLA has allowed dribble penetration, hasn't rotated well and then there are those lucky bounces. In various games, those three factors have definitely been the biggest issues in UCLA getting behind or struggling.
Texas A&M definitely got some lucky bounces in this one. There was the shot that bounced off the top of the backboard to fall in. The free throws that clanked off the back of the rim and fell through. The dribble drive that an Aggie lost, only for it to fall into the hands of a teammate under the basket. A few offensive rebounds that fortunately bounced to a teammate.
We're not saying that A&M did well against UCLA in this game because of just luck. We're saying that sometimes in basketball the lucky bounces go against you and, for most of this game, that was the case for UCLA.
But UCLA also was allowing A&M some easy baskets. There were a few times when a UCLA defender couldn't stay in front of his man, and many times when the rotation broke down. It's hard to pin the blame on a player when it's difficult to know whose responsibility a rotation is – and when no one will tell you when you ask (since no one, player or coach, wants to place blame). In the first half, James Keefe stepped up to stop dribble penetration and the driver dished to Keefe's man for an easy basket. We have to think it's not Keefe's fault, that he's doing what he's supposed to – cut off penetration in the lane. So then, if that's the case, there are various others whose fault it definitely is for lazily not rotating to Keefe's man. But generally, just about every player on this team seems to be guilty of lazy defensive rotation. Admittedly, we know, you're going to allow some easy baskets when you hedge screens and double the post like UCLA does, but generally UCLA's lack of defensive rotation has been its Achilles Heel throughout the season.
If there is something that will be UCLA's bugaboo in this tournament, it won't be a lack of scoring from Shipp, Westbrook and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute; It will be UCLA's poor rotation on defense.
But something that many are missing in attributing UCLA's win to just Collison and Love, and to some luck: UCLA's defense, down the stretch, again, was stifling. Texas A&M scored 20 points in the second half, and when UCLA was making its stand, over the course of 13 minutes allowed A&M just 6 points. That's not really luck. That's Howland's philosophy of defense, again, winning a game for you.
But here is probably the most obvious observation of the game: Love and Collison are heroic. Their performances in this game were of epic proportions.
Down the stretch of the game, first, you're spilling superlatives on Love. The two fade-away shots were beyond clutch. For a freshman to be able to hit those, in that situation, is the stuff of immortality. There have been some pretty incredible freshmen in college basketball in recent years, but I can't remember such a miraculously clutch single game from one. And not only were the shots of legend, his defense on the other end – getting a series of blocks and rebounds – were just as big. And then, in the aftermath of one physical battle, he calmly swished those two free throws. While there might be taller or more athletic NBA prospects in the country, NBA scouts would be remiss not to note Love's intangibles – his steely and almost unreal ability, as a 19-year-old, to make a play when you need one. Whether UCLA wins the national championship or not, it truly is the knack of a champion.
So, as you're anointing Love the King of the Day, then Collison comes through and hits two equally miraculous lay-ins high off the backboard as the game winners. Collison, with those dagger-esque three-pointers (five of them in this game) also has that knack of a champion.
The two of them, together, have enough mojo going for them to carry UCLA to a national championship. While other teams in the country have more talent overall, or more scoring punch, I haven't seen a team with two guys who have more of a champion's mojo than Love and Collison.
UCLA fans will just have to hope that mojo, that knack of a champion, can carry them four more games.
And heck, a little improved defensive rotation and a few threes from Josh Shipp could help, too.