As the UCLA players and coaches came off the floor after beating Western Kentucky, 88-78, Thursday night in the Sweet 16, all of them were visibly taking a big sigh of relief.
UCLA just couldn't manage to provide us an easy one – this time, instead of having to make a comeback, they allowed the underdog to make one – just to make it exciting.
CBS must be praying that UCLA continues on – with the penchant it has for making exciting TV.
It was, as many UCLA games have been, a tale of two halves – only it was flipped this time: UCLA came out with a very strong first half and then lost its sense of urgency and intensity in the second.
We're still waiting for the Bruins to put together 40 minutes.
The Bruins getting in trouble in the second half, obviously, came from their inability to handle WKU's press. And there were so many factors that contributed to that.
Darren Collison, in his post-game interview, said the WKU press wasn't what they had prepared for or anticipated. It certainly looked that way.
Probably the biggest factor was his and Russell Westbrook's many bad decisions in trying to break the press. Ben Howland, if you saw him on the sideline, throughout the second half was gesturing to his team to jump stop and not bring the ball high over your head when trying to pass out of the press – but UCLA kept doing it, particularly Collison and Westbrook. Some key fundamentals broke down at one of the most key moments in the season.
You have to cite the first couple of minutes of the second half, also, as setting the tone for WKU's surge. UCLA knew WKU was going to press but played lackadaisically. In the first two possessions of the second half, Josh Shipp looked asleep. First, he allowed the slowest guy on the floor, Ty Rogers, to drive around him to the basket and was also called for a touch foul for the and-one. Then, on the next possession, after semi-breaking the press, Shipp got lazy and Courtney Lee picked him and Shipp fouled him. Howland yanked Shipp faster than he ever has in Shipp's four-year UCLA career.
The damage, however, had been done. Those five points, drawing the score to 41-25, gave WKU life. You could see they were inspired by the quick five-point switch, and UCLA only countered it with more laziness and bad decisions.
UCLA committed a total of 12 turnovers in the half, with Collison and Westbrook responsible for six of them (9 total for them in the game). You could see UCLA starting to take the WKU press seriously – but it took a long time.
UCLA's lack of focus in the second half was epitomized by Collison and Westbrook's foul trouble. Westbrook said in the locker room after the game that he didn't know he had four fouls until Howland took him out. Whether that's a lack of anyone telling Westbrook he had four fouls or the sophomore guard being so wound up he just didn't process it is anyone's guess. Collison had four fouls in the second half, picking up a few quick ones on reaching fouls – again something that goes against Howland's emphasis of fundamentals. His fifth foul was, fittingly, the capper – when with about 5:30 left he grazed Lee's arm on a three-point attempt. All you can ask is: What was Collison thinking? Being UCLA's primary ball-handler, with four fouls, and your opponent causing problems pressing you, and there being a noted lack of guards on your roster, you would think Collison, a veteran guard, would make a better decision.
Many pundits said that Lee and WKU's point guard, Tyrone Brazelton, were at least as good as Collison and Westbrook, and that looked to be true.
Perhaps the silver lining out of this is – you'd have to think that most NBA scouts watching concluded that Westbrook needs another year of seasoning in college. When Westbrook has struggled this season is when he gets wound up – and he did in this one. When asked after the game if he struggled to slow himself down in the second half, he said he thought that was primarily the problem – that UCLA showed itself down. Hmmm. You can say, though, that Westbrook does adjust his game after Howland tells him to. In the second half, after Howland demonstrated a jump stop to Westbrook following an out-of-control turnover, on the next possession Westbrook jumpstopped and made a fundamentally perfect bounce pass to Luc Richard Mbah a Moute for a lay-up.
A big factor in the game was WKU not pressing for most of the first half. They only went to it with about five minutes left, allowing UCLA to build a 20-point lead. While you really need made baskets or free throws to press, and WKU didn't have many in the first half, UCLA is very lucky they didn't go to it earlier. It is perhaps a strategic choice that WKU Head Coach Darrin Horn is kicking himself over.
But he, like, just about everyone else, probably thought Collison and Westbrook would handle it better and create easy baskets for UCLA in transition. Horn only really went to it when he was desperate.
We had heard many times since the Texas A&M game that UCLA needed to get some scoring from someone other than Collison and Kevin Love.
Who would have taken the bet if someone said they believed James Keefe would score 18 points, get 12 rebounds, 4 blocked shots and two assists against just one turnover?
This is the simple truth: If UCLA doesn't have James Keefe, their season would have ended in the Sweet 16.
Since we scouted Keefe in high school, we always knew he had this in him. He clearly provides more dimensions than Alfred Aboya and, in many ways, has advantages over Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, especially when Mbah a Moute is nursing a sprained ankle. The 18 points by Keefe were impressive, getting almost all of them on being in the right place at the right time for putbacks or dunks/lay-ins off of breaks. The 12 rebound were impressive, with Keefe again showing his rebounding knack, and his ability to keep a rebound alive. But what really stood out in his performance was his defense. There were a number of times when Keefe got switched onto a smaller, quicker guard to defend, and he was so good at it that the crowd even rewarded him with some cheers. It's not often when, first, a crowd recognizes defense (the Howland effect?), but when it notices it from a 6-8 forward, that's something. It could have been because it was so blatantly good, with Keefe showing his quick feet to stay in front and then his smarts not to leave his feet and stay under control, and wait for the player to commit and then easily block his shot.
You also have to give Keefe credit for, after throwing up that air ball when shooting a free-throw a few games ago, he went 4 for 5 from the line, in crunch time.
What you love about Westbrook, too, is his capability – and willingness – to find a way to impact the game. While he shot 3 for 15, he still scored 14 points, manufacturing them on offensive boards and putbacks. He stepped up in rebounding, finishing with 11 boards, and six of those being offensive boards.
And then there's Kevin Love. There are murmurs coming from some people around college basketball who haven't seen him that much all season that he's the best player in the land. Thursday night he put up his UCLA career high, 29 points, had 14 rebounds, four blocks and four assists. Again, there aren't enough superlatives to aptly describe his performance. Perhaps it's summed up best by asserting that, if UCLA had gotten him the ball as much as they should have he probably would have had 40 points and UCLA wouldn't have had to weather such a threatening WKU run.
It's been a long time since three Bruins had double-doubles in the same game. Then throw in Shipp's 14 points and UCLA definitely found some scoring, on a bad night for Collison.
Perhaps the biggest possession of the night was, with about five minutes left and UCLA struggling in its half-court offense, Shipp making an off-balance prayer at the buzzer for a three, which made it 68-59. WKU had really gotten control of the game, having just gone on a 10-2 run and that three-pointer was huge in stemming that momentum.
You have to ask the question, then: Will UCLA, for now on, see a press? Perhaps if they get far enough to see Louisville, and, after UCLA's demonstration in breaking the press Thursday night, the thought of Rick Pitino-esque pressure on the Bruins makes you shudder. But before that, it's unlikely UCLA would see Western Kentucky-like ball pressure. The teams that got this far aren't going to get out of what they've done to get themselves this far. This game might inspire a bit more ball pressure early on in a possession, but nothing like Western Kentucky.
We also have to ask the question: What the heck is the Hilltoppers' mascot? One of our Daily Bruin cronies, David Woods, said it looked like an offspring of the Kool-Aid character and the Cookie Monster.
But that's just about all of the disrespect for WKU we can muster. In the match-up of the backcourts, WKU clearly won. Brazelton, who was unconscious shooting threes, and Lee combined for 49 points. If they had just had one good inside player to, at the very least, slow down Love, it might be the Hilltoppers playing Xavier Saturday.