Waiting for the Stars to Align

UCLA lost in its third straight Final Four, being defeated by Memphis in the semi-final Saturday, 78-63. The Bruins couldn't, again, match up against a more talented team. What will it take for UCLA to get over the hump and win a national championship?

UCLA lost in its third Final Four in three years, this time 78-63 to Memphis.

It was, again, a matter of UCLA running into a more talented team and not being able to match up.

In the last two years, when UCLA faced Florida, it was clear that UCLA was over-matched.

This year, it was still evident.

Perhaps the most saddening was that the edge between Memphis and this year's UCLA team wasn't nearly as pronounced as it was the last two years against Florida.

In other words, UCLA had a better chance this year.

It would have had to over-achieve in a few areas, which it didn't, and not make mistakes, like it did.

But it was doable.

It was doable because, unlike against Florida, there were some key chances in this game. Against Florida, it didn't really seem UCLA had a chance.

Before the game got blown up into a double-digit deficit, UCLA was hanging around. And it was doing it, seemingly, without much. In fact, if you're a UCLA fan, you were thinking that UCLA was lucky to be down only three at halftime and then 5-7 points for most of the second half.

Down by that many, UCLA had a number of chances. Yes, a few three-point attempts rimmed out down the stretch that would have cut the lead to 4. But that wasn't even the real chance.

The most pronounced chance was, first, if you get back a few of the possessions where UCLA took quick, ill-advised shots, and secondly, maybe Russell Westbrook is switched onto Derrick Rose earlier you would have had a real chance. The combination of those two factors gives you a far more tragic what-if.

It's, of course, easy to second-guess after a loss. Ben Howland, though, himself did cite UCLA's bad shot selection as a factor in the game. He also conceded that Westbrook was more effective against Rose when he defended him after Collison fouled out.

It's also difficult to advocate benching Collison. There probably isn't a coach in America who would bench his trusted point guard in a national semi-final game. There are players who coaches consider their crutch, and Collison is Howland's.

But, in this one, it would have been interesting to see if Collison had been pulled for a better defensive match-up against Memphis. Westbrook would have been able to defend Rose, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute would have matched up against Chris Douglas-Roberts. Westbrook was much better at staying in front of Rose, being bigger and stronger, and Mbah a Moute looked more effective at guarding Douglas-Roberts than Westbrook, using his strength and bulk to keep him from pivoting in the lane. In the stretches where UCLA did, in fact, use this match-up it looked far more effective defensively in stopping Memphis' only offense – dribble penetration.

We have to, also, comment about that – Memphis' offense. There are pundits saying how well coached Memphis is. Hogwash. Their offense consists of one guy attempting to go one-on-one and then, if he's unsuccessful, he hands it off to the next guy to go one-on-one. The Tigers didn't defend UCLA very well, in fact, either, employing a very simple tactic (doubling Kevin Love before he had the ball) to limit the Bruins at times, but UCLA still was fairly effective offensively, getting to the rim fairly easily. John Calipari is only a "good" coach in the sense that he is able to attract NBA-level talent to come to Memphis – guys who, many times, are a few years older than their class and not exactly student-athletes.

If UCLA had, in fact, taken out Collison, it wouldn't have impacted UCLA's offense. In fact, it might have improved it. Collison had one of his worst games offensively, getting more fouls (5) than points (2), and more turnovers (5) than assists (4). Memphis' athleticism shut down Collison, especially off of UCLA's go-to play, the ball screen. Collison couldn't get any separation out of it because the Tigers were just too quick and strong.

And come on, it's not hard to scout UCLA in terms of its offense and the ball screen. If you, as an opposing team, really did a ton of work on defending the ball screen you could shut down a majority of UCLA's offense.

You have to feel bad for Collison. He's been a good Bruin and it's a shame that he showed like this in the Final Four. Going up against the NBA Lottery Pick Rose, though, exposed Collison to a degree. Collison probably fell from a late first-round NBA draft pick to a second-rounder with that one game.

When it comes to the bad shot selection, it was, again, UCLA doing what the opposing defense wanted it to do. Memphis doubled Love, leaving UCLA's power forward open and daring him to shoot, with UCLA's power forwards obliging. Mbah a Moute took five jump shots, four in the first half, missing all of them, even air-balling a baseline jumper. Alfred Aboya took a shot, and James Keefe had a three rim out. It's hard to imagine that these are the shots Howland wants out of its offense, especially when every possession is priceless in the national semi-final game. You would have liked to see Mbah a Moute pass up the shot and take the ball to the basket, having a better chance of scoring or getting fouled than making his jumpshot.

It's a really bad sign when Mbah Moute takes more shots than Love (13 to 11).

Howland cited that Love wasn't effective offensively because of Memphis doubling on him and bumping him out of the post, and that's true, to an extent. It's hard to determine whether Love not touching the ball for seven minutes in the second half was due to Memphis' defensive effectiveness, or it was also partially due to UCLA's offense not trying as hard as it can to get Love a touch. UCLA went through periods of the season where it didn't look to get Love touches, and it seemed like, in this game, it got flustered and stopped looking for him.

You'd rather have UCLA commit turnovers trying to pass the ball into a double-teamed Love in the post than have Mbah a Moute take jumpshots.

Russell Westbrook led the Bruins with 22 points and it's not difficult to understand why. He's probably the only one in UCLA's roster with the NBA-level athleticism to challenge Memphis. He, unlike Collison, was able to get around his defender and take the ball to the basket.

So, UCLA is left with three consecutive Final Fours and not one championship. Is it disappointing? Yes, of course. Is it understandable? Entirely. There is a natural conclusion to draw that Howland can't win the big one – the same label that dogged Roy Williams after taking Kansas to four Final Fours and not one national championship. But in the case of Howland at UCLA, it's not that he's under-achieving, and not winning a championship when he should have. It is clearly a case of him over-achieving, taking three teams to a Final Four that clearly weren't as talented as others in the field. UCLA fans, instead of being vastly disappointed and believing UCLA should have won a national championship, should be grateful that UCLA went, improbably, to three Final Fours in three years.

So, what's the secret for UCLA to get over the hump and win that Natty? Well, winning a national championship is really, mostly, a matter of the stars aligning – literally. The "stars" being talent. Florida had three lottery picks, prospects who actually were better than they were projected. Memphis' Douglas-Roberts definitely has become a much better player than projected out of high school (it helps when you grow two inches in college). The point is: it's just not merely about recruiting elite talent, but it's also a matter of luck, in so many ways, including some players invariably developing into elite talent. And to win that Natty, you have to get lucky in that particularly year that your stars are aligned moreso than some other teams'.

Howland will not only have to recruit elite talent consistently, which he has done (Kevin Love, getting the top recruiting class in the nation for 2008) but he'll need a bit of luck – just like anyone else.

It really comes down to being able to put your program in a position to have chances to win a national championship. Howland had a better one this year, against Memphis than he did against Florida.

But Howland, obviously, has proven he can put UCLA in that position more often than just about any other coach in America.

Then it's up to the stars.


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