We told you there would be some early-season trip-ups, and this certainly was one, with the Bruins losing to Michigan, 55-52, in the semi-final of the 2K Sports Classic in Madison Square Garden Thursday.
Truly the biggest disappointment is that UCLA won't face Duke in the final. And, the Bruins very well better beware of Southern Illinois in the third place game (but that's for the upcoming preview later today).
Before we get into the details of the game it is imperative that UCLA fans take a huge, collective valium. Get used to the fact that this season is going to be, well, to bring out the often-used analogy, a roller coaster ride, especially early in the season. If you're faint of heart and only like your Bruin basketball as blow-outs until the NCAA tournament, then you should put down your funnell cake and step away from the ride.
As we've been telling you, this is a team with some definite holes – holes that could be filled by development throughout the season. There is a potential there for the team to be very good, but to get there it's going to be a bumpy road. Expecting anything more is foolish and delusional.
Truly the first issue with this game is something, amazingly, I agree with Dick Vitale about. On the telecast on ESPN 2, with about 10 minutes to go, he said that Darren Collison had to prove he was an All-American, take control of the game, show leadership and win it.
In the last few years of Ben Howland's success, he had that steely, go-to guy. Arron Afflalo was the man for that. Last year, you could see the intensity of Kevin Love surge in the last few minutes of a close game.
Admittedly, without Collison, UCLA isn't probably in this game at all. But if he wants the accolades, the All-American monikers, you get it by doing the things that don't show up on the stat sheet. Collison, in the past, has had that moxy at times, hitting big shots at the end of games, playing with an infusion of urgency in the second half. After Vitale said it on the telecast, Collison kind of wilted, in fact, missed a couple of shots and turned the ball over.
But you can't put this just on Collison's inability to step up. Among those teammates who have been to Final Fours with him, none of them had the stuff it takes to win a tight game down the stretch.
Alfred Aboya came the closest to having that winning attitude in the end, taking charges, getting open for some easy baskets. But he also broke down, perhaps at the most critical moment, when he allowed Michigan's DeShawn Sims to backdoor him with 34 seconds left down by two. But again, it's tough to place any blame on Aboya. If there was a warrior-type on the floor for the Bruins, it was him.
It might be that UCLA needs some others to step up and show they have the character to play in close, tough games – the kind of character that gets you far in the NCAA Tournament. Howland has said that the team needed to rebound by committee; perhaps the team needs to also step up for winning time by committee.
Neither veterans Josh Shipp or Mike Roll showed that type of character. Just simply looking at their stats is telling enough: Shipp went 2 for 9 from the field for five points, 1 for 2 from the line, while committing 6 turnovers. Roll was 0 for 3, and 0 for 2 from three, for 0 points, and 0 for 2 from the free-throw line. They played 41 minutes combined, went 2 for 12 from the field, 0 for 3 from three and 1 for 4 from the free-throw line.
Shipp had perhaps his worst game as a Bruin. The six turnovers were devastating. His lethargic defense was damaging. With about 7:50 left in the game, with UCLA down 42-41, and with the UCLA faithful waiting for a Bruin to take this team on his back and bring them through the finish line, Shipp was called for a emotionally-thrown elbow. He was a detriment being on the court, a turnover machine, making poor decisions in trying to cut through Michigan's funky 1-3-1 defense, and instead of projecting that I'm-going-to-win-this-damn-game focus of Arron Afflalo, reacted with petulance.
The team was much better off with Roll in the game, even though Roll didn't show that step-up-to-the-moment character either. Perhaps the biggest shock of this game was Roll badly missing his two free throws. There is a valid point to be made about Roll that he has yet to make a big shot in a big game. Even given all of this, Roll still had more to offer on the court than Shipp; he played good defense, and he passed the ball well against the 1-3-1.
For the first time ever, Howland actually yanked Shipp in the second half, after the elbow-throwing incident, for Roll.
For this team, the Michigan game was kind of a perfect storm, a confluence of factors leading to a regrettable situation. Howland knew this, too, admitting as much in his press conference earlier in the week. He was taking a young team, one that's currently over-rated, that desperately needs some seasoning, on the road to New York City for the third game of the season, against a very unconventional and gimmicky defense. Howland recognized this was a situation rife for disaster.
He was right.
There seemed to be some indications, though, that UCLA could overcome the perfect storm. In the first half, the Bruins, for the most part, executed well against the 1-3-1. The defense is designed to trap ball-handlers on the perimeter and take away the weakside of the court. Collison and Jrue Holiday flashed through the seams of the defense with dribble penetration and passing, which opened up the weakside and pockets of softness on the baseline, leading to fairly easy baskets. UCLA shot 50% in the first half.
It was, also, quite clear what UCLA needed to do to be effective against the 1-3-1 also – that is, have Collison, Holiday, Roll, Keefe and Aboya on the court. When Howland subbed for these guys, Michigan was able to use the 1-3-1 to choke off UCLA's offense, creating turnovers, which led to easy Michigan baskets, which is exactly what this defense is designed to do. UCLA committed 17 turnovers and Michigan got 18 points off of them.
The subbing weakness was clear as day. UCLA went up 9-1 to start the game. Some subs came in and the score is 9-7. Howland goes through his subbing for the middle 10 minutes of the first half and UCLA holds on to a three- to four-point lead. He gets the most effective line-up back on the court, and UCLA slices through the 1-3-1 and plays good defense and builds a 29-19 lead again. With 1:51 left, Howland thinks he can get Collison and Co. some rest, puts in his subs, and Michigan scores the last two baskets.
At halftime, though, it seemed pretty clear what UCLA and Howland were going to have to do – play that line-up for about 18 of the next 20 minutes. Collison did play 18 minutes in the second half, and Holiday 16. But Shipp's 26 minutes overall were too much. And even though Nikola Dragovic hit a couple of three-pointers, he made a few bad decisions in terms of shot selection that really hurt down the stretch. It's obvious that Howland believed Dragovic was worthy of being on the court for his outside shooting, but until Dragovic can really show he can consistently make three-pointers in big games – and take good shots – he's a liability on the court against something like a 1-3-1, where it takes a much better natural feel and passing ability. James Keefe, in fact, was having the best game of any Bruin Thursday, grabbing rebounds and playing particularly good defense from the outset. He finished with 8 rebounds for the game. And, even though we recognize that Dragovic might show he's a better shooter than Keefe in practice, in the games so far this season Dragovic is 2 for 10 from three and Keefe is 2 for 5. While, still, Dragovic might give you a little more accuracy shooting from the outside, it's simply not pronounced enough of a difference to warrant Dragovic playing over Keefe, especially in this game when Keefe was playing so well, and was a critical cog against the 1-3-1. Defensively, Sims was able to exploit Dragovic, while Keefe did well to limit him. Sims finished with a game-high 18 points.
You could also look at the game pretty simply as lost at the free-throw line. UCLA shot 45.5% from the line, going 5 for 11. Roll, Shipp, Aboya and Keefe went a collective 2 for 8. In a grind-it-out game, where the score isn't going to get out of the 50s, it's something that you need as a team to help you win these types of games.
It goes back, too, to the game-winning character. Roll and Keefe need to find it. They have a team-first, hustle mentality and perhaps just need more experience to conjure up the Afflalo in them, one they could get by March. Shipp needs an attitude adjustment. One that perhaps some bench time might manifest. Collison needs to simply step up and be the man. If you are to believe his explanation for returning for his senior year (he said he wanted to win a national championship) he needs to display the type of desire and urgency a national championship season demands.
Jrue Holiday, it's easy to see, has that special quality, that winning quality. He was very good in breaking down the 1-3-1, with his ability to slice through seams along with a great vision and passing ability. But you can also see that Afflalo-esque spark in him, that quality that wants to carry a team on his back in a close game to get the win. Hopefully he'll continue to get more confident, especially as a leader on this team, and the team might find itself more on his back in critical situations later in the season.
Hopefully, this game was a very good learning experience for the team, and one for the coaching staff. It was a good chance to see what kind of team – and players – you really have, how they react when the chips are down, not when they're playing Prairie View A&M. While it might have been regrettable that UCLA had to play this game so early in the season, we could very well look back on it later in the season as a critical learning experience that helped to mold the team and put it on the right track.