Saturday, a number of forces came together to help Arizona State beat UCLA in overtime, 61-58.
Talking about the first 32 minutes would sound pretty much like I've written about for much of the season. Some guys played well, others not so well. Blah, blah, blah. I'm going to skip writing about it because analyzing it really isn't that interesting, and it's old, oft-used material.
Because what everyone wants to talk about and analyze is the last quarter of the game. Everyone has their theories on what went wrong and, of course, so do I.
Generally, when UCLA went ahead by 11 at the 8:14 mark of the second half it was looking like the game was in hand. The Bruins had just gone on a 14-3 run, they were cutting up ASU's 2-3 match-up zone, and they had the momentum.
But then that confluence of forces struck.
The result was UCLA unable to make a basket for over 12 minutes. That has to be some kind of record. I don't ever remember a UCLA team under Ben Howland going 12 minutes without making a basket.
What the heck happened?
It almost certainly wasn't any one thing, but a combination of a few different things.
First, if you watch the tape, you might notice that ASU starting matching up more out of their zone. After getting burned on a couple of open jumpers, ASU coach Herb Sendek called a timeout. The Sun Devils came out of that timeout and started extending out on UCLA's shooters.
UCLA, also, noticeably, got complacent. Against Arizona, when they were up by double digits at about the same juncture in the game on Thursday, UCLA started running the clock. Now, the Bruins didn't necessarily run down the clock against ASU at the 8-minute mark, but there was a noticeable difference in their approach to attacking the zone. Instead of crisp passes that were trying to find a defender out of position and create some shooting space, UCLA casually passed the ball around the perimeter with no urgency. Whether this was at the behest of Howland, or just a collective mental shift by the team – or both -- is hard to determine.
UCLA did something different, too, or stopped doing something. They stopped screening defenders in the zone as much. If you watch the first 32 minutes of the game, UCLA used a great deal of screens, and different kinds, to free up shooters. In the couple of possessions right before UCLA's dry spell, Mike Roll hit a two-point jumper with his toe on the three-point line and Josh Shipp hit a three. They both had space to shoot because James Keefe set nice baseline screens on both plays, and Shipp and Roll came around the screen and had space to shoot when they caught the pass. From then on out, UCLA didn't set one similar screen. They set ball screens, but not one where, away from the ball, a player screens a trailing defender to free up the shooter.
A few minutes later, Keefe came out of the game, and Nikola Dragovic went in, a substitution that seemingly makes sense because you would think you'd want another shooter in there, especially one who had already hit three three-pointers in the game. But that also changed the dynamic of the team on the floor. Dragovic, whether by instruction or his own volition, floated outside, looking for a shot. Only Alfred Aboya remained on the block or along the baseline. UCLA now didn't have that other big to set the screen to open up the shooter.
With now four offensive players mostly floating on the outside, and defenders closing out on them quickly out of the zone, a good adjustment might have been to look to get the ball into Aboya in the post more. If perimeter defenders are extending out more, it creates more room inside. If Aboya would have just had a few touches in the post, with some teammates cutting away from the ball, more seams might have been exposed for easier looks.
But UCLA, throughout the game, didn't get the ball inside. Admittedly, it's tough against a zone, but the value of your post getting a touch in a zone is too great; it makes defenders collapse on him and opens up space for others. It especially might have been effective since ASU seemed to now be collapsing quickly on the Bruin that flashed to the top of the key for the pass, which would tend to give Aboya more space to catch it.
So, combine all of this that with UCLA's seeming mentality of not passing to cut up the zone but passing to pass the time, and ASU now matching up individually with anyone who caught the ball, and UCLA's offense came to a halt.
UCLA did, too, miss some shots. Collison missed a floater and a decent look on a three-pointer. But mostly UCLA missed forced shots at the end of the shot clock.
Collison also had an uncharacteristic turnover.
Howland, in his post-game comments, blamed himself for not using his subs more and the starters getting fatigued. It did appear that was also a factor, since not only did the offensive attack against the zone look listless, the defense lost a great deal of energy. Arizona's 11-point run that tied the game at 54 and sent it into overtime was fueled by many open looks ASU got on the other side of the floor. In fact, it could have been worse since their designated three-point shooter, Rihards Kuksiks, missed a wide-open look from three. UCLA was slow to rotate and block out, and the Sun Devils, gaining energy and momentum from shutting down UCLA on their defensive end, were playing focused and inspired on their offensive end. The poor defense was culminated by Shipp's bad decision to foul James Harden with 22 seconds left in the game with UCLA up by 2. It didn't make much sense, to try to pressure Harden on his dribble about 40 feet from the basket, but perhaps it was the fatigue factor that led to Shipp's poor decision.
You certainly can't put too much blame on Shipp, since UCLA had gone into the mind freezer for the previous eight minutes or so.
So, who's to blame? Well, you could probably spread it around. Howland is probably correct to take some of the blame. As he said, he didn't use his subs enough and the extended time on the floor caught up with the starters. Probably, too, not seeing how the zone offense had gone stagnant, and had stopped screening, is at Howland's feet. The noticeably different mental approach to attacking the zone could also be Howland's responsibility – whether his instruction was to use all of the shot clock -- but it's uncertain.
But, come on, for every time UCLA has suffered a loss that you could chalk up more or less to a coaching mistake under Howland, you can chalk up a dozen wins that are due to coaching, too. We'll take the trade-off.
It's difficult to place too much blame with the players. Collison, being the good and chivalrous leader that he is, took the blame in the post-game news conference. But it's hard to blame them for fatigue, or to be able to adapt quickly when so many different factors are coming together to create a trend like it did after the 8:14 mark in the second half.
The loss very well could be worth it. In the last few years, Howland's team have suffered important losses, losses that allowed them to learn and mature, and do what it takes to not make the same mistakes that led to that loss.
Perhaps this is one of those games for this season's team.