Have the Bruins Put it Together?

BRO's basketball columnist, Kennedy Cosgrove, reviews the last couple of weeks of Bruin hoops, and asserts that the shift in the team's play might not be just a mid-season aberration but UCLA's annual turning-point-of-the-season...

At the risk of contributing to the mood cycling that swirls around the UCLA basketball program (lose two of three, panic! Two blowout home wins, we're back!) something shifted, in my opinion, during this weekend's twin dismantlings of Cal and Stanford.

And I don't think it's just another overreaction to Whatever Just Happened -- UCLA players and coaches probably get enough of that, twice per week each season, to last a lifetime. "We lose, it's like somebody died," point guard Darren Collison noted ruefully.

No, for the first time this season, the Bruins did what they've been doing the past three seasons: made the other team look a bit miserable.

Flash back to a classic example, two years ago, during UCLA's 2007 NCAA tournament win against Indiana. The game opened predictably, with the Bruin defense pulling its usual sand-in-the-gearbox routine, harassing and knocking around the Hoosiers' offense to the point of torment. I forget the exact details, but Indiana probably scored all of five points after 13 minutes or something. If they were able to even get a shot off, it was usually a no-hope prayer. It was trench warfare. The lads were in Palm Springs on the annual first-round tourney weekend trip, and my buddy Mike just shook his head as he watched yet another Indiana turnover. "God, we must be a pain in the ass to play against."

True. And that was probably the defining characteristic of Coach Ben Howland's last three teams, if you want to look at it in that light. When the Bruins were interested, and focused, have any but a few teams looked remotely comfortable while playing UCLA? (The most common post-game quote from opposing fans: "I can't believe we picked today to play our worst game of the season.")

But this season, the decent teams UCLA has played have looked strangely at ease. Texas, Michigan, Arizona State, Washington... they ran their plays, did their thing, and didn't look too bothered by the whole experience.

It was to be expected, to some degree. The list of elite defenders that UCLA has lost to graduation and the NBA in recent years -- Arron Afflalo, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Russell Westbrook, Cedric Bozeman, Ryan Hollins, Lorenzo Mata -- is ridiculous.

But in UCLA's recent three game mini-slump -- dispiriting losses to Arizona State and Washington, sandwiched around a nervy two-point win over Washington State -- the late-game Bruin performances were simply un-Howland like, and couldn't just be blamed on who wasn't in Westwood anymore. And that, I think, more than anything, is what's caused Bruin fans' recent grouchiness and gloom.

Check the final eight minutes of each game:

--Down 11, ASU goes on an 11-0 run to finish regulation. By the end of overtime, it's 18-4.

--Down 11, Wazzu goes on a 13-2 run to tie the game with four minutes left.

--Up by only one point, Washington goes on a 12-0 run to put the game away.

Huh?

Like I said, very un-Bruin like. In fact, after the loss to Washington on January 24th, Bruin freshman Drew Gordon said, "Right now we just don't have enough heart, basically. At the end of the day, the other team wants it more."

Double huh?

Granted, Gordon is a freshman, fresh off of dealing with Husky mauler Jon Brockman, and enduring his first conference road loss, which always comes off as just short of a ticker-tape parade for opposing fans. And granted, UW guards Justin Dentmon, Isaiah Thomas and Venoy Overton had just sliced through the UCLA defense for a combined 50 points, including 23-of-27 free throws. And granted, I'd imagine that Bruin seniors Collison, Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya, who have been through the hoops wars, must have rolled their eyes a little bit at Gordon's comments.

And Gordon was probably just blowing off steam to reporters. But did he have a point?

I mean, late-game collapses and losing spells aren't something UCLA has had to confront, at all, in the past few years.

But maybe, just maybe, things were a little different this year. Clearly, the view from up close wasn't pretty that day. Being a Seattle resident, I was jammed into the rafters at The Arena Formerly Known as Hec Ed, again. And again, I sat through a UCLA loss; that's five in a row up here, if you're keeping track, and I'm starting to get a complex.

Some years, you chalk it up to an aberration; the last two years, for example, UW hasn't had a winning record, while UCLA has won the Pac-10 and made the Final Four. This year, my view from the cheap seats said that, umm... "aberration" was a tougher sell.

The Huskies definitely have a pretty legit home-court advantage. It's a small gym (10,000 capacity) with steep seating and a cramped feel. And Washington has perhaps the most paranoid fan base I think I've seen. Even the most obvious foul call against UW was met with such shock and indignation, it was like the ref had run over a purple-and-gold clad Husky pup, then backed up, and run over it again, while jamming needles into a Brandon Roy voodoo doll. Irate was putting it mildly.

At halftime, with most of UCLA's players already in foul trouble and the Huskies having doubled up UCLA in the free throw category, I asked UW uber-fan Nate, sitting next to me, for his assessment. "Pac 10 refs, man," he replied with the disgust and resignation that only an 11-year old can muster.

By the end of the game, UW fans were still screaming at the refs despite a no-that's-not-a-typo 43-15 free throw advantage, and serenading UCLA's Jrue Holiday with "Justin's better" chants (in reference to his older, and less-talented brother on the Huskies), and generally acting as if they'd just won the Pac-10 title. And UCLA was frustrated.

And while I'd never suggest panic, was a little worrying in order for UCLA fans? Two losses in three games (and it was nearly three in a row) is like a chunk of arugula wedged in someone's front teeth -- kind of hard to ignore, no matter how polite you are.

Collison, though, had a quick answer: "It's not the end of the world right now. I think nobody's used to the adversity UCLA is going through, but we're going to get back on track. Mark my words: We are going to get back on track."

Turns out he was right.

Because last Thursday, Cal came to Pauley Pavilion. Fairly resurgent under new Coach Mike Montgomery (who had formerly built Stanford up into a dominant power until a brief and ill-fated sojourn to the NBA), the Bears boasted an offense that led the nation in three-point shooting.

A shootout seemed likely, and I had nervous visions of Cal bombers Jerome Randle, Theo Robertson and Patrick Christopher launching open trey after open trey.

Never mind. Because in the first half, UCLA got back to the business of being UCLA. The Bruins forced 16 turnovers -- 16! -- and there were long stretches where every Cal possession seemed to end in a UCLA steal and fast break the other way. If it wasn't quite the precision rotation and physical dominance of recent Bruin defenses, what was on display Thursday were quick hands and swarming perimeter defending.

And the Bears looked flustered and frustrated in a way I hadn't seen a good UCLA opponent look this year. If UCLA hadn't missed so many layups, it would have been a blowout early. Regardless, UCLA was up, 31-23, at halftime. And after Cal opened the second half with two quick baskets, UCLA then went on a 20-2 run. Game over.

A few very important developments:

1. UCLA's aggressiveness. Not only with all the defense, but UCLA stopped settling for three-pointers. Against UW, the Bruins took 24 treys, and got only 15 free throws. Against Cal: 10 treys and 23 free throws. Collison epitomized this by scoring 18 points, mostly inside, and held his counterpart Randle to 11 points and six turnovers.

2. The bench. Drew Gordon, 12 minutes, Jerime Anderson, 10 minutes, Malcolm Lee, 8 minutes. Collison only 30 minutes (after averaging 38 minutes per game during the slump).

3. Holiday. The much-hyped freshman had probably his best game thus far, with 13 points, five rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Saturday, Stanford ventured into Pauley, fresh off a heartbreaking, one-point loss at USC, where Cardinal forward Lawrence Hill's last-second shot was halfway down the basket, spun all the way around, and somehow popped out, I'm guessing due to some weird USC wormhole effect that somehow involved Trojan boosters and/or Rodney Guillory. (I kid, I kid.)

Regardless, after UCLA thoroughly dismantled the Cardinal, 97-63, it was clear that the Bruins got their groove back, and blowout euphoria was running high. Like the Cal game, the win featured a UCLA blitz early in the second half (19-0 this time), tons of forced turnovers (19), more extended minutes for the bench (Anderson, Lee and Gordon each had at least 13 minutes), and continued growth by Holiday (15 points, six rebounds, five assists).

Special mention must be given at this point to Alfred Aboya and Nikola Dragovic. Aboya's 15 points and six boards were matched by his customary intensity and physical play, and frankly no one on Stanford wanted any part of him. Dragovic stroked three treys for nine points, dished out three flashy assists, and now looks like he's playing with house money -- oozing confidence with his shot (46% on three-pointers in Pac-10 play), and generally making very few negative plays.

Plus, the mood around the program had lightened considerably. The lads' in-game texts were positively buoyant ("The Jrue-ness of it all! Our season has officially begun," said one), and even Howland told reporters that the Bruin freshmen were "really starting to get it."

In fact, the ease with which the Bay Area schools were dispatched subtly called into question how good they really were. But Collison threw out the "it's-not-you-it's -me" card. "Cal was at the top of the Pac-10 and they beat Washington at Washington, which is very hard to do,'' Collison said. "Stanford is good, too. "I think it's more of how we're playing on the defensive end. You have to give credit to us sometimes."

And maybe this is one of those times. The prediction here is that this wasn't a two-game aberration, or blowout fool's gold, but a UCLA growth spurt that provided some compelling evidence that the Bruins were figuring out who they were and how they need to play.

Every recent Bruin team that has excelled has had moments during the season on which the whole thing hinged, and the team discovered, in adversity, what it was all about.

In 2006, it was the shocking loss at USC, followed by a now-legendary grueling Howland practice that launched a 12-game winning streak, ultimately reaching the national title game.

In 2007, it was UCLA scratching out two brutal wins against USC, and avenging road losses to good Oregon and Stanford teams by dominating them at Pauley.

And last year, 2008, it was the comeback in the Verbal Abuse Game at Oregon that was the most memorable and telling moment of the season.

Will 2009's tipping point be that weekend in Seattle? Where the discouraging loss capped a mini-slump that was emphatically reversed the next weekend, and the Bruins started gelling on defense, played aggressive offense, and Jrue and the bench became a major factor?

This week will provide two high-profile answers in Pauley, with Wednesday against USC, and Saturday (early!) in a nationally-televised game against fading Notre Dame. I'm predicting two wins, including a comfortable one against the Trojans, and a blowout of the Irish.

If I'm wrong, well, break out the lithium and biofeedback monitors, because the Bruin mood swings will begin again.


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