When UCLA had rolled off four blowout wins against seemingly quality competition, the talk on the message board fired up about how UCLA was playing better than any team in the country, how to get a high seed in the NCAA tournament, etc.
The new and improved Bruins were going to further roll through the rest of their Pac-10 schedule and win the mediocre Pac-10 going away.
But the new and improved UCLA reverted to old and the same. Every issue that had limited them at times earlier in the season manifested itself in a stunning loss to Arizona State on the road, 74-67.
It comes down to this:
-- UCLA hasn't beaten a ranked opponent yet this season.
-- UCLA is 6-4 outside of Pauley Pavilion.
And, well, you see, the NCAA tournament hasn't been played at Pauley Pavilion in a long time and it's generally stocked with ranked opponents.
So, there are definitely some concerns and doubts about this team. But it's unfair to jump off the bandwagon just because they didn't win this game.
Fans tend to fall into the bad habit of trying to always come up with the conclusive definition for things prematurely. For this year's team, it's been "They're this" or "they're that." A month ago: "They're going nowhere; they're a five seed." A week ago: "They could still get a #1 seed. I'm thinking Detroit."
The reality is that it's a much more fluid, random phenomenon than it seems the human mind can grasp. We want to define it, put it in a little cubbie hole so we know exactly what it is – because we're so much more comfortable when we can capriciously define something than when it's inexplicable.
Too much philosophy? Perhaps. But it truly is what's going on here for fans, and anyone, including myself, can fall into the habit.
This team, more than any Howland team, is going to be far more prone to stops and starts, advances and retreats. We were, actually, pretty intelligent early on this season when we said how far this team goes will be dependent on how it improves. And Howland does tend to get his teams to improve as the season progresses. But improvement doesn't necessarily come as a straight line on the graph.
And this game was a dip in that line on the graph of improvement.
While it's easy to analyze all the things UCLA did wrong in this game – since it's most of the stuff they were doing wrong before the last couple of weeks – really it mostly came down to one thing:
The first ten minutes of the game.
UCLA came out flat and looking stunned. They had no energy on defense and allowed Arizona State to have some wide-open looks at the basket, didn't rotate with focus or energy, and ASU built a 12-point lead.
Once UCLA started playing with more intensity, they played pretty much up to expectation. If you take that first 10 minutes away, UCLA wins the game.
Convenient to say, but it makes the point.
Now, some will argue that UCLA didn't even play well for the last 30 minutes. And yes, there were some issues. But many of those were, well, the randomness of sports: Collison, perhaps, being slowed by the flu, the horrible charging call on him; the unlucky technical called on Alfred Aboya; ASU shooting way beyond their capability (Ty Abbott was 3 for 38 in the Pac-10 from three coming into this game and shot 3 for 7), a couple of unlucky bounces of the ball here and there, etc.
And, you have to give Arizona State a great deal of credit, for many things. First, James Harden was easily the best player on the floor, and he's one of the best – if not the best – player in the country. With UCLA having to collapse two and sometimes three players on him, it's difficult to guard everyone else. On one possession, Harden posted up and was guarded by Alfred Aboya, then tripled teamed, and he still scored.
The Sun Devils also played hard and inspired.
ASU's Herb Sendek is a very good coach; he gets the most out of his players, maximizes their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses. That match-up zone defense is one of the best in the country.
You could say that Sendek out-coached Howland, and that doesn't happen often. Maybe not specifically when it comes to the in-game coaching, but in approach and strategy, Sendek's style is one that Howland doesn't necessarily do well against. I'd put Howland up against any athletic, run-and-gun, undisciplined team in the country – any day (which is most of the country, in fact). I think I'd rather this year's UCLA team play against Louisville or Memphis than Arizona State. But against Sendek, and that zone, a Howland team can struggle. Of course, last season, UCLA was so much more talented than ASU and blew them out twice. But when the talent is more evenly matched (even though you could make the point that UCLA still has a talent advantage this season), Howland's approach and style will find a Sendek team a problem. And again, it's mostly because of that zone, because UCLA's zone offense simply isn't fantastic. It's not horrible, but it's not great. And yes, some of that is a matter of personnel, but some of it is the scheme and approach.
If you're talking in-game coaching, there is one aspect where Howland might have made a mis-step, and it's a pretty easy one to fall into. In fact, it was perhaps a factor in the 8-minute drought UCLA experienced the first time they lost to ASU this season: You should never try to run down the shot clock against ASU's defense. UCLA did it on a couple of key possessions, the biggest one being when the Bruins were up 67-66 with about a minute and a half left in the game. Collison, obviously heeding Howland's instruction, told the team to run the clock down before taking a shot. The thing is, going up against Sendek's defense, you're basically running down the clock anyway. You need to look for a shot from the beginning of the shot clock, because you'll need all 35 seconds to find one. If you run it down without looking for one, it's far too difficult of a task to create one in 10 seconds.
On that possession, UCLA didn't look for a shot in the first 25 seconds, then panicked in the last 10 seconds and Jrue Holiday jacked up a desperation three.
UCLA went into a spiral after that. If you had to widdle this down to one offensive possession, that was the pivotal one in this game.
But again, we're falling into that bad, insatiable habit of trying to widdle everything down to one big meaningful explanation. And it just really isn't possible. There are so many factors that contributed to UCLA getting into the position of being up by only one point with a minute and a half left in the game.
We already cited the first ten minutes and UCLA's lack of effort to start the game was perhaps the biggest factor in the loss.
It's, again, falling into that trap to define things constantly when fans are back off the Jrue Holiday bandwagon. Yes, he did pick the wrong game to play like a freshman. But even though he didn't score, he did penetrate the zone a few times, and just barely missed finishing. He had some very nice assists in the game, and a few more passes that should have been assists but they weren't finished well.
With Holiday, because he was so hyped coming into UCLA, fans are tending to get on and off his bandwagon far too quickly. There's some kind of knee-jerk reaction to him. Other players, who aren't as highly regarded, tend to get more leeway. It's interesting; it's almost as if fans feel anger toward him if he isn't living up to the hype every minute he's on the floor, and that's just not fair to Holiday. Holiday is going to have stops and starts in his development, but he was so hyped because of his tremendous upside – his athleticism and vision. Ultimately, down the line, it's a good bet that inherent talent will predominate. Take away the emotion of it, doesn't make sense, as a fan to stay on the bandwagon of someone who is clearly very talented? If Holiday were a stock, wouldn't you buy it?
Collison didn't have a great game, and it might have been because of some lingering flu symptoms.
Aboya made some critical errors, mostly on defensive decisions on rotations.
But those two are pretty much given a free pass at this point in their careers. They're both warriors and have done plenty to allow us to excuse them a not-great game here and there. Even in a big game like against ASU.
Josh Shipp's offense was critical in keeping UCLA within 12 points in those first 10 minutes. He scored 10 of UCLA's first 15 points. He, though, like much of the team, wasn't stellar defensively at times. There were a few critical possessions where he didn't play defense with focus or intensity and it cost the Bruins. The big one that comes to mind was when UCLA was up by 54-50 with about 9 minutes left and looking like they had the momentum, and he took a defensive possession off, not pushing through a screen and allowing Rihards Kuksiks to get open for a big three-pointer.
Mike Roll played well. He had 15 critical points, hitting big threes (going four for six from three), and making a lay-up and an and-one off a high-banking lay-in.
Again, we've repeated this previously: Jerime Anderson is going to be very good.
Offensively, in attacking the zone, the Bruins attempted their game plan – to be aggressive, penetrate, screen to create space for outside shooters, and get Aboya touches inside. It wasn't as if they broke down and went away from it. There were very few last-second desperation shots at the end of the shot clock. They were actually successful in executing it many times but failed to finish. They also were pushing to get more scoring opportunities in transition – and did, but didn't convert on enough of them.
Again, a few bounces here and there, UCLA converts some of its lay-ins and Arizona State shoots, say, 40% from three instead of the 61% it shot (which amounts to four three-pointers), and UCLA wins and fans are defining the team in a completely different way.
So, just a few little bounces, really, are what determines whether many fans are on the bandwagon or not, whether they define the team as still being on a surge, or whether they took a dramatic step back.
It really isn't fair, or logical. UCLA didn't get blown out by 30 like Louisville. That would make UCLA fans legitimately have big concerns, and possibly be justified in concluding a final definition for this team. But that didn't happen.
UCLA lost on the road to a good team that has one of the best players in the country and a very good coach. And they were in a position to win it in the end.
So, don't fall off the bandwagon yet. Collison and Aboya have earned your faith. Holiday has shown the talent that gives you enough reason to hope.
The team has improved. And it has the capability of more improvement, compared to other teams around the country.
So, maybe we should all keep our seat on the bandwagon.