Bruins Struggle Again On The Road

Two days after enduring a tough loss at Arizona State, the Bruins are not ready for an inspired Arizona team in Tucson and suffer their second consecutive road loss, 84-72...

Earlier this week I spoke with a UCLA assistant several times about the road trip to the Arizona schools. Each time I spoke with him, he said, "we need to play with the edge that we've had for the past four games." Suffice it to say, the Bruins didn't play with that edge they had shown the previous two weekends and, as a result, they now find themselves in unfamiliar territory in the Pac-10 race. No longer do the Bruins control their own destiny in the conference race. Instead, they must hope for help from another team if they're to win their fourth consecutive Pac-10 title.

That the Bruins could lose in Tucson is not exactly surprising. The Wildcats have been playing excellent basketball lately and you knew they'd be highly motivated after losing 26 straight to the Bruins (I know, not that many – but it had been awhile). What was surprising, though, was the manner in which the Bruins were defeated. Quite simply, they were out-hustled, out-fought and out-played by a team that wanted it more. And give a lot of credit to Arizona. They played with the kind of intensity and effort that UCLA showed during its recent four game winning streak at Pauley. I think the Wildcats would've beaten a lot of teams today with the way they played. I've been critical of both Nic Wise and Chase Budinger in the past, but both players stepped up big against the Bruins. And UCLA had no answer whatsoever for Jordan Hill.

So what happened to that "edge" that the Bruins played with during their four game winning streak when they were beating opponents by an average of 22 points? Good question. If you have the answer, I have Coach Howland's phone number and I'm sure he'd love to solve the mystery. Because it truly is a mystery that a team could play with such passion, intensity and focus for two weeks and then play the way the Bruins did against Arizona. The ASU game was a tough loss, against a difficult match up zone defense and one of the best players in the country in James Harden (and then one of the worst charge/block calls I've seen in a long time). But after losing that ASU game, and with so much on the line in Tucson, it is surprising that the Bruins would come out with such a poor effort. They were beat of the dribble repeatedly, their rotations were slow once again and their focus (particularly in the first half) was atrocious.

I think the biggest concern for the Bruins is not so much that they lost the game, but rather how they reacted when they got down in the first half. Instead of regrouping, digging in on defense and playing "UCLA basketball," the Bruins panicked, lost their poise and started doing things you don't normally see from them. There were numerous bad decisions, horrible shot selection, careless turnovers and some really bad defensive sequences. It reminded me of how the opponents played at Pauley during the UCLA four game winning streak. At a certain point, those opponents wilted and began to make things easy for UCLA. And that's exactly what the Bruins did against the Wildcats. Instead of showing poise and resiliency, the Bruins seemed to panic and get away from the offensive and defensive principles that have made them the class of the league for the past three seasons. They took quick shots, they made ill-advised forays into the lane and, in general, played as individuals rather than as a team.

In terms of the individual performances, there wasn't a single Bruin that had a good game. Darren Collison did have 26 points, on 10-14 shots, but Nic Wise also had 26 points. As we've said repeatedly, UCLA's defense starts with Collison out top. If he's not defending well, UCLA is usually not defending well. Collison allowed Wise to do pretty much whatever he wanted and that was a huge factor in the game. And when the game was on the line in the first half, Collison didn't do a good job of settling the team down and creating anything for his teammates. The environment in Tucson is exactly the kind of scenario where you need your senior point guard to step up and provide leadership. Collison didn't do that when the game was on the line. He does deserve credit for making big shots late, but he has to do a better job of leading the team when the game is on the line.

Jrue Holiday played tentatively on offense and that's something that has to change if the Bruins are to do anything significant this year. Holiday is one of the few playmakers on the team and he needs to play with more assertiveness. He hesitated several times when he had open shots and generally seemed unsure of himself. In short, he played like a freshman in a big game on the road. While you don't want to place too big a burden on a freshman, Holiday is the most talented player on the team and he needs to be willing to accept the responsibility that comes with that type of talent. He did manage to contribute in ways other than scoring, with five assists, three steals and three rebounds.

Despite scoring 18 points, Josh Shipp had a bad game with six turnovers, only one assist and two rebounds, as well as some spotty defense on Chase Budinger. Shipp can be effective at times when he picks his spots on offense and plays to his strengths. But when he tries to create his own offense -- as he did in this game – his limitations as a player become obvious and he hurts the team. His lack of poise and poor decisions/shot selection when Arizona made its run in the first half were disappointing, especially given that he's a fifth year senior. With Shipp, there's a fine line between being willing to take a big shot (a good thing) and forcing the action when there's nothing there (a bad thing). In this game, he made too many bad decisions and also didn't play with the sense of urgency that the Bruins need from a supposed senior leader.

Alfred Aboya had a rough time against Jordan Hill, which probably shouldn't be a surprise since Hill might be a lottery pick. Hill ended the game with 22 points and 13 rebounds. In additions to his defensive struggles against Hill, though, Aboya also had problems catching the ball. He had a number of plays where he fumbled the ball when receiving a pass. He did manage to grab eight rebounds, but overall just seemed out of sorts.

Nikola Dragovic was off-target from three-point range in this game. And when he's not making threes, his mediocre defense and rebounding is a lot more noticeable. Dragovic has definitely made strides in those areas, but he's probably never going to excel in either department and that's a concern when Ben Howland teams typically are built on defense and rebounding.

The Bruin bench had some good moments and bad moments, but overall wasn't up to the task in Tucson. Malcolm Lee didn't do much at the offensive end – finishing with only one point – but you watch him at the defensive end of the court and imagine what the Bruins might become if he can ever get significant minutes. He needs to slow down, and make better decisions, but he's got a chance to become an impact player with his length and quickness.

The only real bright spot of the game was the fact that the Bruins didn't quit when they were down by 25 points. They did continue to fight and actually got to the point where they were within shouting distance of a miraculous comeback. Down nine with about a minute to go, they missed back to back threes that could've made things very interesting.

So where do the Bruins go from here? Well, getting back to Pauley will certainly help and I'll be very surprised if they don't come out with a great effort against Washington Thursday night. With six conference games remaining, it wouldn't surprise me if the Bruins go 6-0. It also wouldn't surprise me if they go 4-2. Their margin of error isn't what it has been in the past and they need to play with a high level of intensity and focus in order to be successful. They've shown that ability at home, but have yet to do it on the road.

The Bruins will have another chance on the road in the Bay Area two weeks from now, but they first need to regroup and come out with great efforts against the Washington schools. With six conference games, and then potentially three games in the Pac-10 tournament, there is still plenty of time for improvement before the NCAA tournament. A #2 seed in the tournament is probably no longer a possibility, but seeding isn't as important as how you're playing when the tournament starts. Hopefully, the Bruins can learn from this weekend, bounce back and get back to the way they were playing prior to this weekend in Arizona.

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