It's the Defense, Stupid

When UCLA lost to Washington State Saturday, 82-81, which dealt a pretty devastating blow to the Bruins' Pac-10 championship hopes, it was clear what was behind the loss: the same thing that UCLA has struggled with all season -- it's defense...

When UCLA lost to Washington State Saturday, 82-81, it was, perhaps, UCLA's most humbling lost in the last several years.

UCLA and its fans, after winning the Pac-10 championship and going to the Final Four three years in a row, believe it's now almost UCLA's birthright to win the conference.

And while the conference race isn't over, losing to Washington State was a huge blow.

Even if UCLA does win the Pac-10, the loss was still a humbling experience.

UCLA fans also have taken for granted how UCLA has played in the last three seasons, particularly how it's won games through an excellent defense.

It's definitely not the case this season.

The basketball writers on BRO – Greg Hicks, Rob Carpentier and myself – each mentioned critical factors that would have a huge impact on the season and this game. I said early on, during the non-conference schedule, that the determining factor of the season would be UCLA's defense. Hicks said that a huge potential impact would be Malcolm Lee and how far he could come this season would determine how high of a ceiling this UCLA team had. And Carpentier said, in the Washington State preview, that the most critical factor in this game would be UCLA's intensity after an emotional win over Washington Thursday. All three of those factors came together this afternoon at Pauley Pavilion and were part of the explanation why UCLA lost to the Cougars. We're not even going to analyze UCLA's offense in this game. There's no need. They scored 81 points, plenty to beat Washington State about 99.9% of the time. UCLA's offense, in fact, has been good all season, one of the most efficient by-possession in the country. Yeah, there are always offensive lapses here and there, but UCLA is averaging 76.4 points per game, which is better than 2008 offense (73.5), the 2007 offense (71.4) and the 2006 offense (67.7). Even with Kevin Love last season, UCLA's offense is arguably as productive this season.

So, no reason to waste analysis on the offense.

Because, as we've said all season, it's all about the defense.

The defense this season is allowing opponents to shoot 45.1% from the floor. In 2008, they allowed 41.8%, in 2007 42.8% and 2006 41.5%.

This season, opponents are averaging 63 points per game against the Bruins, while in 2008 they averaged 59 points, in 2007 60 points, and in 2006 59 points.

Stats can be manipulated, but these are just about the most straight-forward stats you can get. UCLA is scoring more points this season but allowing opponents to score more points.

The difference this season – the explanation for why UCLA isn't nearly as good – as Howland essentially conceded in the post-game press conference, is UCLA's defense.

When have you ever remembered UCLA allowing a team to shoot 68% in one half? When did you ever remember an opponent to have so many open looks at the basket as Washington State did?

The Cougars, who usually plays a slow-down, deliberate offense, had no reason to slow it down Saturday. Heck, if you have a wide open shot 15 seconds in to the shot clock, take it.

When have you ever remembered a team scoring 82 points – but with only 3 fast-break points? This might be he most mind-boggling stat of the season: The Cougars scored 79 points in just their half-court offense.

It's easy to play the if-I-had-told-you-before-the-game game with this game. If I had told you that UCLA would score 81 points against Washington State, wouldn't you have guessed UCLA would win by about 20? If I had told you that UCLA would get 20 points from Darren Collison, 23 points from Nikola Dragovic and 14 and 13 from Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya, would you have ever dreamed UCLA would lose?

So, why is UCLA's defense not very good?

Well, that's pretty easy. You really only have one good defender among your five starters, and that's Alfred Aboya. Aboya is a superior post defender who has consistently done a good defensive job all season.

Darren Collison, despite any kind of past history of being a good defender (or was that just what we had convinced ourselves of?), right now is not a good defender. He got absolutely torched by WSU's Taylor Rochestie today, for 33 points. Rochestie got into the lane so often he was going to put a fence around it and call it home. Rochestie, a non-pro, average Pac-10 point guard, took Collison off the dribble time and time again. Collison left him alone for wide-open threes repeatedly.

Then you have Josh Shipp. You have to recognize that Shipp has earned his offensive stripes this season, becoming a very consistent scorer and a vastly improved shooter. But there are very few people on the planet that think Shipp is a good defender. Even Howland doesn't think so. If he did, wouldn't he put his fifth-year senior on the opposition's best defender, which he has never done this season?

The guy he has put on the opposition's best defender has been freshman Jrue Holiday, and he has more often than not showed that it was too big of a task for him. Perhaps it was too much to ask of him as a freshman. After all, Russell Westbrook and Arron Afflalo only really became excellent defenders in their sophomore seasons. Holiday got benched in this game because of his poor defense on WSU's Klay Thompson, neglecting some key aspects of guarding a great shooter like Thompson, such as trailing him instead of trying to push through screens. Thompson had 15 points in the first half.

In the last three seasons when UCLA played stellar defense, they had that one excellent defensive stopper. In 2006 and 2007, it was Afflalo. In 2008, it was Westbrook. This year they simply don't have that guy – at least among the starters (hint, hint). So, it's like a domino effect. Without that one lock-down perimeter defender, Shipp's defense is all that more damaging. And it's devastating when Collison is playing poorly on defense. Pretty much you don't have anyone who can guard consistently well on the perimeter.

It's funny how these kind of situations and dynamics can develop. It's a combination of, first, Collison probably being asked to do too much. He's the team's leading scorer, the floor general and the playmaker, and he's also asked to be a lock-down defender on the opposing point guard. When Collison didn't have so much on his shoulders – in years past – he was clearly a better defender.

Then, add to that the expectations for Holiday. In high school, Holiday was never a fantastic defender; he had the athleticism and potential to be, but he was always very undisciplined and not consistent in his effort. As we said, it probably wasn't fair to put him in the Afflalo-Westbrook role of defender-of-the-opponent's-best-player.

Then also throw in Nikola Dragovic, who has definitely improved in just about every facet of the game since taking over the starting PF spot. But his defense, while improved, is still lacking. He and Shipp both lack great athleticism to play defense at their positions. Also add to the mix that James Keefe, the better defender at the four spot, hasn't played well overall for the season – the guy you expected to really shore up the position defensively (and in rebounding).

Add it up and that's a bad mix.

The one guy who probably is the best perimeter defender is Malcolm Lee, and it was almost prophetic that Hicks suggested very early on that UCLA will only go as far as Lee develops. Lee was set back by an injury, but also then didn't get much playing time. He clearly is a superior defender, and he showed it in this game, being the only guy on the roster who could limit Thompson. Lee started the second half in place of Holiday, and was given the assignment to guard Thompson, and Thompson went scoreless for the remainder of the game.

Howland himself, in his post-game comments, recognized that Lee is going to have to get more minutes for the rest of the season.

As Howland said, Lee was the one bit of silver lining in the game, and probably the one thing that gives UCLA fans some hope that the team has a chance to improve heading into the last couple of weeks of the regular season and the NCAA Tournament.

Again, it's a domino effect. If UCLA can get better defense from one of its wing positions and limit the opposition's best scorer, then it takes a huge defensive burden off Collison, it perhaps could free up Holiday to be more focused on the offensive end, and it justifies having Shipp and Dragovic playing so many minutes to benefit from their offense.

But defense is also about effort and intensity. And as Carpentier pointed out in his WSU preview, UCLA having it in this game would be the biggest factor in determing its outcome. The Bruins plainly didn't havea it from the jump ball. It does bring into question the collective character and heart of the team – if they can't get up for a game with the Pac-10 on the line. You can point to leadership; in the past, when UCLA needed inspiration, it was Afflalo or Westbrook's defense that provided the spark. There isn't anyone on this team, with the way each of those four starters are playing defense, that could be considered spark-capable.

So, here were are, Bruin fans. Humbled. But as just as it is with everything else in life, when you get lost you have to remember what are the most important things. Howland has taken three UCLA teams to three straight Final Fours because they always recognized it was defense that was the cornerstone of success. Like we said in November, the season will be determined by it, and nothing's changed.

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