It's About Seniors Against Oregon

UCLA ran away from Oregon in the second half to win, 94-68, in a game where there was far more signficance outside of the game than actually in it. It was a poignant day, being the last game for the seniors in Pauley Pavilion, and now it's a question of how far those seniors can lead UCLA in the post-season...

There were as many compelling aspects off the court as on the court Saturday, when UCLA finished off the Pac-10 season in beating Oregon, 94-68.

The possibility of UCLA sharing a Pac-10 title was in the hands of Washington State later in the day, with the Bruins needing a Cougar win over Washington to tie the Huskies.

But it didn't happen, and UCLA, for the first time in four years, did not win a Pac-10 conference title.

Not to sound arrogant, but for Bruin fans it's almost like trying on someone else's shoes.

It was Senior Day, with Darren Collison, Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya and their parents being introduced to the Pauley Pavilion crowd before the game.

At halftime, the 1969 Championship team was honored. To see those men, now in their 60s, on the Pauley floor, and to hear the graceful words of Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, made you remember the flicker of light in the back of your memory seeing them play when you were a kid.

It was definitely a day of memories and transition.

Since Ben Howland has taken over the UCLA program, he has had to say goodbye to some very good players. But Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love left early, and didn't get the senior ceremony. Plus, there are four (and sometimes five) years of memories and sentiment attached to a player who stayed through his senior. It was touching when Lorenzo Mata was introduced with his parents last season. But this was a triple sentimental whammy when Collison, Shipp and Aboya are playing in their last game at Pauley Pavilion.

The three of them were the winningest class ever to go through UCLA, with 121 victories and counting. They won those three Pac-10 conference titles, two Pac-10 tournament titles and went to three Final Fours. No player has won more games as a Bruin that Aboya with 116 career victories. Collison and Aboya are tied for most games played by any player in UCLA history, 138. Collison has started 100 games. He is second behind Aboya with 114 career victories. Shipp holds the record for starting the most games in UCLA history, 130, and he's third behind Aboya and Collison with 108 career victories.

Aboya graduated in 3½ years and is currently working toward his master's degree in publicy policy. Collison and Shipp will graduate in June.

If you were wearing blue and gold on Saturday and were sitting in Pauley Pavilion, you had at least a little bit of a blue and gold lump in your throat. At least one of these three guys – if not all three – has a special place in your Bruin heart.

Unaccustomed to having to send off three seniors of such magnitude at the same time, Howland has been choking up at press conferences for the last couple of weeks.

On the court, well, it wasn't as moving. You would think a game that ended with a score of 94-68 was a complete blow-out, but it really wasn't. Oregon was still within 12 points with 10 minutes left in the game and UCLA couldn't completely shake the young Ducks until they ran out of gas in the last 10 minutes.

Shipp topped himself again, getting his second consecutive career high, with 28 points. Howland pointed out that Shipp accumulated those points by letting the game come to him and he was right; it was a sneak-up-on-you 28 points compared to the explosion of 27 in the game Thursday night. There is no doubt that Shipp has found his groove offensively; shooting the best he clearly ever has in his career, his teammates are finding him, and he's knocking them down. He moves very well away from the ball, and Howland's offense is now running a good amount of plays for him, with Collison, Jrue Holiday and Jerime Anderson consistently getting him the ball in a position to shoot in this game.

Collison scored 19 points without taking a three-point shot. If you remember, one of the criticisms of Collison previously was not attacking the basket enough, but he surely is now, getting the vast majority of his points in the paint off penetration.

Aboya had 10 points and 7 rebounds, but again he seemed a bit out-of-sorts, perhaps because his parents were in the stands. Aboya, though, played his last game in Pauley Pavilion in a manner that was fitting, with a great deal of energy, with tough, physical defense and taking a charge.

As a team, the Bruins generally didn't play really well, particularly on defense, allowing a pretty poor Oregon team to lead for most of the first half and hang with them for far too long. Oregon freshman Drew Wiley had a career night, hitting 6 threes and scoring 18 points on a slack UCLA defense. A friend texted me during the game and asked: "While the rest of the team is playing man-to-man, why is Nikola Dragovic playing zone?" Facetious, but, really, accurate. Time and time again Dragovic sagged of Wiley and allowed him to have a cup of coffee and catch and shoot. To make an excuse for Dragovic, he was spending a lot of time sagging off his man seemingly trying to help inside and prevent dribble penetration, but he was lazy and slow getting out to his shooter to close out. Wiley hit a couple of threes in the first half and Howland yanked Dragovic for James Keefe. Wiley went silent, then Dragovic came in for Keefe, and Wiley woke up again and hit two more threes.

We've come upon a conclusion that UCLA's man-to-man defensive scheme doesn't match up well against Oregon's spread offense. UCLA's defense clearly isn't as good as it's been in recent years, but even in those years, when UCLA was playing stellar defense, they struggled to defend Oregon. UCLA's tendency – and dependency -- to double and trap against Oregon's spread makes it far too difficult for UCLA's rotations to cover the floor and find all of the open shooters. If Oregon ever got one very good inside scoring threat, or one very good penetrator, it would have a very good chance to beat UCLA, like they did, in fact, when they had Aaron Brooks in 2007.

If Oregon's youngsters had been able to sustain their effort throughout this game it would have been a much closer contest. But playing five freshmen and two sophomores for a huge amount of minutes will take its toll; and in a game where they don't have much to play for, on the road, against a team trying to win a conference championship, the drop off the cliff was inevitable.

UCLA's own youngsters had good showings themselves. While Jrue Holiday has lost his scoring mojo, he continues to show his considerable talent in many other ways, finishing with 5 assists, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks. With Collison sitting for the majority of the second half after falling and bruising his tailbone, Anderson played 14 very good minutes, running the offense efficiently and finding his open shooters with quick, crisp passes. He also showed that he can get to the basket well and his on-ball defense is already exceptional, which makes you excited to see what it will be like as a sophomore.

Along those same lines, perhaps the long-term aspect of the team to be most excited about in recent weeks has been Drew Gordon. The freshman post has really shown considerable development, particularly in the last two games. In 10 minutes, he had 6 points, five rebounds, an assist and a block. The stats don't show, though, how much more comfortable he's obviously feeling, particularly on defense. With instructions from the coaching staff, he has continued to take his short jump hooks, and he made a pretty one Saturday. His recent play is an encouraging note for the post-season and next season.

The best aspect of the game was UCLA out-rebounding the Ducks 45-27. Oregon isn't a good rebounding team, but they out-rebounded UCLA in the first meeting. The rebounding differential in this one was what kept UCLA in the game when they were struggling.

UCLA emerged from Saturday as the two seed in the Pac-10 tournament, playing on Thursday at approximately 8:30 against the winner of the play-in game between #7-seed Washington State and #10 Oregon.

It's an unfamiliar place for the Bruins, to be the #2 seed in the Pac-10 tournament. And this season, finishing at 24-7 and 13-5 (we predicted 25-6 and 14-4; damn, missed it by one of those home losses against ASU or WSU), it's an unfamiliar situation to be up-in-the-air about whether the Bruins will play in the west for the NCAA Tournament.

While UCLA's regular season hasn't quite lived up to expectation – when you're going into the season ranked #4 and projected to win a fairly down conference – UCLA does have some strengths going into post-season play: Those three seniors. Tbere isn't a trio anywhere in the country that has played in more post-season games than Collison, Shipp and Aboya. Hopefully that experience will carry the Bruins a bit further than current expectation. All three are playing well, perhaps the best of their UCLA careers. The Pac-10 tournament will be a good, first post-season illustration of just how far that senior experience and leadership can carry them.


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