The tone was set very early when Taj Gibson, trying to establish position in the paint, hammered Alfred Aboya with a shoulder to Aboya's chest. Aboya staggered back in pain, while Gibson received a pass and converted a lay-up. While the play should've been called an offensive foul on Gibson, that's not really the point. USC set the tone early, with aggressive and physical play at both ends of the court. And UCLA never really matched the Trojans' level of physicality and intensity.
While it's tempting to look at this exclusively from a UCLA point of view, and blame the loss entirely on what the Bruins did or didn't do, one has to give USC a lot of credit. UCLA is shooting the highest field goal percentage in the country and the Trojans held the Bruins to 27% from the field. Granted, the Bruins missed a bunch of wild shots late in the game trying to mount a comeback, but that's still a really impressive number. The USC defenders were up into the Bruins the whole game. When a UCLA player did manage to drive, the Trojan help defense in the lane was outstanding.
The Bruins are a pretty good, not great, team when they're the ones playing with some desperation. They have had stretches this season where they played intense defense, attacked the glass collectively and gave a maximum effort for forty minutes. But no team plays every game at their peak level of focus and energy. And when the Bruins are not at that level, that's when their individual and collective flaws really start to show.
As I wrote earlier in the year, this Bruin team doesn't have a single player that is really good at both ends of the court. They all have certain things they do well, but they don't have any complete players. So Coach Howland is constantly faced with choices in terms of what he wants to give up. Play one guy who can score, but hurts you on defense. Play another who can defend, but won't score as well. Play a guy who has talent and athleticism, but lacks experience and will hurt you with mistakes. Of course, this is all relative to the talent the Bruins have had on their roster the past three years. Most college coaches would be happy to take UCLA's roster. And if this is a "down" year at UCLA, you're still talking about a team that finished second in the Pac-10 and has the potential to win a couple NCAA tournament games.
Just as it's a collective effort when the Bruins win, this loss was also a collective effort. Nobody played well at both ends for UCLA, other maybe than Malcolm Lee in limited minutes. Alfred Aboya gives away a couple inches to Gibson and the Trojan big man used his height to good advantage. Aboya has had a few games in the past where he's been a low-block scoring option, but he had no chance of scoring over Gibson in this game. Gibson got in foul trouble during the first game at the Galen Center, but he managed to stay on the court this time and he was huge for the Trojans.
After being a decent shooter for much of the season, Jrue Holiday has gone into a shooting slump. He appears to have lost confidence in his jump shot and last night you could see him trying to guide the ball rather than shooting it. He also hesitates at times and ends up taking shots out of rhythm. The result was an 0-8 performance from the field and only a single free throw from the line for the game. But when I mention guys doing some things well, and others not so well, Holiday is a prime example. As Fox commentator Marques Johnson said, "the only thing Holiday didn't do well in the game is shoot the ball." Which is true. Holiday did a good job creating shots for others, he played very good defense, rebounded very well and, overall, was one of the few Bruins matching USC's energy/intensity level. All of which is great – but you're going to have a hard time beating good teams when your shooting guard goes 0-8 from the field.
And you'll have an even harder time when your point guard goes 1-9 from the field in the same game. Darren Collison picked a bad time to have his worst game of the season (maybe his career?). For whatever reason, Darren just had a really bad game. It happens. Maybe his injured tailbone was bothering him (although he seemed fine against WSU). Or maybe it was the physical and aggressive play of the Trojan defenders. Whatever the reason, Collison really struggled at both ends of the court. His defense wasn't good, he couldn't score and he made a lot of bad decisions (seven turnovers). Obviously, this game was an anomaly and we'll likely see a much different Collison when the NCAA tournament starts. Let's hope so, anyway, since it's clear this Bruin team isn't going to have any success without a productive and efficient Collison.
Josh Shipp was the one Bruin who was knocking down shots for the Bruins, at least for the first thirty minutes or so. While he ended up just a decent 7-16 from the field, it was Shipp's shooting early that kept the Bruins in the game. He took mostly quality shots and, for the most part, let the game come to him. When he's got his feet set, and he's facing the basket ready to receive a pass, he's shooting the ball extremely well. But while his offensive production was definitely valuable, he hurt the Bruins in other areas of the game. He was very lethargic at times in his defense and rebounding. Several times he was standing and watching the action when there was a loose ball or rebound. Shipp is a microcosm of the Bruin team. When he's playing with maximum effort and focus, he can be a pretty good, not great, player. But when he's not playing at that high level, his lack of athleticism and physical tools are magnified.
Nikola Dragovic is another player lacking in athleticism and that fact was glaring in this game. His defense and rebounding were not good, with Trojans repeatedly going over him for boards. Dragovic did manage to score 12 points in the game, but it was on a very inefficient 4-15 from the field. Dragovic has made strides as a defender and rebounder from last season, but he's still below average in those areas. He needs to continue to work on his body and get stronger in the off-season, as well as just learn to give a consistent effort.
I don't know if it would have made any difference in this game or not, but it might've been interesting to see Coach Howland go with a small lineup earlier in the game. USC was playing DeRozan at the four for most of the game and maybe the Bruins could've matched up better with more time for Malcolm Lee. As I've said all year, I think Lee has a huge upside and he's easily one of UCLA's most talented, albeit young, players. Lee has the potential to be an effective player at both ends of the court. Granted, he'll make freshman mistakes, but maybe his good plays will outweigh the bad with more experience. Of course, we may not be talking about many more games in this season. But perhaps Lee is ready to play a bigger role and give the Bruins a spark in the tournament.
UCLA fans are no doubt disappointed that the West Region is no longer a possibility for the Bruins and they're probably looking at a seed that will likely fall in the 5-6 range. With the Bruins' inconsistent play the entire season, it's somewhat difficult to envision this team going on a major run and winning several games in the tournament. But that is one of the great things about the tournament. There's a reason they call it March Madness. Anything can happen and we've seen a lot more improbable stories than a second place team from the Pac-10 going on a big run in March. The Bruins would obviously have to play their best ball of the season – probably something like they did during their earlier four game winning streak. I certainly wouldn't bet on it happening but, then again, I also wouldn't bet against it.