UCLA Toughs it Out Against VCU

UCLA held off Virginia Commonwealth Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, 65-64. UCLA played to about expectation, with some good offensive performances -- and collectively a poor defensive one, which has been its m.o. all season. The key could be whether Darren Collison returns to form...

That was just about what was expected, with UCLA barely beating a good Virginia Commonwealth team, 65-64, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

A few good things about the game to point out:

-- UCLA won the game while Darren Collison, still clearly hinder by the tailbone injury, had a poor game.

-- Jrue Holiday, with the ball in his hand quite a bit, had 13 points and six assists.

-- Nikola Dragovic was huge, getting a double-double with 10 and 13.

-- Josh Shipp led the scoring with 16 points and had a very good offensive game.

- All five starters finished in double figures, with Aboya getting 11 points and 8 rebounds.

-- It was UCLA's best victory away from Pauley Pavilion all season, against a legitimately good team in VCU.

Now, some of the bad things to point out:

-- UCLA's defense was the poor, inconsistent lazy version from this season.

-- Collison doesn't look like he can get out of his post-season, injury-induced funk.

-- UCLA didn't rebound well as a team, even though they beat VCU on the boards, 32-29. They were particularly vulnerable on a few VCU offensive rebounds that kept alive a VCU possession in a critical moment.

-- Did we mention how poorly UCLA played defense? Even though UCLA held VCU overall to 40.4% shooting from the floor, they allowed 50% from three. That stat is very indicative of UCLA's poor rotations defensively. UCLA actually didn't allow VCU's star point guard Eric Maynor to kill them (at least until the home stretch), even though he had 21 points. His dribble penetration wasn't the dominating offensive force for VCU. But VCU's ability to pass out of double teams and poor UCLA hedges and find the open man after UCLA was lazy in its rotations was. UCLA was sloppy in hedging screens and then even sloppier in picking up the open man, allowing VCU wide open looks time and time again. This has been a chronic problem for UCLA all season, and it's a bit too late to believe that they'll snap out of it this season.

Just about everyone on the team was a defensive culprit. Shipp was a big force offensively, and made very few – if any – mistakes on the offensive end. But his defense, particularly his rotations, were very poor. He was slow and seemingly didn't care on getting to the open man. Collison was just about as bad. On one critical possession, with Joey Rodriguez driving out-of-control to the basket and leaving his feet, he found a teammate wide open for a lay-in while Collison stood a few feet away looking on. Dragovic, too, had an exceptional game offensively and on the glass, being the guy in the right place time and time again for a rebound. But he also was very slow and lazy on rotations.

Holiday had played a good defensive game up until the last few minutes, when he consistently allowed Maynor to drive right around him. UCLA's 9-point lead with five minutes left dissipated after a couple of VCU possessions where Holiday played that matador-style D.

Sorry, Bruin fans, but at this point in the season, I don't think there's much hope for them to suddenly start playing better defense. They might in spurts; actually, they started out this game playing tight D. But it broke down. This just isn't a great defensive team when you have two poor defenders in Dragovic and Shipp, and then two guys in Collison and Holiday who are very defensively sporadic.

Ben Howland was calling timeouts at the end trying to stem the tide, but he might have mixed in one more when Maynor, on two successive possession, worked Holiday, which led to two successive three-point baskets and VCU cutting the lead to 61-58. Holiday was clearly not focused defensively and if there was ever a time to over-used timeouts to reset the defense, when your freshman guard is melting down defensively in the stretch run of his first NCAA Tournament game, this might have been it.

Holiday, though, did flash the talent that made him that hyped recruit. Playing point guard for a big chunk of the game since Collison couldn't (due to being slowed by the injury and foul trouble), Holiday's passing – like we've seen it before – was spectacular. With Holiday, UCLA now has a new play in its repetoire – it's that newfangled thing called a pick-and-roll. His two awkward shots down the stretch of the game that he miraculously made were huge to the victory.

Like we said at the top, it was impressive that UCLA won this game with Collison playing so poorly. You'd have to hope that he pulls out of the funk in the next 24 hours when UCLA plays Villanova in the second round. One thing, though, that contributed to the funk against VCU was the presence of Larry Sanders, the 6-10 center who has some of the longest arms ever seen on a human being. Collison's offensive game is predicated on getting into the lane and converting on floaters or deceptive moves to the basket, but Sanders disrupted many of Collison's shots. For all of UCLA's defensive woes, Collison did have the defensive play of the game when, on the last possession, he didn't allow Maynor to get a good look at the basket.

VCU, to its credit, is a good team, that's a bit better than its 11-seed would suggest. They have a couple of future pros in their starting five, which is more than what many teams in the tournament can boast. They're very well-coached and VCU had a good game plan against the Bruins. It's full-court pressure did what it was intended to do, take some time off UCLA's shot clock, and then switch man and zone to keep UCLA's offensive even more off-balance. Offensively, it was very adept at exploiting UCLA's poor defensive rotations, something they obviously scouted. They very well might be just as good as Villanova.


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