Turnaround Comes up Short, 75-64

All the ingredients were there for a typical bounce-back turnaround game against Arizona State, but this time UCLA couldn't quite get over the hump, falling to 2-2 in the Pac-10 and 4-8 overall...

In the aftermath of yet another bizarre episode in the soap opera known as the Steve Lavin Era of UCLA basketball, UCLA looked to rebound from a poor start and, hopefully, turn around their season with a good effort against ASU. While the Bruins did make a late run to get close, they couldn't overcome a twenty-one point deficit and ASU pulled away at the end for a 75-64 victory.

Judging from past history, though, the ingredients were all there for a win against Arizona State.

 

Let's set the stage: A major off-the-court distraction. The team playing poorly. Lavin turned into the victim and charming the media.  And, most importantly, a gimmick. Whether it's good luck charms, or going to a full-court press out of desperation, or the quicksand defense, Lavin has always come up with something to rescue himself at the last moment.

This time the gimmick was going to be playing units of five players at a time, in five-minute intervals. Lavin's theory, as he explained it to the team, was that this is his deepest team, with ten players who are roughly equal in ability. Two five-man units would alternate, until the ten minute mark in the second half, at which time the best performing unit would play the last ten minutes.

Early in the game, however, the plan experienced a glitch. T.J. Cummings picked up two quick fouls in the first five-man shift. With three minutes to go until the next unit would take over, Lavin had a decision to make. Apparently, the possibility of foul trouble wasn't part of the plan and Cummings picked up his third foul while Lavin pondered his options. At that point, Ryan Hollins, who had barely played any minutes in the last several weeks, came into the game. Hollins wasn't part of the first or the second unit. Hollins was, understandably, a little rusty and he had a rough time trying to contend with ASU's Ike Diogu and Tommy Smith.

Putting aside the glitch caused by Cummings's foul trouble, one has to question the wisdom of a game plan which, in theory, has Jason Kapono getting the same number of minutes as Josiah Johnson during the first 30 minutes of the game. As it turned out, Lavin scrapped the plan early in the second half. Yet he still managed to play Ryan Walcott more minutes than Dijon Thompson for the fourth consecutive game. Somehow, some way, Lavin needs to come up with a plan that gets his best players on the court. One approach might be to tell Dijon to report to the scorer's table and sub in for Walcott.

Regardless of what gimmicks or strategies Lavin may employ, the players need to buy into what he's selling – and that's clearly not happening. UCLA came out flat and lifeless, and ASU was able to get any shot they wanted in the first half. Curtis Millage hurt the Bruins with a number of mid-range jumpers, while Diogu and Smith converted several chances on offensive rebounds. In fact, if ASU could hit its free throws, it would have been quite a bit worse. On offense, the Bruins played mostly one-on-one, with different players trying to take their man off the dribble or launching up shots early in the shot clock. Twelve games into the season, it's impossible to decipher any semblance of a half-court offense. There is no purpose and, seemingly, no offensive plan.


Down eighteen at halftime, UCLA didn't look much better early in the second half. But when Lavin scrapped the five man rotation, and stuck with a rotation of Patterson, Kapono, Cummings, Young, Walcott, Thompson and Bozeman, the Bruins started to show signs of life. They played much more aggressively in their full-court press and the Sun Devils got rattled. Arizona St. turned the ball over time after time (they had fifteen turnovers in the second half) and they also missed numerous free throws. Kapono began to attack the basket and he was fouled repeatedly. Kapono took advantage of his opportunities at the line, converting eleven of thirteen foul shots. The Bruins got as close as six points with about four minutes to go, but Kapono missed an open three from the top of the key, Millage hit a couple free throws and the game was essentially over at that point.    

While the second-half comeback was a positive, it's difficult to get too excited about it. ASU missing an inordinate number of free throws allowed the Bruins to get back in the game. The Sun Devils didn't react well to UCLA's increased pressure in the press, but it's questionable whether the Bruins would get the same results when pressing other teams. ASU appeared to get complacent and may have lost their focus with the big lead. Since the press essentially was the catalyst for getting UCLA back in the game, we'll see if the coaching staff now latches on to it as the next gimmicky panacea for the season. 

UCLA takes on Arizona Saturday afternoon. While the Wildcats have not been as dominant as many thought they'd be, they are a deep and talented team. Good luck charms and hockey-style substitution patterns probably aren't going to cut it against this group. It may be time to break out the Walton, Stoudamire and Gardner voodoo dolls. Desperate times call for desperate measures. 


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