Now, onto the game. As Tracy Pierson has written in several game reviews this season, it's almost a waste of time to get into the nuances of yesterday's game. The reasons the Bruins lost as badly as they did (the final was 64-46 for those that didn't yet know), were pretty simple and typical of this UCLA squad. They turned the ball over on four of their first six offensive possessions, got outrebounded by 16 for the game, allowed USC to shoot 52% from the floor, and allowed Dwight Lewis, who came into the game averaging just over 13 PPG, to score 17 by the half. Finally, as the Bruins fell behind early, it was clear that they lacked anything approaching the fortitude necessary to keep themselves in the game. The Bruins didn't get back on defense, had terrible shot selection and generally looked like they just didn't care.
There wasn't any one play that stood out as a microcosm of the game or how the two teams got to that point. There wasn't a "signature" moment, unless you count the playing of the national anthem. However, it was very apparent from the tip (which UCLA surprisingly won) that USC had better athletes at virtually every position on the floor. Case in point: how many three-point shots were blocked by a Trojan fighting through a screen? The Trojans wanted this game, and couple that with their athletic advantage and UCLA's lack of effort and you have a blowout.
USC's game plan was actually pretty simple -- take away Nikola Dragovic and Mike Roll and their outside shots and see if the other Bruins could score. It worked like a charm as the two Bruin seniors were held to a combined zero first-half points and the other Bruins couldn't pick up the slack. Reeves Nelson did show that he could at least get to the foul line against USC's Alex Stepheson, in fact getting the Trojan post in relatively early foul trouble. The problem was that the Bruins weren't patient enough to work the ball on offense so that they could get the ball inside to Nelson. They took shots from the outside that were invariably contested and early in the shot clock. When the Bruins missed the vast majority of those outside shots it allowed the Trojans to get the rebound and get out into the open floor. It essentially allowed the Trojans to build more and more momentum. The Bruins were clearly having issues on defense and getting up the floor quickly kept an already out-of-sorts Bruin squad from setting any sort of balanced man defense. This led to easy shots for the Trojans. Even when the Bruins were able to force the Trojans into bad shots late in the shot clock, the Trojans beat the Bruins to the loose ball rebounds and scored in the next few seconds. This happened at least three times in the first half and squashed any flicker of hope the Bruins were trying to build.
The most significant example of the Bruins simply not giving the effort came off two plays in the first half that seemed pretty simple at the time. Twice the Bruins were in their halfcourt offense and attempted a wing-to-post entry pass only to have the respective Trojan defender work their way around the Bruin they were defending and intercept the pass. They weren't bad passes or done from poor angles. Those turnovers were the result of the post player simply not sealing their defender on their back or hip and not letting them get around them. That is all about effort, or lack thereof.
The question becomes, why did yesterday happen the way it did? There are several reasons for it. The most apparent was the difference in athleticism between the two teams. For example, Tyler Honeycutt, who is one of the better UCLA athletes, was made to look as if he was standing still several times by USC's Marcus Johnson. This is a major concern for Coach Ben Howland because there isn't a readily apparent fix for this. The incoming recruiting class isn't overly athletic so it appears that UCLA is going to have this issue for at least another season. Another reason is that this UCLA squad is severely lacking in leadership. There is no "fire and brimstone" general on the floor or in the locker room, a la Arron Afflalo. Even though previous Bruin squads, even the Final Four squads, had athleticism issues, they had strong personalities who hated to lose and would make sure that their teammates would tow the same line. The Bruins currently have no one on the roster who fits that bill and the situation looks even worse for next year. There were two times last night when USC's Dwight Lewis started clapping as he was "manning" up to his player. It was the sort of thing that Afflalo or Russell Westbrook would do in the past. It was a way to show the opposition and teammates that regardless of what happened on the other end of the floor, you just weren't going to score. It was surrealistic to see a Trojan do that to a Howland-coached Bruin.
Finally, and this is the most dangerous possible reason, is the look of the Bruins as they play. For those of you, like me, who have coached before you know the look of a team that the coach has "lost." I am not saying that's what has happened or is happening, but I saw too many signs of that yesterday to simply dismiss it as to what could possibly be happening. If indeed this is the case then Howland has to find a way to get the team back. That could mean a variety of things, including benching certain players. Regardless, if the players are tuning out Howland then he needs that to be priority one. If he can't get the young men to buy into a plan by the end of the season then next year has the potential to be as bad or worse than this one.
Since I started writing for BRO in 2005 this has clearly been the most difficult team to predict. That's because of their effort, or lack thereof. Just when I try and make an assumption that the Bruins will play with fire, they fall flat on their face.
Conversely when I think the Bruins have no chance then they come out with effort and beat teams they shouldn't (Cal comes to mind). However, after yesterday, coming off a week's worth of preparation and coming off a listless loss to Stanford where the Bruins committed 22 turnovers, I truly felt the Bruins would have a focused game. That may be the last time I make that assumption this season. As one BRO poster pointed out, when I predict the Bruins to lose they then go out and win. Therefore, I predict UCLA to go out and lose every other game this season.
One last point; I have stated multiple times this season that UCLA is a front-running squad. That means that UCLA's defense steps up a bit only when the offense is going well. The loss to USC was a big example of that theory. As the Bruins found good looks harder to come by yesterday, they proceeded to let their already mediocre defense fall apart to the point where USC found massive holes in UCLA's zone defense.
This isn't a one player problem, so those that say that benching Dragovic would be a cure-all need to realize that he is just one of many issues on this team (although he had a very poor game yesterday -- 2 points and 2 boards and 0-fer from the field? From a senior???). This team is either going to fold for the rest of the season or they are going to finally be embarrassed enough to start giving the effort required to be competitive. Just like the season up to this point, I have no idea which way this Bruin squad is going to go.