We don't usually take too much from specific games, but watching how this game unfolded, how each individual player contributed, and how the team played as a unit, this game defined the 2009-2010 UCLA season.
In a few years from now, if you wanted to look back and try to understand this season, all you'd have to do is watch this game. Everything about this season – every issue, every aspect of every player and the coaching – was contained in this game. It epitomized the season.
Perhaps the only aspect of the game that wasn't typical was UCLA out-rebounding USC, 46-25. But it is a clear epitome of the season in the fact that UCLA could actually out-rebound the Trojans by 19 and still lose.
Offensively, the team was led by Mike Roll, as has been the case for most of the season. He had 21 points on 7-of-16 shooting, making 4 of 10 from the three-point line and hitting three free throws in the last couple of minutes. He made some big threes, had some nice passes, and generally played a strong game, being crafty in using his talents to their most beneficial. He has developed beyond being just a spot-up shooter with a nice mid-range game and even some degree of finishing at the basket. He is the team's leader and clearly the MVP of this team, no question.
Nikola Dragovic had a very typical game for him. He was 5 for 15 from the field and 1 for 7 from the three-point line, scoring 12 points and getting 4 rebounds (He's averaging 11 points and 4.8 rebounds on the season). For every good contribution he'd make, he'd then commit at least one bad one. He'd hit a big shot and then come down the court on the next possession and take a bad shot. He clanked a number of critical free throws. Like he has in four years at UCLA, he played considerably poor defense.
If we're talking about games defining the season, James Keefe not being able to play, having re-injured his shoulder last week in practice, says it all for him.
Malcolm Lee went from looking like he was going to develop into a nice offensive force early in the season to pretty much an offensive mess once he took over the point guard position halfway through the season. There is no way you can blame him for his performance at the point guard spot, trying to play a position that isn't a natural one for him when UCLA clearly doesn't have anyone else on the roster who can do it. He scored 13 points in this game, but committed 6 turnovers against just 2 assists, lacking the passing ability and vision to play the point. There were a number of opportunities off pick-and-rolls for Lee to find the teammate who were rolling off the pick but he just doesn't have the vision to see it. You have to give Lee some credit, though, for continuing to play with effort while he's played out of position for most of the season.
Jerime Anderson had probably the most typical game to epitomize his season than anyone on the team. He'd take his defender off the dribble with a nice crossover and then be unable to finish at the basket. He made one nice assist on a dish for a dunk, showing that he does have the vision and passing ability to play the point guard position, but then he'd show the lack of experience and toughness – both physically and mentally – on the very next possession. The team clearly lacks good point guard play and while that isn't the end-all-be-all of the season, like many fans make it out to be, it is a huge element of this disappointing season. And if we're talking microcosms, Anderson getting picked by Marcus Johnson with about 2 minutes left down by four is it. Anderson, who looks to be about the same size he was as a senior in high school, was merely bullied off the ball as he was bringing it across the half-court line by Johnson, who was a pretty scrawny kid in high school himself but has obviously done some time in the weight room. Johnson went up for a slam dunk with a little, knowing grin on his face while Anderson looked like he was feigning an injured shoulder after the embarrassing turnover. It completely epitomized the season – with UCLA still scraping to be in a game that it probably shouldn't, and then getting so let down at the point guard position. And Anderson is at a crossroads clearly: He needs to watch the tape of that pick every morning when he wakes up for the next eight months to inspire himself to put in the work that he didn't put in last summer, or hang it up at UCLA and transfer.
It was a typical game for J'mison Morgan, having returned from injury and playing 2 minutes, getting 0 points and 0 rebounds. With Josh Smith coming in next fall, and with Reeves Nelson a solid player at the five and Anthony Stover emerging from his redshirt season next year, Morgan, who is in his sophomore season, also is at a crossroads that could lead to a transfer. If, at this point, 2/3s of the way into his sophomore season, Morgan, who is the biggest body on the team, isn't capable of providing a better contribution against a USC team that has big bodies inside, it's definitely decision-making time.
It was a typical game for Nelson, with 10 points and 7 rebounds, who averages 11 and 6 on the season. He played physically, made some plays, had a few good moments defensively matching up against USC's bigs, but then also a few breakdown moments when he showed he's a freshman. Down the stretch, after playing pretty tough defensively for most of the game, Nelson looked like he was wearing down when Nikola Vucevic slipped by him for an offensive rebound on a free throw, and then posted up Nelson easily for a lay-up. This was a very indicative game for Nelson, showing that he plays hard and can be solid playing the center spot, but also that he might not have the size or explosion to be the answer at the position for the next three years.
Tyler Honeycutt might have been the Bruin who had the most atypical game for him, fouling out after scoring 6 points and getting 5 rebounds with only 1 assist. But he did make a number of plays that were typical of his game that didn't necessarily fill up a stat page – like forcing Alex Stepheson into an errant pass because of Honeycutt's double team, along with the 2 blocks and the three steals. But, like most of his games this season, he showed that he is clearly the guy with the most upside on the team, and the guy that Ben Howland should build his program around for the next three years.
Brendan Lane had a game that was a big indication of where his development is at this point. Averaging just 6 minutes per game, and having not played in three of UCLA's last six games, he was suddenly thrust into a starter spot with Keefe injured. He came in to play against a team with perhaps the biggest, strongest bigs in the conference, at a position he doesn't normally play, after not getting near enough time throughout the season to be prepared for it.
Mike Moser hadn't played in 13 of the last 17 games, including the last six in a row, before he was thrown in during the second half of this game for four minutes. Again, without having played the vast majority of the season, to then be thrown into such a high-pressure game, at USC, makes it near-impossible for him to be able to contribute positively.
Some of the tactical decisions in this game epitomized the season. It's a strange tactic that Howland chooses to go to a man defense during crunch time as he did in this game, especially when you have players in foul trouble. The zone defense is the one that got you to the point of being able to win the game, as opposed to the man defense – that one that was used predominantly the first time that UCLA was blown out by this same USC team at Pauley Pavilion. It's as if Howland still can't be convinced that the zone is better than the man and, in crunch time, he still doesn't trust it – even if the entire season is clear evidence of the fact.
Putting the ball in the hands of Anderson in crunch time – even to just bring up the ball – is a questionable decision. While Mustafa Abdul-Hamid doesn't have the athleticism or potential of Anderson, right now he is stronger – and stronger on the ball – and makes less mistakes. In such a critical possession – down four with two minutes left – it seems like there were a number of other options than to make Anderson your ballhandler. Heck, you'd rather have Roll bring up the ball than have Anderson matched up against Johnson.
Overall, the turnovers and the foul shooting were the killers, which, well, epitomizes the season. There have been many critical games this season in which UCLA's turnovers were the aspect that kept them from winning. And of course, the free-throw shooting is the season's Achilles Heel. The Bruins were 9 for 18, while also leaving at least a few front-ends at the free-throw line.
It was typical that a win in this game could have brought UCLA back to .500 on the season and a bit of respectability, but, in typical fashion for the season, it couldn't quite be pulled off.
If you do, in fact, have any inclination to remember this season and what is was about, this is the game to save on your Tivo.