Unlike the loss on Thursday night to Arizona, the game against the Sun Devils was not a microcosm of the Bruins' season (except for the play of Nikola Dragovic). The game was essentially decided in the first five minutes when ASU raced out to a 13-0 lead. Even so, this was a game that UCLA could have won, and in that sense this game was an example of UCLA's season.
(And let's get one thing clear: my prediction of a UCLA win was completely that of a "homer" and nothing else, and hopefully the joke wasn't lost on readers, but from some reactions on the message board, I could see it was.)
There really were three factors that lead to ASU's victory and two of them had nothing to do with the Sun Devils and everything to do with the Bruins. Let's look at each in turn.
ASU under Coach Herb Sendek has become well-known for its zone defense, but the zone is almost exclusively a 1-3-1 match-up zone. The Sun Devils came out in a 2-3 match-up zone and the difference between the two is critical when one considers what Mike Roll means to the Bruins. In a 1-3-1 zone, the open spot for an outside shooter is towards the baseline opposite the ball. In a 1-3-1, the bottom ‘1' has to race from sideline to sideline along the baseline in order to take the man who invariably sets up in that weakside baseline spot. It was apparent at the outset that Coach Ben Howland was going to try and set up shots for Roll in that area. The 2-3 zone, however, accounts for that man by having a low-playing wing take the baseline spot away for an initial shot. It was really the first time this year, at least based on what I've read and seen, that ASU played that active 2-3 match-up as its primary defense. Roll had his open shot taken away and had to work much harder just to get the ball, let alone get his shot off. The 2-3 match-up does have holes in the middle and at the weakside free-throw line extended, but the Bruins couldn't hit shots from the middle mid-range and they didn't move quick enough to reverse the ball to that weakside spot until they were halfway through the first half. Howland clearly hadn't prepared for this defense by the Sun Devils, but that isn't what caused the Bruins to have such a hard time shooting outside. That leads me to the second factor.
The Bruins brought a pretty good mental intensity to the game, but it was pretty clear from the outset that UCLA was playing on tired legs. The fatigue is clearly team-wide, at least in terms of most of the players who see significant minutes, and it is and will be a continued effect of so few players playing so many minutes. Watching Roll shoot and miss because he was short on so many of his early shots is the best example of this, but Dragovic also experienced this as he put up several three-pointers where he clearly used very little ‘leg' and a lot of ‘arm' to get the shot off. Couple the fact that Roll had to work against the 2-3 zone in order to get open looks and it's no wonder that he had his worst shooting game of the year. It was a great game plan by Sendek, who seemed to anticipate the Bruins to be tired after their effort on Thursday night. To top things off, Sendek had the Sun Devils running up the floor in transition at the start of the game, thus forcing UCLA to work hard to get back on defense. It was odd to see an ASU team trying to get the ball up the floor and a shot off like they were Loyola Marymount of the early 1990s. Once the Sun Devils got the lead to 11 at the half, Sendek had them revert to the much more methodical offense that we've all come to know and associate with ASU. That essentially turned the 11-point halftime deficit into what felt like a 20-point hole.
In spite of these obstacles and struggles, the Bruins would have clearly been in position to win this game but for the final factor: the Bruins couldn't keep Eric Boateng off the boards, especially on ASU's offensive end. This was a game when UCLA missed Reeves Nelson significantly. Brendan Lane simply gave up too much bulk to Boateng and J'mison Morgan isn't a great ‘banger' for his size. Nelson would have also given the Bruins an offensive post presence and that would have made things easier on UCLA's tired legs.
So, the Bruins were up against an unexpected defense with tired legs and couldn't at least break even on the boards. That all adds up to the loss. A silver lining, if there was one, was that the Bruins didn't pack it in when they easily could have. Once during each half the Bruins made a run to cut an ASU double-digit lead down to five. In the first half it was Malcolm Lee who led the charge and in the second it was Dragovic leading the comeback, with a couple of quick threes. Lee and Dragovic led the team with 15 points apiece, although the ‘how' of their play was very different. Dragovic's deficiencies have been discussed ad nauseum this season and there is no need to repeat the obvious (although the sight of a high-major Division 1 player letting someone duck inside of him on the weakside of a zone for an easy putback is confouding). Tyler Honeycutt had 10 in what was a very average game for him, considering the turnovers he had, but that means the rest of the Bruins combined for 6 points. Again, Nelson's inside offensive presence would have helped.
While the Bruins were dealing with these issues, Howland did make some adjustments to try and keep them in the game. Towards the end of the first half and then for a good portion of the second half, Howland had the Bruins play man-to-man defense. It was the first time in a while that UCLA had played man for such a long stretch and ASU had some trouble with it. The Bruins forced several poor shots and even a shot clock violation. However, the Bruins couldn't convert on the offensive end when they would stop ASU on defense, and when they could convert the rebounding issue would rear its ugly head and the Bruins would end up trading basket for basket. There was one point when the Bruins had trimmed the lead down to seven and had three straight possessions to get the lead to five or even four and couldn't convert.
So what does this all mean going into the Pac-10 Tournament, which starts this Thursday? The Bruins didn't need to win this game, especially after the loss to Arizona on Thursday. They will be facing Arizona on Thursday as the #5 seed in the Pac-10 Tournament and the outcome of Saturday's game wasn't going to change that. Thursday at the very least will give the Bruins the opportunity to put some of the disappointment of this season behind them. As bad of a match-up as Arizona is for the Bruins at least UCLA now knows that they can play with the Cats. The Bruins should have a rested Nelson and it's important to remember that Morgan didn't play against the Wildcats. If nothing else, Bobo could have given Lane a few minutes of rest. However, even if the Bruins do get past Arizona, they'll more than likely have to play California and then Washington. Those three opponents represent the worst match-ups that the Bruins could face.
Still, the postseason gives the Bruins and their fans a chance to forget about the past four months of terrible basketball, questionable effort by all involved and spotty attitude by some. It gives "homers" like me a chance to believe again, even if for only one game.