Our season is done. Justin has already outlined the game. Pray for that guy, because he’s a UCLA senior, and he has officially gone through four years in which UCLA has not had any major successes in their major athletics programs. I’m not so lucky, since I’m a transfer and have one year of UCLA Athletics left before I’m stuck having to pay some serious cash to get into games.
Either way, there are two ways to break down our Bruins’ basketball team’s damning, devastating and heart-breaking loss to the Arizona Wildcats: In the micro sense, and in the macro sense.
First, because it hurts less, the micro sense.
UCLA lost this game — and I’m sorry if I come off as a sore loser — because of terrible officiating from one of the crappiest officiating crews in college basketball, which is always the case when the Pac-12 provides the refs. While the first half was incredibly sloppy and very physical, the refs got whistle-happy in the second half, especially when Arizona attacked the basket. Many of those calls would be considered fouls upon close examination, but they weren’t the kind of calls that either team would have gotten in the first half. While the first half saw a lot of “letting them play”-type conservatism with the whistles, the second half saw whistles being blown when someone passed gas in the lane. It was that bad.
That said, there were other ways UCLA could have won. Shooting 10-for-29 in the first half doesn’t help at all, especially when a good chunk of those were ill-advised jump shots. We didn’t take advantage of our incredible size advantage against Arizona early, and that’s why we didn’t get the start we needed. Even further, had we attacked the basket with more savvy and played the refs’ game, perhaps we might be singing a different tune.
But of course, there’s the second way to break this game down, and it’s the most painful way possible: The macro sense.
Because UCLA’s season didn’t end because we didn’t beat Arizona. To say so would be narrow-minded.
No, this season was over quite a bit ago. Where, exactly, I cannot say. Perhaps it was our second loss to California at home. Maybe it was when we lost to St. John’s, Steve Lavin’s new squad, in New York. Hell, perhaps it was over when UCLA suited up for the first time and put up a stinker against Loyola Marymount, and then again vs. Middle Tennessee State.
I don’t know where, exactly, it ended, but it didn’t end at the Staples Center. Like hell it did.
Because this team never figured it out. Nothing ever “clicked” as the season went on, and nothing ever got better with more team cohesion. There was no team cohesion. The 19 wins UCLA accumulated were largely a result of a horrible Pac-12 conference this year. (And even then, we went 11-7 in-conference)
Inconsistency plagued our UCLA Bruins all season long. In fact, their inconsistency was probably the only thing you could count on.
Sure, you can point to the fact that, had most of our close losses (six were decided within the final two minutes) were flipped, we’d be conference champions. And that’s true — had we won four more games, we would have been 15-3 in conference, enough to win the regular season outright.
But the issue was that those close games were never ours. We kept it close, yeah, but the final minutes weren’t a result of bad luck or nerves. They were a result of poor execution and stubborn coaching. Instead of switching to zone defense to save energy (something UCLA lacked late in games, and thus led to stupid shot selection from the perimeter), the team constantly played man defense while starters got huge minutes.
And the players? They didn’t get much better as the season progressed. Josh Smith is still a foul machine who lacks serious conditioning. The Wear Twins have gotten marginally better. Anthony Stover barely got any minutes. Norman Powell didn’t show “flashes of promise.”
This was a horrible season, wire-to-wire. That’s why we’re not in the NCAA tournament. That’s why we’re likely to get invited to the NIT.
The future of Bruin basketball
I have no idea where we go from here. And it isn’t because our talent is lacking, or because all of our not-bad players are leaving.
It’s our coaching situation and our “Athletic Director” situation.
Because Ben Howland doesn’t seem to be the guy anymore. I’ve discussed this at length. Dan Guerrero was never the guy. Picking up a new head honcho would ensure another down year, most likely.
But as is, can this team make a run next year? You mean if Josh Smith needs to get motivated and become physically fit? If the Wear Twins learn how to play alongside one another and grab some versatility, with one playing the 3 and the 4 effectively while the other plays the 4 and the 5 effectively? If Anthony Stover works his way into the rotation and gets better at becoming offensively apt? If Ben Howland gets better at adjusting to match his players’ strengths and weaknesses and employs zone concepts more liberally? And if some nice things happen recruiting-wise (and that’s not necessarily Shabazz Muhammad-dependent)? Yes, this team can win without over-hauling.
But will Ben Howland adapt and evolve instead of sticking to what worked back in 2008? Can he get his players to buy into his system again, when historically, players would do anything to get out?
I don’t know.
And that’s why UCLA basketball is in the air right now: No one knows a damn thing.