Your UCLA Bruins are a good team.
It’s hard to counter that. Good teams beat teams they’re supposed to, even if they do allow those teams to rally late. Good teams go on these 10-game win streaks and good teams stay competitive with just about everyone.
But this UCLA team isn’t great, and it showed against a 21st-ranked Oregon team at home in Pauley Pavilion.
Because great teams either beat Oregon or lose to them in dramatic fashion. Great teams close and keep up with teams like Oregon, shot-for-shot for 40 minutes. Great teams keep these games close, keep these contests to one possession in the final seconds of the contest.
UCLA was competitive, but not enough to put them in that upper-echelon we expected them — and, hell, still expect them – to be at this point in the season, 19 games into the season.
It’s clear now that UCLA has improved in every facet of the game, final result be damned. UCLA’s offense was potent, dangerous and a massive pain for Oregon, who couldn’t sleep for a second, otherwise this game would get out of hand quickly for the Ducks.
For the first-half, UCLA was clearly the better team, defensively, offensively, everything. So why was Oregon only down three points at the end of the second half? Why was it that – despite UCLA shooting well over 50 percent from the field, despite UCLA holding the Ducks to under 40 percent shooting — Oregon was within finger-tip’s length of the Bruins?
Much of it was offensive rebounding. The UCLA interior defense didn’t crumble under massive penetration like it seemingly has for much of the season, but the bigs failed to rebound consistently when Oregon missed shots and, really, Oregon missed shots a lot. With the relentlessness of Oregon scrapper Arsalan Kazemi, and behind the pesky rebounding of Oregon’s swarming guards and wingmen, the Ducks were able to put shots back into the basket.
And on its face, in a vacuum, that’s the fault of the players for not fighting hard enough and boxing out as they should. But nothing should be looked at in a vacuum, and when looking at the bigger picture, these kinds of things are not meant to be over-looked. Oregon didn’t just get good at crashing the offensive glass today, against these Bruins.
No, Oregon averages a solid 12 offensive boards per game and earns a 38.1 percent offensive rebounding rate, which is good for 20th in the entire country. In essence, offensive rebounding is a major part of the Ducks’ game in addition to their rapid pace, and it was pretty clear it was an advantage they were banking on against these Bruins, which have been mediocre to atrocious on both the ends of the glass. An issue that’s been pervasive this entire 2012-13 season, why has Ben Howland — who, to his credit, has adjusted on a fair amount of weaknesses this UCLA team had early on — not been able to adequately address this and, in a more specific sense, why didn’t Howland emphasize crashing the glass (namely on defense) against an Oregon team that thrives on rebounding?
And if UCLA needed a scrappier big man inside, why didn’t Tony Parker get more than his three minutes (an active 6’9” forward-center hybrid) in this contest, with Howland consistently electing to play a David Wear-Travis Wear line-up inside like he is wont to do?
Mind you, the rebounding wasn’t the only reason UCLA lost. Late in the game, Shabazz Muhammad consistently played a brand of hero ball that’s absolutely unacceptable at any level, jacking up shots early in the shot clock while UCLA was in a blow-for-blow, heavyweight fight with an Oregon team that boasts a potentially-explosive offense. Jordan Adams, too, was similar in his too-aggressive approach, though not to the degree that Muhammad was late in the contest.
And, in fact, that’s what doomed this UCLA team, was poor shot selection, both from those two and Travis Wear who, if we’re being fair, has improved astronomically as this season has progressed.
But taking jumpers in the first eight seconds of a shot clock shouldn’t be tolerated. If Ben Howland is going to rip out Tony Parker after three good, high-energy minutes — and keep him out for the rest of the game — why won’t Howland yank Muhammad (who has fall off drastically the past three games) or Adams (who recorded his second straight game with under ten points)? If Howland calls a time-out specifically to yank Parker, why is it unreasonable to expect Howland to call time-out to keep Adams and Muhammad level-headed, to tell them to take their time working within the offense when the early shot wasn’t there?
This isn’t relieving Muhammad and Adams of blame, mind you, but these are things Howland needs to do as a game manager. Instead of calling time-outs to kill UCLA’s momentum or to bring out a player who’s hot, why can’t he call time-outs when Muhammad and Adams are shooting at will?
In the same vein, why did Howland’s offensive gameplan move away from Kyle Anderson in the second half?
It’s hard to imagine that there’s a good reason for it, because as we all know, Anderson was blazing hot in the first half. His brilliance essentially lifted UCLA’s offense at all levels and his court vision was fantastic, making both the smart passes and the difficult, high-risk, high-reward passes. Anderson had the ball in his hands for much of the first half and it ended with Anderson earning six assists in the first 20 minutes of play.
So why was it that Howland took the ball out of Anderson’s hands while Larry Drew II manned the offense, yet again? It’s in Howland’s blood, it seems, to go away from the hot hand and give it to the player that’s been largely ineffective for much of the game. This isn’t a knock on Drew, mind you, but it was clear that Anderson had the offense running extremely well and when Drew became the primary ball-handler in the second period, it resulted in sloppy shot selection (until the final minute of the game) and erratic passing. Sure, the eight assists and two turnovers look sexy on paper, but it was Anderson’s hand that kept UCLA more than afloat.
And finally, UCLA became gassed late in the contest, with the Ducks out-running the Bruins like madmen. The conditioning here isn’t all Howland’s fault, not in a vacuum, but it’s an issue considering Howland mismanaged the players that were on the court, with the team running essentially running a seven-man rotation for all 40 minutes.
Of course, this ties back to Tony Parker getting only three minutes in this game, and though fans will rationalize this and say he’s not ready, they’re missing the point: Parker is yet another body that can relieve minutes early on in the game that can save Travis Wear and Kyle Anderson — who combined for 64 minutes — some stamina later on. Playing a seven-man rotation is not ideal when you’re asking these kids to play at a mind-blowingly fast-pace, and it’s not ideal when they play their asses off on the other end, because these Bruins were manning up and staying aggressive defensively.
Playing in transition and getting in the grill of the opposition is a tall task for 40 straight minutes, and so would it not have been beneficial for Howland to put in Parker for 10 minutes, splitting precious resting time for an over-worked Travis Wear or Kyle Anderson, both of which had to deal with the swarming guards and bigs crashing every missed Oregon shot?
It’s not normal for coaches to ask that of their seven-man rotation, and you don’t need to look further than the opposition here, with Oregon running nine men in an uptempo system. Only one player got more than thirty minutes and the Ducks’ bench combined for 58 total minutes played, where as UCLA’s bench (we’ll include Powell in the bench despite his starting since Shabazz was only pulled from the starting line-up to teach him a lesson) played only 44 combined minutes.
Of course, fans will die defending Howland for these decisions but it’s too hard to justify them all. UCLA, schematically, did the right things, played the right offense (for the most part) and defended as well as they could for as long as their bodies allowed them, and much of that can be attributed to Howland.
But the other 50 percent of the decisions he made directly led to this loss. Sure, he wasn’t shooting the rock out there, but it was him that allowed those shots to be taken time and time again. Sure, it wasn’t him that was gassed, but it was his fault for not allowing these kids to take a breather while Parker got some additional minutes. And sure, it wasn’t Howland that was out-rebounded but it was his job to emphasize crashing the defensive glass to both shore up a pervasive problem UCLA has had all season and to severely cripple a major aspect of Oregon’s game.
Criticizing Howland, for some reason, is seen as taboo by some fans, and many interpret critique of a coach as a call to fire him immediately. It’s clear that Howland bought himself ’til the end of the season — deservedly so — but there’s no use putting on blinders.
UCLA could have won this game had it not been for a few adjustments which Howland didn’t make and, for now, this team will stay a “good” team until it can prove its worth as an upper-echelon contender.
They’ll get their chance next Thursday in Tuscon against Arizona.