The 2012-13 UCLA Bruins made us look like fools.
It wasn’t long after the Bruins’ win over the No. 6 Arizona Wildcats that fans and hoops pundits/analysts — such as yours truly — were propping this team up as “elite.”
At the time, it looked like that statement was only a bit of a reach and could be a legitimate argument. UCLA’s only in-conference loss was to Oregon, a team that looks like it should belong in the top-10 in the AP poll, a team that beat Arizona and Arizona State and every other conference squad it’s played thus far. The loss was immediately excused as a fair one to a damn good team right after the Bruins knocked off an already-top-10 team in Arizona just four days later.
Of course, all that jubilation lasted less than 48 hours, because the Bruins were absolutely clowned by Arizona State in Tempe.
In fact, “clowned” is a bit of an understatement here — this UCLA squad was run out of the building, spanked, whipped, tossed around, whatever. This team lost about as bad as a team possibly could to Arizona State, a good team, to be sure, but one UCLA should have beaten.
There’s caveats to being so upset with this loss — yes, Travis Wear was injured and it left the Bruins with a decidedly thin rotation that ran seven men. Yes, this game had potential to be a letdown after the Bruins walked out of Tucson with a signature win in hand against Arizona. And yes, Arizona had been eyeing this game and only had to deal with USC two days before, and not with a top-10 program.
But in the context of the season as a whole? Given the fact that the head coach is perennially on the hot seat? The fact that the goodwill UCLA hoops built over the past month was faith in the program that was lost in December? The aforementioned caveats feel like excuses.
It’s baffling how unprepared this team was, especially considering that the team came in with a highly-specific gameplan to knock off Arizona in a hostile environment. Ben Howland clearly emphasized limiting Arizona’s rebounding and he clearly placed his focus on being physical early and often against the ‘Cats.
Against the Sun Devils? Did any game-planning occur at all pregame?
It didn’t look like it — from the beginning, the Bruins were outmatched in the interior, with six of the Devils’ first nine points coming inside the paint and with ASU thoroughly out-playing the Bruins down low, earning a decisive 28-12 advantage inside the paint in the first half. Much of that, of course, was at the hands of 7-foot-2 center Jordan Bachynski, a lanky, Canadian big man that had earned a reputation for blocking shots and taking names.
On this particular afternoon though, he became the thorn in the Bruins’ side, earning 12 points in the paint in the first half alone, banging inside and abusing David Wear and Tony Parker immediately and early on. Down low, Bachynski was a terror and absolutely dominated the UCLA bigs, effectively closing out the game early.
Of course, while we praise Bachynski and ASU head coach Herb Sendek — who did not at all move away from exploiting UCLA’s interior defense — much of the reason for ASU’s success was the Bruins’ absolute inability to defend the paint. We can blame the guards for allowing dribble penetration up the wazoo, but those don’t account for points in the paint as much as the terrible defensive effort of Wear and Parker, who filled in (painfully) for Travis Wear.
The result is that Travis is looking more and more like a defender that’s serviceable and is essential to this team’s success, more and more like a solid post player at the end of the floor. Or, comparison to his brother David and Tony Parker, that’s what it seems.
“Godawful” is probably a harsh way to describe Parker and David Wear’s play down low, but not undeservedly so. It’s moments like these, however, that make fans wish Josh Smith didn’t leave the program, because Bachynski had his way with the UCLA bigs.
Dribble penetration played a part, too — don’t worry, the wingmen won’t leave this critique of the debacle in Tempe unscathed. Because while the three-point defense was less salient in this contest, where Arizona State shot a mere 25 percent from downtown, the Devils shot 20 three-pointers and many of them were open shots that ASU couldn’t get to go down. Those open shots were successfully created by dribble penetration, forcing UCLA’s wingmen to lose their men off of screens and the extra pass lead to open perimeter shots. Sure, ASU only made five threes, but the ones that were converted gave Arizona State serious momentum and further strengthened their grip on this game.
Offensively? This team suffered on the interior like they did on defense and managed only 26 points in the paint, a stark drop-off from their 38 points in the paint against the Wildcats.
And even worse was the shot selection, likely a factor of Ben Howland moving away from the inside-out approach and the ball-movement philosophy that seemed so intact against the Wildcats. Jumper after jumper, UCLA failed to get good shots and wound up with a 34 percent shooting rate because of it.
That’ll happen when your apparent offensive catalyst in, gulp, Travis Wear, is gone, but it also happens when the coach fails to prepare correctly, especially when he had just done so no less than 48 hours ago.
This loss isn’t the worst, but it sure as hell was the most dispiriting; with all the optimism surrounding UCLA hoops after the win in Arizona, a loss here deflates that and effectively eliminates the goodwill ascribed to UCLA hoops after what was a long journey back to respectability.