Defense won a regular season Pac-12 Championship yesterday. The Bruins’ offense was abysmal. UCLA went 1-for-10 from three-point range, shot under 40 percent from the field and had as many turnovers as assists (10).
Kyle Anderson was a non-factor on offense. The bench contributed two measly points. The 61 points that the Bruins scored were 14 points below their season average, and matched their output in their previous game at WSU—a game that resulted in a stunning, lopsided loss (73-61). Given UCLA’s miserable offensive output in the Northwest, it was imperative that they play some tough defense to garner a win. Against Washington, that defense showed up.
The Bruins held UW to 54 points, 13.4 points below the Dawgs’ season average. UCLA held the Huskies to 23 points in the second half, including just a single basket in the last 5:59 of the game. The Huskies turned the ball over four times in that stretch and missed nine shots. The Bruins were all over them challenging everything. UCLA dug deep and wrested a critical win in truly hostile conditions from a team that the announcers correctly dubbed the Bruins’ “nemesis.” Coach Howland said it best, “Night in and night out, if you defend, even when you go through five-minute lulls where you don’t score, you give yourself a chance to win.” Amen, brother.
The contrast to the WSU game was amazing. Where the Bruins looked equal parts disinterested and lost versus the Cougars, they looked focused and determined against Washington. Perhaps more importantly, Shabazz Muhammad looked engaged and maybe even fierce versus the Huskies. The Bruins were out-boarded once again, but not dramatically so, another contrast to the WSU game. UCLA had 10 steals and forced 19 turnovers overall on Saturday, further supporting that this win was built on defense. Not surprisingly, the Bruins won the game in earnest from the free-throw line going 14-for-18 (or 77.8 percent). They made eleven more free throws than Washington, which was critical to their success given the nature of the game. With a championship on the line, the Bruins came through.
It is worth noting that UCLA was ecstatic about winning the Pac-12 Championship. Reportedly, they watched the results of the Oregon-Utah game anxiously after their own victory over Washington. After a season of doubt and second-guessing from what some may call “extreme fans,” the Bruins (including Coach Howland) can point to a regular season PAC-12 title as at least a modicum of vindication.
A few notes… In certain corners of the Bruinverse, there are a gaggle of buffoons trying to characterize the Bruins as joyless beneficiaries of dumb luck in regards to their PAC-12 championship. They have also blasted the Bruins as underachievers, presumably to fit their season-long narrative of hate for Coach Howland. These haters have said things like, the Bruins “backed in to the championship” and won the “Pathetic-12 Championship.” Some have suggested many of the UCLA players look unhappy in select pictures from the photo opportunity once they knew they were champions. Rubbish.
First of all, the universally accepted definition of “backing in to a championship” is losing your last game, and then hoping another team loses so that your team is the champion. UCLA was already a co-champion as a result of their own efforts before Oregon lost. So, manifestly they didn’t back into the championship.
Second, while the PAC-12 isn’t all the way back, it is better than last season. As this is written, the PAC-12 is projected to place five teams in the NCAA Tourney. That’s a vast improvement on last season when the conference only placed two teams and the regular season champion was not invited. To win the regular season title in a conference placing five teams in the tourney is clearly not legitimate fodder for derision, but in truth reason for pride.
Third, this group of young men is not underachieving. Prognosticators can make all the preseason projections they want, but they quite prudently don’t guarantee that the ultimate results will pan out—and for good reason. College basketball is in many respects unpredictable and chaotic. This season as much as any season, parity has run rampant. To have a team reliant heavily on three freshmen win the PAC-12 is fairly unlikely no matter what the circumstances.
Now on to the PAC-12 Tourney. The Bruins are the No. 1 seed by virtue of their conference title, and they will await the winner of Stanford vs. Arizona State in the quarterfinals. As Utah, WSU and the Cardinal demonstrated this past week, anyone can beat anyone in the PAC-12, so it should be an interesting tourney. It sez here the Bruins will make it to the title game.