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UCLA Basketball report 7 March 08

by Tony Medley

There were two front page stories in the March 7 Los Angeles Times Sports Section, yet not one even so much as hinted at the reason Stanford lost to UCLA last night. Not one mention! But this isn’t about the ignorance of sports writers, although maybe one of the reasons why UCLA can get away with their quality of play is because they don’t have any knowledgeable critics.

Watching this UCLA basketball team play is as painful an experience as watching major league baseball managers mishandle pitchers. They beat Stanford tonight in a game they never should have won because of the stupidity of the Stanford coach. Readers of this column know my low opinion of baseball managers and football coaches, and some basketball coaches. But this Stanford coach really takes the cake. Stanford is a team composed of two pretty good players, the Lopez brothers, and a bunch of mediocrities. The Lopez brothers are both seven-footers. The best brother got his fourth foul with ten minutes remaining in a game Stanford led throughout by 10 points, so he was pulled. He was still sitting on the bench with three minutes to go with Stanford still holding a five point lead. Yet the coach kept him on the bench. Why? So he wouldn’t get his fifth foul and foul out? Is that the coach’s goal, to keep a player from fouling out?

UCLA has two demon offensive rebounders, the poorly-used Kevin Love and Mbah a Moute , a 6-7 forward. Both Love and Mbah a Moute got offensive rebounds and subsequent points in the last three minutes that they almost certainly wouldn’t have gotten had both Lopez brothers been in the game controlling the boards. With only one in the game, UCLA’s two offensive rebounds allowed them to tie the game in the last second and they won in overtime by 10. Oh, sure, he put the other brother back in the game in overtime, but by then it was too late. His being on the bench, however, didn’t just hurt Stanford’s rebounding.

With him on the bench, Stanford’s offense went to zero. It simply made no sense to have your best player on the bench for the last ten minutes of the biggest game of the year just because he had four fouls. What’s the worst that could happen? That he’d foul out. And what would the result be? He’d be on the bench! That’s where he was anyway! Doesn’t anybody understand this game?

But that’s not the only gift the Stanford coach gave UCLA. In the last three minutes, while they were squandering their five point lead, Stanford took two forced shots, each with 20 seconds left on the clock. Let’s see, UCLA tied it up in the last second. Stanford could have run an additional 40 seconds off the clock. Had they done so, would UCLA have been able to tie it up in the last second? What’s 1 second minus 40 seconds? How difficult is it for a coach to tell his players, “We’re up by 5. They have much more talent than we do. We have to preserve this lead. Don’t take a shot until there is less than five seconds on the clock.”? Apparently “running the clock” is a concept too difficult for players and coaches at the “Harvard of the West” to understand.

That’s only part of the story. Stanford only has one player who could start for UCLA, and even that would be questionable. Love is the best player on the Pacific Coast. Neither of Stanford’s guards can hold a candle to Collison and Westbrook. They don’t have a forward with the talent of Josh Shipp and they don’t have anyone who is as aggressive or steady a player as Mbah a Moute. One of the Lopez brothers might make the starting team, but it’s debatable. Yet Stanford led this game throughout. This is true of virtually every game UCLA plays. UCLA dominates in terms of talent, but struggles to win. Why?

Why? Because for UCLA to run a guard-oriented, motion offense when it has a player who could dominate offensively in the low post defies common sense.  Kevin Love is clearly the best player on the team. He is virtually unstoppable in the low post. Yet he is the fourth option on offense. That’s right, the best player isn’t the first option (as is Tyler Hansbrough at North Carolina, for instance, or the Lopez brothers for that matter); he isn’t the second; he isn’t the third. He’s the fourth. As an example, in UCLA’s first possession tonight, Love set three picks, but never touched the ball. Someone else finally missed a jump shot. UCLA had six points after the first seven minutes on three baskets by Love. But he only touched the ball four times. Instead he was running all over the court setting picks. Was Lew Alcindor’s main job setting picks? Bill Walton’s? Wilt Chamberlain’s? Shaquille O’Neal’s? Of course not, but that appears to be Love’s main job in UCLA’s offense.

UCLA’s offense is a motion offense and revolves around a “pick and roll,” generally a high screen set at the top of the key by whoever is playing center, generally Love. The only problem is that the guards rarely pass to the rolling player. They tried it in the second half and Mata Real rolled and was wide open as he rolled to the basket. A quick pass to him would have resulted in an easy layup. Instead of hitting him, however, Collison took a jumpshot with two men on him. A pick and roll isn’t nearly as effective if you never pass off of it.

The way UCLA runs a fast break should be a felony. They have the best outlet passer since Bill Walton in Love, but they don’t have a clue what to do with the ball once Love gets it out fast. Last night they had a 4 on 2 fastbreak with the ball on the wing. It stayed on the wing. In a fastbreak, the first rule is to get the ball to the middle. That was true 50 years ago and it will be true 50 years from now, just as it’s true today. But does UCLA know that? NO! On this 4 on 2, the guy with the ball on the wing just drove it into the basket and missed the shot. Frankly, I doubt if they ever run a fast break drill in practice.

John Wooden ran a high post offense for his first 19 years in Westwood, an offense that became so familiar it became known as the “UCLA Cut.” Now it’s called The Triangle, as adapted by Tex Winter and used by Phil Jackson in Chicago and Los Angeles. But when Wooden got a gifted low post player named Lew Alcindor, Wooden forsook his beloved UCLA Cut and went immediately to a low post offense that emphasized Alcindor. Wooden had two guards then who were better than Collison and Westbrook are today (and they are very good, indeed), Mike Warren and Lucius Allen. But, good as they were, Wooden’s first option on offense was always his best player, Alcindor.

If only Howland would learn from the Wizard. Love is the best player to appear in Westwood since Bill Walton, but he is being shamefully used. His talents are ignored. He doesn’t score nearly as much as he should because he’s ignored on offense and his remarkable outlet passing is pretty much wasted because UCLA doesn’t know how to run a fast break.

Love is as instinctive a player as Walton and Gail Goodrich were, which is why he scores as much as he does despite an offense that seems to ignore him. Instinct like that is born, not learned, and not that many players have it. Walton and Goodrich did. So did Bill Russell and Magic Johnson. But it’s rarer than the raw talent with which all these players were gifted. If Love were used correctly, UCLA wouldn’t struggle so much to beat teams with grossly inferior talent, and Love would be recognized far and wide as the best player in the country.

UCLA has so much talent that they have a great shot at winning the NCAA Championship, just on talent alone. The coach, Howland, has done a wonderful job the past two years getting them to the NCAA Final Four with inferior talent. Now that he has superior talent, he’s not getting the quality of play his talent demands. UCLA fans will point to their record of 27-3 and a #3 national ranking. I say they should be undefeated and blowing these teams with much less talent off the court instead of struggling each game to eke out victories

March 7, 2008.