Another great post from Bruin Blue. As usual, BB helps you maintain perspective and gives you something to think about. As excited I am about yesterday's win, I am anxious to see how we play to close out the home stand. Stanford is going to be a difficult game. And even Cal is not going to come down here and just lay down for us. Let's hope what we saw from Josh yesterday was not an aberration. I really believe if he can step in these last few weeks and help out AA, DC and the rest of his team-mates, we can make a run like we did last season. GO BRUINS. - N
So we rout Oregon State, and people are very happy. Then we lose at West Virginia and there is concern, but we have a good excuse for the loss. Then we struggle mightily at Arizona State, and people are very discouraged, some saying that we will be lucky to make the Sweet Sixteen. Then we handle Arizona with aplomb, and some say that we now look like a championship team. Well, they can't all be right, can they? Are we not essentially the same team with the same personnel each week?
Of course a lot of this is just normal and even healthy fan reaction. You're exultant when the team looks good, fretful and pessimistic when they don't. The natural mistake that most fans (and bettors) make is thinking that how a team looked in this last game is their current reality, how they are at this point. The truth is that it is just one game, and that the next one may show a regression or perhaps continued progress. Or it may be simply a matter of matchups and style; looking good in some situations but not in others.
So while I am thrilled at the fine effort in Tucson, this does not tell me that we have necessarily turned an important corner; just like the poor effort in Tempe did not show that we were inexorably sliding downward. Now, if we had lost to Arizona after the ASU performance, then we would have had real cause for concern. As it is, I think that we are still pretty much where we have been much of the year. We have a very good team which has flaws, and which plays much better against opponents which will play up-tempo with us.
For all the public perception about UCLA grinding out victories, we actually love to play up-tempo, and there may not be a team around which can beat us at a fast pace. Collison's quickness, our finishers, our ability to switch from defensive to offensive mode, is probably unmatched. Maybe only North Carolina could give us a real battle in a wall-to-wall full court game. We have blown out Washington, Michigan, Georgia Tech; handled Arizona easily. Last year's team wasn't nearly as good at a fast pace; but I feel very confident that barring some kind of injury, we can handle any up-tempo team we might play up until the Final Four.
However, like with all but the truly great teams, our gains in one area are somewhat offset but our losses in others. We are only a slightly better than average halfcourt team; we usually struggle mightily against a zone, particularly if the opponent actually knows how to play an effective one. Every time we play a foe which slows down the game, we have trouble, usually trailing early, while we try to adjust. And while we hit our outside shots against Arizona's rather passive zone, in some games we do not, and then we find ourselves in real trouble. Even yesterday, for much of the first half we treated their zone as if it required us to take 22-foot shots on every possession. Against a team which values their possessions, and in which we are not hitting many of those shots, we stand a good chance of losing. That is why ASU actually led us at half of both games; why we had such a tough time against West Virginia, why Stanford dominated us in the second half. So in reality, we are not playing inconsistently, simply playing better when the matchups are more to our liking.
To me this means that there are certain teams I would prefer not to face in the first four rounds of the NCAA's. I would hope to avoid the likes of Air Force, Marquette, Southern Illinois, Butler, Wright State, Vanderbilt, and similar teams. Some of these do not favor zone, but frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if every team we play in the tourney tries to zone us. Why would you play man-to-man against UCLA, when you are almost certain to lose? Instead, slow down the game, sit in a zone, and hope that we get frustrated, and that Afflalo and Collison, our only reliable outside threats, are cold . If that happens, we suddenly are eminently beatable by any decently coached team. The fine effort against an Arizona club which plays little defense, and likes to rush on offense, does not change this reality.
The bottom line is that, if we can secure the #1 seed in the West, we have a pretty good shot to make the Final Four; but that we could actually lose in the second round, with a bad matchup and a cold-shooting performance. We need to really work on our zone offense, although we may not play a good enough zone in practice to help us improve it. And we need to try to force the tempo more against deliberate teams, perhaps by some trapping and relentless pressure. Right now, I think that our apparent ups and downs are more predictable than perplexing.