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Locating That "Switch"

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Let's revisit this quote from DC in the Daily News before the Oregon State game last week (emphasis added throughout):

"I've been ready for the NCAAs since I came back," UCLA point guard Darren Collison said, referring to his decision to return for a senior season. "I wanted to skip the whole Pac-10 and the whole season, (and) just to go to the NCAA Tournament."

So as No. 20 UCLA prepares for tonight's tilt with Oregon State, the topic is not whether the second-place Bruins (22-7, 11-5 Pacific-10) can beat the improved Beavers (13-14, 7-9) and defeat last-place Oregon (8-20, 2-14) in Saturday's regular-season finale to possibly earn a share of the conference crown with Washington (22-7, 13-4).

And the discussion is not whether a rejuvenated UCLA, coming off a road sweep of Stanford and California, can win next week's Pac-10 Tournament.

Nope.

The players are talking about the NCAA Tournament, and stating it is vital to win the remaining games so they are seeded in an environmentally friendly arena.

The quote was excerpted in a post which brought up the question whether our guys have been somewhat coasting through this season on their way to the touranment. Then on Thursday night we saw another quote that also really stuck out to me like the one above:

"If there's any team that will hit that switch, it will be us," senior guard Darren Collison said. "We have the experience. We have the talent. It's not too hard to find that switch, and once that switch is on, it's going to be a lot of trouble for a lot of teams in the tournament."

Well I think it is extremely unfair to pin last night's loss on DC who had the nightmarish games that brought up the memories of losses against Washington (in Seattle) and Memphis (more on that below). As ryebreadaz pointed out in our post game thread:

He was in pain after last night’s game and had to get treatment all day today just to be able to play and it showed. I love that he wanted to play, but I can’t help but wonder if it would have been wiser to sit him this weekend and get him healthy for the NCAA Tournament.

That's a good question. But still I think DC's comments in recent weeks brings up a serious question about the mindset of Ben Howland's 2008-09 Bruins.

I don't think what happened last night was an aberration. We have seen the same script earlier in the season. We saw it against Arizona in Tucson. We saw it against Washington State at Pauley. In all of those games it was the Bruin opponents who came out with more fire, passion, urgency and sense of desperation. There was no sense of desperation in our guys last night until it was kind of late. We saw the same mentality play out in those other games too. I am just not used to see that from a Howland coached team and perhaps that's why these losses have been so unnerving (and depressingly not so surprising any more).

I know there are many here who don't want to give the Trojans any credit. It's easy to brush away last night's loss blaming the SPTRs or just dismiss it by thinking we had a bad night on offense. I don't believe that's the case. The Trojans won (staying in control most of the game) by playing defense, the hallmark of a Howland coach basketball team. From Ben Howland himself:

"We really struggled to score," Howland said. "We really, really were struggling to score. I mean, (making) 19 of 70 (field goals) says it all. Some of the shots, we were getting rushed. I thought we took some shots that may have been hurried. We didn't handle their pressure well."

The Bruins trailed 33-28 as the more energetic Trojans were able to get open shots en route to making 13 of 24 in the opening half. UCLA was fortunate to be trailing by only five points since it made 9 of 29 shots (31 percent) from the field, its lowest total in any half this season, and also turned the ball over eight times.

That's why I like Howland. He is frank. Instead of saying how "the shots weren't just falling today," he rightully credited the stout Trojan defense.

The question I have for Howland though was why didn't he think about making some adjustments during the game. First, it seemed clear that the Trojans were the setting the tempo of the game. They slowed it down a bit, drew a line in the sand with their defense, and then kept attacking metodically. They made 23 of their 45 shots (while we made only 19 out of a staggering 70 shot attempts), but the line that stands out to me is how they went to the line 30 times (making only 16 of them). If they made their FTs last night, they would have blown us out of Pauley. So the question I have is why were the Bruins settling for jumpshots and not attacking inside.

Why was DC playing so many minutes when he was injured? Why wasn't he held out? And then on the defensive side ND was getting torched all night long in probably the worst game he has played this season. I am still scratching my head at the thought of him guarding Derozan. In the past Howland always had the quick hook for a player who was not up to par with his defense. This is the same coach who had no problem benching KL for playing shoddy defense. So why did ND was staying in for such huge chunks of time despite repeatedly getting eviscerated by Trojans?

Going back to the pace. Would it have made sense for Howland to put in a more athletic lineup using JS at 4 (like he used DT at 4 in his second season), and use ML at the 3 spot? I think that would have sped up the game pace a bit which IMHO would have helped the Bruins. Clearly with ML in the lineup the defensive intensity went up along with which our ball pressure became a little more effective. So why wait till it was a too little too late?

As for JH, I know there are many passionate defender of this kid here on BN. Again I appreciate him for what he has done. But I will be honest I am ambivalent about him coming back next season because I don't believe he is coming back. Does that mean I think we don't need him? Of course not. There is a reason why Howland recruited Abdul Gaddy so hard for next year's class. We will have depth issues in the backcourt if JH doesn't come back with just JA, ML, and MR at our disposal. So we need him. But I am just not sure whether JH thinks he needs to be at UCLA.

Yeah, I keep track of stats as much as the next guy. So I am aware of his efficiency compared to other recent freshmen under Howland. However, I am also aware of the fact how in our 8 losses, JH is shooting 28% and averaging basically 4 points, 4 assists, and 2.6 turnovers. In 3 of those games he made 0 field goals and in two of them he just made 1. Yes, he did average 4 rebounds in those losses which helps for a team that hasn't rebounded as well as it did in previous season. But the main thing I am not seeing from this kid is the fire and passion we saw from kids like AA, JF, LRMAM and RW in their first years.

In sports sometimes your eyes can sense a lot about how the competition is going from the body language of athletes. I have been watching JH as closely I used to watch AA and JF. Last night when chips were down early in the second half, I repeatedly saw a kid discouraged, frustrated, hanging his head after every sloppy turnover or fruitless drive to the bucket. It's a far cry from the fiery passion from AA we saw from his freshman year even when things weren't going so well. And yes, I do believe it is fair to compare JH to AA given we had hoped he would emerge as the anchor of next generation of Ben Ball warriors. Right now at this point of time, I see ML, not JH as the anchor of the program. This doesn't mean I want the kid to be gone but I am not as emotionally invested in him like I have been with other kids in this program.

Speaking of emotional investment, despite the tough loss last night I know we are going to get fired up and jazzzed by late next week for our next game. However, given what we saw last night and over this year, I would warn everyone here from getting their hopes a little too high.

It's clear that DC is hurting and the formula of beating this UCLA team looks to be fairly simply. If the opposing team has a tough, physical 2 guard who can shut down DC, it's game over for UCLA. I know JS and PAA will give everything they have (and they have given us a lot over the years). But right not this team doesn't have another player that can pick up the slack if DC is totally shut down by the opposing team. I have been around long enough not to hope for a miracle and think all on a sudden JH, ML or someone else will emerge as a world beater.

It doesn't happen like that. Despite what anyone thinks the "switch" can't be turned on or turned off just like that. All the great UCLA basketball teams in post-Wooden era (91-92, 94-95, 05-06, 06-07 and 07-08) had their switches turned "on" consistently. They didn't stumbled on a regular basis like the one this year. Yes, perhaps this team will come back and respond with a great first round win and then win a tough second round game, but given what I have seen this year getting to Sweet-16 would be a pleasant surprise. I am uncertain whether it will happen. Hopefully DC gets healthy and he and Coach Howland has this team locked in rest of this week. I guess we can always hope and I hope DC and his team can locate that switch. His team clearly didn't know where it was last night.

GO BRUINS.