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Playing With Fire

So where to begin? During Coach Howland era usually it's the second round when we get to unpack the emotions from the kind of tough, heart stopping win we were able to eek out last night. The kind of win we experienced yesterday was pretty much identical to the ones against Alabama, Indiana and Texas A&M from last three years. Those are the kind of games when you need days to recover from. We don't have that luxury today.

As Tydides said below (in a post which struck the perfect tone) we cannot afford to do in our next game what we did yesterday: playing not to lose. Before I get more into it I don't think I have lay out exactly how much we adore Coach Ben Howland here on BN. It is also worth mentioning he is now officially the first UCLA Coach since Coach John R. Wooden to win four straight first round tournament games. He is our guy and he is going to be with us as long as he wants (and we don't want him to even think about going anywhere else besides Howlandwood). However, that said I have to say I was scratching my head last night number of time watching last night's game.

I still don't understand why Howland didn't use ML for last night's game. Here is Dohn from the Daily News:

Freshman guard Malcolm Lee said he did not play because of a coach's decision, but freshman center Drew Gordon said he was not used because he suffered a concussion during Tuesday's practice in Los Angeles.

Gordon said he fell while dunking the ball, and banged his head on the court.

"This is like my sixth or seventh concussion," Gordon said. "I would say I'm 75, 80 percent for Saturday."

Before the game Gordon said his status for VCU was in question because of a knee injury, which he suffered last week against USC, but the concussion was not divulged to the media until after the game.

Well we sure hope DG is feeling better and can contribute somewhat tomorrow afternoon but I want to get back to ML. Can anyone here provide a good explanation for what Coach Howland was thinking for not putting ML in the game?

At various stretches of the second half DC was looking clearly gassed bringing up painful reminders of the ASU game. Let me bring up the quotes from Howland following the devastating ASU loss at home earlier in the season. Following the ASU game at Pauley here is what Howland said about his substitution pattern:

"It's really my fault, my responsibility, I didn't use our bench well enough in this game," Howland said. "We got a little tired, a little worn down. Should have played Jerime Anderson minutes, should have looked to get Alfred a little more rest in there. We got a little worn down."

Howland said it was mismanagement.

"It was just the flow of the game," Howland said. "I went with our veteran guys. I've got to do a better job substituting. Again, that's my responsibility."

An about not playing ML:

"I probably should have played Malcolm," Howland said. "Again, that's my call."

So tell me how things were different (in terms of dynamics/complexion of the game) last night?

Second, while our defensive numbers were good, our defensive assignments didn't make a lot of sense. DC did a good job in that last possession against Maynor and Maynor for sure was getting the benefit of the doubt with lots of "Jordan Calls" from SPTR like refs. Still I didn't get why Howland stuck with DC as the primary defender against Maynor. I thought Maynor was repeatedly getting around DC throughout the game who was being forced to reach in desperate attempts to stop him. Why not go with more athletic JH and ML (who has proven his defensive ability this season) to guard Maynor or throw a combination at him?

Third, I am getting weary of this season's trend in which we repeatedly find our team in a mentality of playing not to lose, desperately trying to hold on to the lead. What was happening last night was nothing new to any of us. What I felt inside last night when we were up by 11 points (following PAA's monster mash) was the same exact feeling I had after MR sank a 3 point to go up by same margin against ASU with about 10 mins to go in Pauley. I knew in the back of mine we were playing with fire. Here is what Anthony Grant, VCU's head coach said following last night's heartstopper:

"We didn't play to keep close," Grant said. "We played to win."

And Howland?

"We didn't do a good job of closing them out when we had that lead," Howland said.

No kidding Coach.

Again last night was also reminding me of our game against ASU in Tempe when time and time and time again we failed to extend a 4 point lead in the second half through sloppy play on offense, turnovers, blown layups, and last second breakdown on defense.  We played with fire and got incredibly lucky. If we take the approach on Saturday afternoon we are going to get blown out of Philly and Coach Howland once again will have only himself to blame.

BTW I know we were getting lot of bad calls. I also share the same frustrations about the BS touch fouls and inconsistent calls that really ruined the game watching experience (I am sure Cal fans feel the same way as the Bears got absolutely hosed in the earlier game yesterday v. Maryland). However, at the same time we have to convert on our freaking layups. By my count we blew 5 layup opportunities last night. If we had executed on those, the game would have a different complexion.

Now, I don't want to dwell on the negatives. They were number of bright spots in a game in which our Ben Ball warriors did after pull out a stomach churning win:

  • JH certainly flashed his potential as a natural pg last night which of course leads to the question/wish of wanting to see lot more of him playing at the 1. Just dig up our old posts from earlier in the season when we were clamoring for Howland to try out JH at 1 and DC at 2. Oh well ... not much we can do at this point except hope that on Saturday when we are going up against a guard heavy team, Howland wouldn't hesitate to run the point with JH to give DC a breather and also use ML's athleticism at the 2 spot.
  • ND had one of his better games as a Bruin hauling down 13 boards. He still was slow at times on rotating out on doubles, but he gave an all out effort.
  • JS was an absolute warrior. The way he was playing last night picking up offensive rebounds, scoring on putbacks, showing an uncanny nose for the ball, he reminded me of the JS from his freshman season. He was all over the court.
  • What can you say about PAA? He played for 37 mins last night knowing that DG was not going to be available to back him up. More amazing was his poise in crunch time, getting the roll on those huge FTs. He was simply clutch going 5 for 5 from the FT line in such a close game.

So where do go from here v. Villanova? From the LA Times:

By holding on, the Bruins proceed to a second-round game against a Villanova team that looks like a cross between Washington and California, athletic, under control.

Not only are the Wildcats a higher seed, they also have the geographical edge, their campus a short drive from downtown Philadelphia.

They looked less than invincible struggling against 14th-seeded American, trailing for much of the second half before pulling away. But if Thursday night was any measure, a great majority of the crowd will be rooting for them Saturday. At great volume.

"When we step on the floor and we hear the crowd," Wildcats swingman Dwayne Anderson said, "it's definitely a homecourt advantage."

And here is Coach Howland on our next opponent:

"This is going to be a true road game in the NCAA Tournament because they actually played here multiple times," UCLA coach Ben Howland said of Villanova. "They're a very, very good team, very well-coached, a team that really has a lot of athletic guards that can all shoot. They'll play four (guards) around one (big guy), so there's gonna be some matchup issues."

Well I think as concerned as we all are about Nova and playing on their home court, my biggest concern right now is how we are going to come out and play? Last night didn't convince me that we have the ability to focus for entire 40 mins and lock down on defense. I still haven't seen our team zone in and execute on all the easy opportunities. And I also want to see our head coach (who as mentioned above we all adore here on Bruin Nation) be a little less stubborn, by trusting his bench and have his team attack down the stretch by playing not to lose.

We are going to be huge underdogs tomorrow afternoon. No doubt about that. However, I also believe we have the ability to win the game. We have the athleticism and talent on our team to win. I just hope Howland has the team in a mindset in which they play feeling no pressure (they shouldn't because 90 percent of the nation except the ones bleeding UCLA blue and gold believe they are going to lose) and unleash their athleticism on Nova.

Make no mistake about it. If the team somehow escapes out of Philadelphia tomorrow afternoon with a victory, it will make this season an outright success. It will be an upset and frankly a pleasent surprise to this Bruin (even though I believe we can win). I just hope we don't get ourselves in a situation in which instead of playing with fire, we are playing to win.