I never remember a UCLA basketball team like this. To be clear I am not saying this is the worst team. This is not even the worst Ben Howland team nor is it the worst Jerime Anderson team. But this is the only UCLA team I have ever seen that can't win a close game. Any close game.
I could see how this team could give up, like the 2009-10 team did. Like Rick Neuheisel's teams did on a regular basis. To their credit, this team has never given up.
So why can't they win any close games? Every Pac-12 game this has been winnable except the two games against Cal, and I understand that as IMO Cal is clearly a better team. This team came close to winning at the University of Washington, something no UCLA team has done in recent memory. And yesterday this team came close to winning at Arizona, something only very good (Final Four) UCLA teams have done recently.
So what is the reason that UCLA cannot win any close games?
It starts with Dan Guerrero who made the team play in the dumpster of an arena on our rival's campus. It falls on Ben Howland heavily who, among other things, insists on playing players big minutes and WEARing them down. There is a problem here. This should not be happening.
On to the roundup and the news of this close loss:
UCLA let a lead slip away late in the game yet again, losing to Arizona, 65-63, Saturday in a Pac-12 game at McKale Center in Tucson. It was UCLA's fourth conference loss by three points or fewer--all of those coming on the road--and the fourth time in conference play the Bruins have lost a game in which they held a second-half lead.
Or as Jerime Anderson, who tied his career high, said:
It was the Bruins' fifth road loss by less than three points in 2012.
"This one is very tough," a sullen Anderson said after the game. "I don't know if this is the toughest loss we've taken all year...but it's up there."
Particularly after wrestling the lead away from Arizona midway through the second half and maintaining a slight advantage until roughly four minutes remained.
As is often the case to his credit, Howland takes part of the blame on himself:
But Jerime Anderson's jumper on what both Anderson and UCLA coach Ben Howland later admitted was an ill-conceived play, bounced off the rim as the buzzer.
"We were looking for a fake handoff and go, and it just wasn't there," Howland said. "It was my fault."
"In retrospect we should have come down and run an iso or a flat screen up top," Anderson said.
. . . "We had the game," UCLA guard Tyler Lamb said. "It went down to the wire, and we made some costly mistakes."
Of course if UCLA played well they could have just won this game outright and not worried about it being close. Smith was in foul trouble ultra quick (hmm, one would think a zone might have helped Josh out defensively, keeping him out of foul trouble) and Jones had another bad game against Arizona (0-7 last year, 1-12 this year). Yet:
Jerime Anderson picked up the load with Jones unable to get anything to fall, scoring 20 points. Travis Wear did his best to fill the hefty shoes of Smith, getting 13 points and seven rebounds. Tyler Lamb added 11 points, including a banked-in three-pointer at the shot-clock buzzer that seemed to give the Bruins momentum in the second half.
They just couldn't finish it off, even after Arizona missed four of six free throws in the final 23 seconds. Anderson had the last shot at the buzzer, but his jumper sailed long.
. . .
The Bruins struggled with their shooting touch at times, launching at least five airballs, while Jones was 0 for 4 in the half. Smith played just four minutes after tweaking his back in practice Friday and picking up three fouls trying to guard the quicker Perry.
. . .
UCLA started to hit a few shots, building a six-point lead midway through, but Arizona wouldn't go away despite another long stretch without a field goal, staying within reach behind the relentlessness of Hill and Perry, who battled for offensive rebounds to keep possessions alive.
Before the game, many agreed that the key to the game may be Arizona's Kyle Fogg. UCLA's Tyler Lamb did a good job on Fogg, until it counted. Lamb is a good matchup for Fogg because Fogg is not that quick, something Lamb has problems with. Again this seems to be on Howland:
TURNING POINT: Lamb picked up his fourth personal foul with 6:28 to play and UCLA coach Ben Howland switched his best defender off of Fogg, who proceeded to score eight consecutive points over the next two minutes and had 13 of his 20 points in the final 6:28.
Fogg, Arizona's leading scorer, had only seven points on two of nine shooting while Lamb was guarding him, but was able to find open shots and drive the lane without Lamb's hounding defense. Even when Lamb went back on Fogg, Lamb was unable to play as aggressively because of the fear of picking up his fourth foul. Fogg made eight of 11 free throws and was two-of-two from the field in the final 6:28, including a back-breaking three-pointer that gave Arizona a 63-57 lead with 53 seconds to play.
The player of the game senior Jerime Anderson gave one version of the Bruins problems. I think it is deeper than just this but the statistics are alarming.
"I just think we've been searching the whole year for consistency," Anderson said. "It's tough to try to win on the road. You don't get calls that you want, and I think it throws people off of their game and affects how they play. It's something that we've been struggling with all season."
The Bruins (16-13, 9-7 Pac-12), meanwhile, couldn't keep the Wildcats (21-9, 12-5 Pac-12) off of the free-throw line - Kyle Fogg especially. Fogg was 10 for 13 from the line. As a team, Arizona was 23 for 32 - 16 of the Wildcats' 38 points in the second half came from the free throw line. UCLA made 11 of 18 free throws. . . .
The loss all but eliminates the Bruins from a chance to earn a top-four seed in the conference and a first-round bye in next month's Pac-12 Conference Tournament at Staples Center. . .
The Bruins are now 1-11 this season when trailing at halftime. The Wildcats close out February as winners of seven of their eight games this month.
So what's it all mean? Short term Tracy Pierson at Bruin Report Online wrote this before the Arizona game:
Never under-estimate what a bad conference can do for you, however. Right now, even playing the way UCLA is, and being where they are (15-12, 8-6), it's uncanny that, looking ahead to the Pac-12 conference, the Bruins could have a chance. If you project them to be the sixth seed, they'd have to play the first day of the tournament (by not finishing in the top four of the conference), but they'd match up with the #11 seed, which looks to be Utah, a team UCLA beat in Los Angeles by 27 points. In the second round, then, they'd probably play the #3 seed, which looks to be Colorado, a team UCLA beat by 17 points in Los Angeles. Because of how bad the Pac-12 is, UCLA could very well make it to Friday's conference semi-final, where it very likely could play #2 seed Washington, which it showed it could compete with in Seattle (and we'll see how UCLA does against them in L.A. next week). Amazingly, it's not a stretch to see this pretty mediocre UCLA team, with all of its issues this season, one that looks like it's ready to roll over, actually make it to the final of the Pac-12 conference tournament.
But the real issue now is long term.