Saturday, February 17, 2007

UCLA 81; Arizona 66

While Jordan Farmar gets his minutes in the NBA, Darren Collison has turned himself into UCLA's best point guard since Earl Watson, and maybe their best point guard since Tyus Edney. Collison was tremendous today, and only a tremendous performance could overshadow the resurgence of Josh Shipp, who played his best game in months. Collison added 17 points to go along with 15, and that's not a typo, 15 assists against only two turnovers. It was a Deron Williams like performance. 15 of his 17 points came from beyond the arc on 5-7 shooting from three, including, for the second straight week, an absolute dagger as the shot clock expired. He actually did it twice, once to open the second half, and again to give the Bruins a 10 point lead with just over seven minutes to play.

As for Shipp, all he did was toss in 24 points to go along with four rebounds and two steals. Shipp is a scorer, and UCLA needs him to score. Today he brought it. He had three dunks, and two three pointers, and that's what he needs to do for UCLA to go deep into the post-season. He makes Collison and Aaron Afflalo much better when he shoulders his portion of the scoring load. Afflalo had another ho-hum 15 point game, and though he didn't shoot for a very impressive percentage, he once against seemed to make big shots, including three at the end of the shot clock. It was contagious, as not only Collison followed suit, but so did Michael Roll and LRMAM, who's three pointer at the buzzer pushed the lead to 14 with about 2:30 to play, and really put the game away.

For the second straight game UCLA turned up the defense in the second half. Where Arizona found an extra gear to pull the game back in the first half, UCLA completely denied them the opportunity to do so in the second half. And they absolutely took Ivan Radenovic out of the game. I'll admit, I was worried that he'd bring them back. He's usually lights out for 30 minutes, then invisible for the last 10. After being invisible for the first 30 today, I thought he'd take over in the last 10, but he was a real disappointment for Arizona. On the other hand, that Jordan Hill is going to be very good. I really liked his poise inside, and he's a terrific athlete for his size. He's going to be a force next year, and depending on how long he stays, he's going to be a factor in conference play for a while.

Arizona spent a good portion of the game in the zone defense. I understand that the Bruins have looked uncomfortable against zone defenses this season, though more often than not, they go on to win games against teams that play zones. Now, I'm no basketball expert, but it seems like a team would play zone for a number of reasons, among the most obvious being:
  1. Protect a big man who's in foul trouble;
  2. It make it tougher to go inside, so if you're playing a team with a very good inside presence, it takes them out of their game;
  3. Forces your opponent to beat you with their guards;
  4. Slows the tempo, and frustrates an up tempo opponent.

Clearly 1) and 4) aren't really concerns for Arizona. Basically, a zone defense forces the ball into the hands of your opponents guards and wings.

Well, if teams want to keep challenging UCLA to make Shipp, Collison, and Afflalo beat them, then hell, more power to 'em! Those three are UCLA's three best players. By all means, force them to make those guys beat you.

And of course, please play a zone when you're down by 10 with 3+ minutes to go. Worst case scenario for your opponent is that they take 35 seconds off the clock and still have a 10 point lead. At least in man to man, you make your opponent work to run down the clock, or maybe you get a steal, or force a quick shot. That strategy made no sense to me today.

Arizona still strikes me as a team that's loaded with good players, though I don't think they've been a very good "team" this year. Still, I think they could do damage in the tournament, much like the UCLA team that got into the tournament as an 8 seed and took out top seeded Cincinnati in 2002. I wouldn't want to see them in my bracket as a low seed that I'd have to meet in the first or second round. They still don't play defense, and I've never been a fan of Shakur's decision making, but they're still very talented and athletic, and they can cause a lot of matchup problems for a good but less than complete team.

One tough road trip to go in the Northwest. UC Berkeley and Stanford come south next week before the Bruins finish up in Washington. I'm not all that concerned about Stanford and Berkeley, but Washington State is obviously very good, and Washington, like Arizona, has enough talent to make anyone look bad on a given night, though they haven't had success doing that this year. The Bruins lead the Cougars by one in the Pac 10, but Wazzu still has to travel to Oregon before facing the L.A. schools. UCLA has the upper hand in the quest to secure its second straight conference championship.

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