UCLA vs Missouri: Why the Bruins Early-Season Losses Don't Matter

Mark Schipper@@MyTimesProseContributor IIIDecember 29, 2012

Shabazz Muhammad on the attack
Shabazz Muhammad on the attackStephen Dunn/Getty Images

The three freshmen went off the court with their arms around each other and the crowd behind them boiling up and howling. 

It was the picture Bruins fans had imagined, with Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and Shabazz Muhammad embraced like winners who expect nothing less and who care personally about what they are doing and where their team is going.

David and Travis Wear had played the best game of their careers, combining for 38 points and 14 rebounds. Bill Walton said the same emphatically during the television broadcast and even with his general hyperbole he was absolutely right. 

UCLA (10-3) had just beaten No. 7 Missouri (10-2) in overtime at the new Pauley Pavilion, 97-94. The renovated arena was brightly lit and shiny, the floor new polished and blue painted around the soft grained light brown maple.

The basketball team that plays atop the new track is fast and exciting to watch. 

The lads are getting a chance to show brass under heavy pressure, too. They went to the half 47-47 with Mizzou; it was a 41-41 second half to finish regulation tied at 88-88. Then, UCLA went 9-6 in overtime and that was enough to win. 

The defense is still a problem, like the whack a mole game where one scoring threat is knocked down but another pops up immediately somewhere else. UCLA remains, for the most part, lost on pick-and-rolls and does a painfully poor job of resetting after double-teams. The Bruins also too often pick poor times to double team and give up dunks on the other side. 

Mizzou point guard Phil Pressey tonight was the manifestation of everything wrong with the Bruins defense. 

The only time Pressey failed was when he made poor decisions. It was fortunate for the Bruins that Pressey and Mizzou made quite a few. 

Pressey had 19 points and 19 assists. That is right, 19 assists. He had those because he is a good player, but also because he came off of screens or went hard on the dribble at the hoop and the Bruins' defense did not know what to do. Pressey's choice was shoot or pass. He passed a lot and set up for teammates wide open shots or space for monstrous slams. 

But Pressey, Laurence Bowers, Earnest Ross, Jabari Parker, Alex Oriakhi and Keion Bell were not enough to beat UCLA. It was a good basketball team the Bruins beat. 

Muhammad is starting to dominate the floor for UCLA every time he takes it. He is a dynamo. Not only does he make shots, he daggers buckets when the game temperature is spiking. 

There was a sequence with 8:30 to play in the game where Norman Powell emphatically stuffed a Bowers shot under the rim and the ball went on outlet to Muhammad on the break. Muhammad had those big strides going down the middle of the floor and just condor-slammed a vicious left handed dunk to put the Bruins ahead 77-74.

That is a breakout that might be equaled, but not bettered by any college team in America.    

Then Muhammad hit the first shot of overtime, a three-pointer from the wing that splashed through to put UCLA up 91-88. Then he went to the line and made one of two. Muhammad got the ball again on the wing after a sharply executed offensive sequence and buried a second overtime three. Muhammad had seven of the Bruins' nine in the extra-time and 27 on the night. 

Jordan Adams has to get a mention, too.

He is such an icy scorer and competitor. He did not have a monster game, but when the ball came to him off a simple cut on the wing with 26.9 to play in regulation, with UCLA trailing by two, Adams did not hesitate. There was just a hard, knife-edged drive into the heart of Mizzou's defense and a left-handed hook lay-in cleanly off the window to tie it up.

There was total confidence there. 

The win against Mizzou marks the end of the non-conference schedule, with Pac 12 play against Cal beginning next week at Pauley. A quick review of the three UCLA losses in the preseason shows several concerns, but very little to be tearing hair out at night in angst; it is an improving basketball team. 

The Georgetown game on Nov. 19, which the Bruins lost 78-70, is an almost complete write-off. That was played at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in front of a sparse crowd against a team from the East Coast, and Muhammad had his first college game. The team, in looking back now, seemed almost like one of those newborn animals that could be either a dog or a snow leopard—it was too early to even make it out.

The one facet of the Hoyas game that proved prescient was the defensive execution. Georgetown played basically the entire game with six players and four of the five starters scored in double digits. The Hoyas shot 54 percent from the floor and 50 percent from beyond the arc. That was the revelation of this teams' defensive problem, but also the beginning of the rebuild, which is coming along. 

The Nov. 25 loss to Cal Poly SLO, 70-68, was an embarrassment and a humiliation that the freshmen and the team has worn as a badge of shame. It was also in the clearing air as the Bruins head into the conference landscape, a fluke. 

The Bruins led by 18 points with 11:59 to play and shut down the fire control systems prematurely. It was an inexperienced group that had not bonded with one another and they were delivered a hard lesson about Division I basketball.   

But what is important is the players' admitted the embarrassment afterward. The light there was that the team, one-by-one, acknowledged the letters across their chest on that jersey stand for better than what they had given. There was wounded pride and the reaction was to redeem themselves, not to quit and hide.

That is the way to handle a setback, gentlemen. That loss will not symbolize this basketball team.   

The 78-69 loss to San Diego State on Dec. 1 at the Honda Center in Anaheim in the John R. Wooden Classic was frustrating, but it was not a true setback. The team was getting back to its feet and put out a big effort, but they ran against a team that was playing as cohesively as it ever has in the history of their basketball program and SDSU was ready to beat the big bullies from Los Angeles. These were squads at the opposite end of the process. 

San Diego State brought a demon-red and raucous crowd to that game and a student section that treated the outcome with the same enthusiasm the South regarded First Bull Run. UCLA did not play an atrocious game and was beaten by an almost rabidly excited basketball team that buried shot after shot down the stretch. 

The Aztecs also had a player in Jamaal Franklin who could have gone one-on-one with J.R. Smith that night, scoring 28 points and gliding under the spotlight like a locked-in performer with an entire stage to himself. 

Tip the hat to San Diego State, but if the teams meet again it will not go the same way twice. 

That defeat, as the Aztecs continue hunting with the poison-tipped spear of war at 11-2, with their only other loss to No. 9 Syracuse, is not a great shame or anything to be crestfallen about. The Arizona Wildcats, the pre-ordained capos of the Pac 12 conference, had to block an Aztecs' shot at the final horn on Dec. 26 to beat them at the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, 68-67. 

So, the Aztecs played into the championship game of a tournament and had a shot at the rim to beat 'Zona before it was blocked. UCLA can play with anyone in the Pac 12 this season and there is no doubt about it. 

The expectations were all out of kilter, anyway. At the half-time show, the ESPN2 studio man could not stop himself from playing up the "UCLA's awful early season struggles" angle. What were the expectations? An undefeated season and national championship from a freshman core and unassimilated pieces?

The Bruins are just fine, improving every time out with a roster of exciting players showing a lot of heart, and pushing behind a five-game winning streak into the start of the conference schedule.


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