The UCLA Bruins showed a crack in the armor tonight, losing 78-69 to the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 final. They’ll be going to the Big Dance with or without that auto-bid, but a team with something to prove doesn’t want to show weakness in a big game when so few big games are left on the schedule.
This year’s UCLA Bruins are a somewhat motley collection of freshmen and former North Carolina players. Whatever they were to start the season, they became more than that as March approached, winning the regular-season Pac-12 title and making it to the final game of the league tourney as well.
Near the end of a semifinal win over Arizona, however, the delicate balance forged by Ben Howland took a hit, as freshman phenom Jordan Adams went down with a foot injury that turned out to be a bad break that would end his season.
Shabazz Muhammad got most of the press for the Bruins this season, in what may be his only collegiate campaign, but Adams was a solid rock for UCLA as well. He was second to Muhammad in scoring, putting up 15.3 points per game, but he was second to none in defensive impact, knocking away 2.2 steals per contest. It’s that high-energy stopping power that the Bruins are likely to miss most of all as they sojourn into late March.
Still, it may be too soon to believe that the Bruins are fatally flawed. Muhammad has the elite scoring touch, and Larry Drew II has turned out to be the right point guard for Howland’s system. Travis Wear is a marksman, shooting over 50 percent on the year, and 6’9″ Kyle Anderson can do a little bit of everything very well. Anderson’s skill set includes a little thievery – he’s right behind Adams with 1.8 steals per game.
Ben Howland tried Norman Powell in Adams’ place against Oregon, and results were inconclusive. Powell had ten points in 37 minutes of play, and was reasonably efficient when he managed to get a shot off. With no other options waiting around on the bench, Powell’s “not bad” may have to do down the stretch.
The Bruins didn’t look bad against Oregon, but neither did they look like a team that would make a long run in the NCAA Tournament. With Jordan confined to the bench in a walking boot, UCLA’s postseason hopes may be hobbled as well.