Last night the Texas Longhorns did something that no team has done since January of 2006; they beat the UCLA Bruins on the floor of Pauley Pavilion. Since the Bruins had lost to the Washington Huskies, they had run off 25 straight at the vaunted arena. The game was very entertaining, if not played at the optimum level, but for a December clash it really was all a fan could hope for.
I had predicted earlier in the week that UCLA would win because of the return of Darren Collison, their more physical style of play, and because the game was at Pauley. Texas was able to negate two of these advantages, at least in the first half, and it was clear that Collison was still not all the way back from the knee injury he sustained in the pre-season.
In order to keep UCLA’s more physical front line from dominating the game, Texas played a 2/3 zone for much of the contest. UCLA had shown an ability to break a zone down and get the ball inside to freshman Kevin Love or one of the other post players, but last night the Bruins spent the majority of the first half trying to win a three-point shooting contest. As the Bruins only hit two of their first 12 triples in the first half, it was simply a matter of Texas rebounding the ball on the defensive end and the Longhorns were off and running. The ‘Horns held UCLA without a field goal for almost nine minutes in the first half and what started out as a 10-4 Bruin lead quickly turned into a 16 point Longhorn cushion. With Texas able to run the zone because of UCLA’s lack of post touches and ball movement, the crowd at Pauley was quickly quieted.
The second half changed the complexion of the game quickly. The Bruins have one of the best coaches in the country when it comes to halftime adjustments and Coach Ben Howland made three that were immediately noticeable. First, he had the Bruins moving the ball with more intent on the offensive end. This started breaking the zone down right away. On the defensive end, UCLA began to take away the one thing that Texas ran throughout the first half, mainly Texas point guard D.J. Augustin coming off a ball screen at the top of the key and either creating and getting to the hoop or passing out for an open shot when the Bruins sent help defense his way. To stop this, the Bruin posts began hedging their screens at a higher angle, forcing Augustin to move more laterally and giving Augustin’s defender more time to recover. It was clear that Howland also insisted that his guards do a better job of fighting through the high screens. As a result, what had been a 12 point Texas lead at the half was quickly dropped to four in a matter of roughly three minutes.
From that moment on the game see-sawed back an forth, with the Bruins gaining as much as a four point lead late and a three point lead with about a minute to go. Texas, however, scored the last 5 points, the final two on a controversial assist by Augustin (the Bruins claimed loudly that he traveled), and won 63-61.
So, what does this mean as far as March? Because of the high RPI of both teams, this game was only going to help both. In fact, this game was probably a blessing for both teams as both saw what kind of team will give them trouble and also how to beat it. Remember, as much as Texas dominated the first half last night, the Bruins dominated the second. Texas will have trouble playing a more physical team that actually can use that physicality to wear down the Longhorns’ thin front line.
After watching them last night, I tend to think that the Longhorns will have more trouble with Texas A&M than they will with Kansas, at least from a style perspective. UCLA, on the other hand, was clearly bothered by Texas’ quickness. The Longhorns couldn’t bang with the Bruins, but they could move around them. That didn’t stop until UCLA really decided to buckle down defensively in the second half. That gives hope to Arizona and even USC, both of whom looked quick in their respective games yesterday.
One final point; I had said that there were only three teams that were capable of playing at a championship level and Texas was not one of them. I was wrong. Texas, Memphis, North Carolina and UCLA all look strong enough to win the title in March. The team that I watched yesterday that seems like they are missing something is Kansas, and that is something else that Texas may have taken form yesterday’s plethora of games.