UCLA fended away all critics on Saturday afternoon with a win in Colorado to cap off a two-game road trip. The Bruins have now improved to 4-0 in Pac-12 play (1st) and are flaunting a nine-game winning streak extending back to a Dec. 8 non-conference game against Texas.
A buzz is beginning to work its way back to Westwood. Bruins fans are slowly but surely starting to believe that this team is capable of great things again. Even the players can’t help but express their joy to have won every game they’ve played in the past month and launch the Pac-12 season in style.
And yet I’m not convinced.
Congratulations to UCLA for executing and winning its past nine games, but it’s not time to buy the championship hats and shoot off firecrackers. It’s great to see some enthusiasm from Bruins fans, but make no mistake, there is nothing to celebrate right now.
No one can detract anything from what the Bruins have done to turn around their season by winning nine straight, including a win over then No. 7 Missouri, after being pounced on by San Diego State.
This team proved itself a national contender in that Missouri win, but the same questions that the Bruins seemed to have answered are starting to emerge like weeds from freshly tilled soil.
UCLA is winning basketball games—there’s no denying the blatant facts—but what do these games mean?
With every positive note comes an equally important concern. In Saturday’s win over Colorado, UCLA witnessed an amazing, pleasantly surprising performance from Travis Wear, who scored a career-high 23 points, including two back-to-back jumpers that fended off a late Colorado run. That’s a positive note.
Here’s the concern: The Bruins once again surrendered a double-digit second-half lead and allowed the opposition to come within striking distance in the concluding minutes of the game.
Up 13 with 9:48 to play in Saturday’s game, UCLA’s interior defense collapsed and allowed Colorado to come within one point with less than a minute remaining in the game. The Buffaloes eventually had the last shot in the game, which would have sent the game into overtime.
This isn’t an isolated incident.
The Bruins have relinquished double-digit leads in the second half in each of their four Pac-12 games. A 16-point lead was quickly narrowed to five in their Pac-12 opener against Cal; a 15-point advantage shrunk to five late in the game against Stanford; and a 12-point lead was squeezed to two with a minute to go versus Utah.
The results are positive, but they are deceiving.
Saturday’s road win at Colorado goes down as a “W” in the books, but it’s not a win for this Bruins team. Good things happened in Boulder: Travis Wear came up clutch; Jordan Adams found his groove in the Pac-12; the Bruins proved they could win without a monster performance from Shabazz Muhammad carrying the team (14 points, 6-16 FG).
Nevertheless if this team—as a team—can’t hold on to sizable leads or close out games, this team is destined for another round of disappointment.
Winning tight games in which UCLA allowed the other team to stand a chance when it shouldn’t have is not something to celebrate. That these games were also played against the lower tier of the Pac-12 (combined 4-12 conference record) confirms this.
In the Bruins’ first Pac-12 road game against Utah, the Utes shot 39 percent from the field (45%, season) and a measly 20 percent from three-point land (35 %, season), missing five consecutive shots with under three minutes, including three triples, that would have either tied the game or put them ahead.
UCLA won’t be so lucky against top-tier Pac-12 teams.
Arizona, Arizona State, Washington, and Oregon won’t be so easy on the Bruins. Three of those teams are in the Top 4 in conference scoring (UCLA leads all with 48%), and Arizona is the No. 1 three-point shooting team.
UCLA’s next six Pac-12 opponents (ORST, ORE, ARIZ, ASU, USC, WASH) possess a collective 12-6 conference record (Oregon State: 0-3). If the Bruins are lucky enough to achieve significant leads against these teams, they’ll have to hold onto them in order to ink a “W” in the books.
Give Arizona or Arizona State five consecutive offensive possessions in the final minutes of a close game on their home court and they won’t fail to take the lead and win the game. Wins against those teams would merit a proper celebration and would justify predictions of the Bruins winning the Pac-12 and doing damage in the NCAA Tournament.
That is when the buzz about this UCLA team will bellow throughout Westwood. But for now, stay in your seat, Bruins fans. This team still has plenty to prove.
Much more than a “W” in the books.