UCLA was once again in the spotlight in the desert on Saturday, but this time it withered.
After a stunning upset win over No. 6 Arizona in Tucson on Thursday that had yours truly projecting UCLA as the favorite in the Pac-12, the Bruins fell in a sluggish loss to Arizona State, which had previously been decimated by Arizona in Tempe.
This nauseating ride that bolts from highs to lows has become a staple of this UCLA team.
Just when it seemed evident that the Bruins had finally emerged from the depths of their tumultuous early-season struggles with their most important conference road win in years, they lose two days later to a lesser team.
As we’ve discovered time and time again, wins and losses may help to determine where a team is positioned in the standings, but they don’t necessarily help to decipher the quality of a team.
So, while a loss was the outcome of Saturday’s game and the Bruins are now 6-2 in the Pac-12 and 16-5 overall, that isn’t the concern.
UCLA also shot a season-low 35 percent from the field and 21 percent from beyond the arc, was out-rebounded 49-29 and didn’t receive any help from its bench (31 minutes, 0 points, 0-of-7 shooting), but those aren’t concerns, either.
The concern is consistency. Not consistency in the outcome of games—consistency in the focus of this team.
What UCLA demonstrates by sprinting out of the gate in one game and then barely crawling in the next is that the Bruins aren’t as determined to win as they appeared to be against Arizona.
This loss goes beyond the likely excuses:
Travis Wear was injured and his replacement, brother David, choked (2-of-12, five points)...
ASU’s center Jordan Bachynski had four inches on the tallest Bruin...
Star freshman Shabazz Muhammad wasn’t much of a factor in the game until it was too late in the second half...
The difference between UCLA’s win in the state of Arizona and its loss was the ability to overcome adversity and meager excuses.
The excuses on Thursday could have been Jordan Adams’ and Kyle Anderson’s stomach illness and Travis Wear’s head injury that sidelined him for the second half. Nevertheless, the Bruins showed up to play that day and hurdled those obstacles.
Saturday at Arizona State was a much different story.
UCLA looked sluggish from the onset. Perhaps the Bruins had yet to regain the tremendous energy they exerted to upset Arizona.
Whatever the case was, they were unable to penetrate ASU’s zone defense and subsequently settled for outside jumpers. They also couldn’t contain the Sun Devils on defense, which led to many converted second-chance opportunities for ASU.
Amid all the setbacks in UCLA’s team progress, there were some highlights in the game.
While he wasn’t much of a factor in the first half, Shabazz Muhammad ardently reiterated that he can single-handedly take over a game. He nearly brought the Bruins within striking distance by scoring nine consecutive points in the second half.
Who will win on Jan. 30 at Pauley Pavilion?
Senior point guard Larry Drew II also proved once again that he can be clutch in high-pressure late-game situations by making three jumpers in the last five minutes. He finished with 12 points to tie his conference high.
Nevertheless, UCLA has once again been reduced to an unpredictable team that reserves enormous potential. All expectations will be put on the back burner.
The Bruins will take this season game by game, shot by shot, second by second.