There is plenty to learn when you are a young basketball team playing its first season together against high-level competition. These UCLA Bruins are both young, and where they are not young, new to one another.
Unfortunately for college basketball generally, there is limited patience for mistakes that often come from a lack of basic experience, which are essentially impossible to avoid over the course of a campaign.
But for a young group, the Bruins have learned well and quickly. Some of it has been physical development and growth within the system, but the rest of it has come from the sense and muscle memory that develops from being beaten.
This is a distillation of one lesson from every loss this season that UCLA can use as the regular season turns over to the no-room-for-mistakes, sudden-death postseason.
Georgetown gave UCLA an object lesson in the lethal effectiveness of cohesive, patient offense run against an unformed, unprincipled defense when they beat the Bruins Nov. 19 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, 78-70.
The Hoyas—operating John Thompson III's modified Princeton offense—back cut for easy baskets all night, knocked down open jump shots off of sharp, smart passing and scored in transition when UCLA's defense didn't have the motor to sprint back and match up in transition.
Otto Porter did to the Bruins what he has done all year for the Hoyas, as he scored 18 points with 11 rebounds, five assists, five blocks and three steals. That is why he is a serious candidate for both the Naismith and Wooden National Player of the Year awards.
Georgetown had 15 assists on the night, shot 50 percent from three-point range and 54.5 percent from the floor.
“Their offense really, really cut us up,” said coach Ben Howland after the game. “We’re a team that’s obviously very young. We really got hurt defensively.”
It was a sound lesson for a young team to learn early in the season—the elemental ball-you-man principles alongside grinding discipline—and it was taken at the feet of a strong, experienced team in Georgetown.
At 23-4 overall and 13-3 in the Big East, Georgetown is the No. 5 team in the country with the chance for an outright regular season conference championship if they can win the two games remaining on their schedule
For UCLA, it was Shabazz Muhammad's first college game. He was new to both the system and his teammates and by his own admission, in poor physical condition because of ankle and shoulder injuries. Muhammad scored 15 points in 25 minutes and was a non-factor on the defensive end.
The 70-68 home loss on Nov. 25 to Cal Poly gave every part and the whole of UCLA's team the opportunity to weigh what their pride in themselves and their school meant to them.
The practical lesson was as important as the ethereal blow to everyone's ego: take every game seriously. Take the season seriously, and do not quit attacking until the clock ticks to triple zeroes.
For the freshmen, especially, it was a bucket of cold water to show them truly what it means to play with the UCLA target written in gold across their chest. It will be the career highlight—the proverbial yarn for kids and grand kids—for most the players on the smaller in-state schools to beat the Bruins in Pauley Pavilion.
Losses like that will live in infamy for UCLA.
But Cal Poly did not win the game because they were the better team. UCLA bludgeoned the Mustangs for most of the night, ran out to an 18-point lead with 12 minutes to play—at which point Cal Poly had 33 points on the scoreboard—and simply stopped playing until it was too late to turn the attack systems back on.
The 78-69 Dec. 1 loss in Anaheim to San Diego State was a second lurid illustration of how serious second-tier California schools are about beating UCLA.
The Honda Center was a cauldron of Aztec red and black for what was supposed to be UCLA's signature event—The John R. Wooden Classic. San Diego State played behind the noise and energy from their students and fans all night, continuously seizing game momentum when the Bruins worked to cut into the Aztecs' lead.
The practical lesson for the Bruins, though, was being made to understand the intensity they would need to employ over 40 minutes to be an effective defensive team. Following the loss, UCLA would set off on a 10-game winning streak that changed the course of their season.
In this game UCLA was too inconsistent defending the perimeter, too soft on the ball and their entire help and rotation sequence was slow and amazingly ineffective.
San Diego State's top three scorers shot 20-for-35 for 57 percent. The team shot 59.2 percent for the game.
Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State's scintillating junior wing, scorched UCLA for 28 points and seven rebounds. On the season, in a very high grade Mountain West Conference, Franklin puts up 17 points and nine rebounds a night.
The Bruins took lashings for the same shortcomings in interior defense and rebounding in both of their first two Pac-12 losses: to Oregon on Jan. 19, and Arizona State on Jan. 26.
The lesson was that every player has to be gritty enough to do their share on both windows, and that basic, primal toughness is required with big bodies inside.
The 76-67 loss to Oregon ended a 10-game UCLA winning streak, and the loss to Arizona State one week later was the first of back-to-back defeats, with the second coming to USC four days afterward.
Against Oregon, it felt like a two-man vigilante thrashing as the Duck's Arsalan Kazemi and Tony Woods—two big, active frontcourt players—jumped all over the Bruins, leading their team to a 40-31 rebounding advantage—13-7 on the offensive glass.
The game was stamped and sealed by two massive dunks inside for Woods with the Bruins not able to do anything but watch the rim shake.
The Sun Devils' Jordan Bachynski, a 7'2'' center, crushed UCLA physically and spiritually in his team's 78-60 win in Tempe. Bachynski grabbed 15 rebounds, eight of them offensive, while scoring 22 points.
Carrick Felix, a 6'6'' small forward, also had 11 rebounds and 23 points for the Sun Devils.
As a team, Arizona State drubbed UCLA 53-33 on both windows.
A team with a rebounding deficit like that will show up in the loss column just about every time.
These young Bruins learned about the pure energy force of a rivalry game when they got beat in Pauley Pavilion by USC in overtime on Jan. 30, 75-71.
This was a big hype game against the team's arch nemesis coming off a bad loss on the road. UCLA showcased ultra rare alternate uniforms when they donned specially made blue-on-blue threads, and the fans pulled on blue too to blanket the arena in monochrome.
There was a lot of pressure; The team came out flat and didn't play their game. A ferocious rally from 15 points down in the second half forced it into overtime, but the Bruins couldn't get over the top in the extra period.
The lesson came in the form of simple but irreplaceable experience. No matter what or where the game, the conditions or the opponent, you must do what you do best with a cool head and steady determination—and you must do it immediately—because that is the only way you are going to win.
This game became a prototypical tournament lesson when the Bruins did not come out ready to play in Berkeley—went down 47-19 to start the game—and lost to Cal, 76-63.
The lesson was the importance of coming out sharp and prepared to defend, rebound and score because your opponent might be set to crush. The Golden Bears blitzed UCLA early on, ran the floor, scored in transition, knocked down shot after shot behind a noisy crowd at Haas Pavilion, and before the Bruins had a chance to find a rhythm they were trailing by 27 points.
If UCLA does that in either the Pac-12 or NCAA Tournament, it will be all over for them. College basketball's postseason—with its single elimination, sudden-death format—requires a certain urgency and clutch demonstration of skill and nerve to advance.
Those are the things young, talented basketball teams often struggle with most on the big stage, when they feel like they are too good to lose, and there is all the time in the world to win.
A 19-year winning streak ended March 6 in Pullman, WA when the last-place Washington State Cougars beat the No. 23 Bruins, 73-61.
Beasley Coliseum had several thousand fans in its 12,000-seat arena, and there was no energy on the floor or interest in the game. It was a classic young-team road loss to an inferior squad that the program—over many years before they arrived—is used to dominating.
The only reason for the loss was because UCLA did not come ready to force their game onto an overmatched opponent.
The lesson was that on some nights you have to find ways to make it interesting for yourself. The Bruins were crushed on the window and burned badly on defense, both of which were under their power to control. It was a monstrous composite of everything the team had worked hard to overcome over the preceding three months: soft defense, poor rotations and embarrassingly bad rebounding.
Now the test will be stiff: Can the Bruins shake off the second worst loss of the season and close the regular season with a win Saturday in Seattle against Washington, where UCLA is 1-8 over their last nine trips?