UCLA’s season ended with a murmur on Friday night as the Bruins fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Minnesota. Despite the tremendous potential the 2012-13 season had in store, it ended with a disappointing blowout 83-63 loss.
It was a loss that was technically categorized as an upset, as the Bruins were a No. 6 seed facing a No. 11 in Minnesota. However, for those of us who’ve been keeping tabs on this UCLA team all season, it was no upset—and not just because star freshman Jordan Adams was injured.
Of course, the Bruins’ also experienced a tough draw against an under-seeded Minnesota team, which was well-prepared for the NCAA Tournament after grinding it out this season in college basketball’s best conference, the Big Ten.
That also isn’t the principal reason the Bruins were “upset” on Friday.
UCLA has been marred by inconsistency throughout the season. It was an alarming trend that revealed itself somewhere between home losses to Cal Poly and USC amid a surprising upset of Arizona in Tucson.
For this team, the word “upset” carries no weight. “Upset” implies surprise, and UCLA taught us this season to expect the unexpected. There was an air of excitement to that sentiment, but it was generally morbid.
Little went right for the Bruins when they needed it most on Friday.
A characteristic slow start from UCLA due to Minnesota’s impenetrable zone defense set the tone for the Bruins, who didn’t score a field goal until over five minutes into the contest.
However, as the Golden Gophers began to heat up from the field, the Bruins remained stagnant on the offensive end and went into the half with a mere 25 points on 8-for-30 from the field. UCLA finished the game with a season-low 31.7 percent from the field and 18.2 percent from deep.
Despite achieving a rare feat in out-rebounding Minnesota, which was third in the physical Big Ten this season in rebounding, the Bruins couldn’t get anything going offensively from anyone but David Wear.
UCLA’s top scorer Shabazz Muhammad didn’t have much to show for himself, despite totaling 20 points that came too late for his team. Not only was his jumper off (6-of-18), but Muhammad wasn’t his usual tenacious self on both ends.
There were, of course, a few other factors that led to the loss.
The Bruins, who were already limited to seven players with Adams sidelined, got into foul trouble early. With only 11 minutes transpired in the game, starting forward Travis Wear and reserve forward/center Tony Parker had accrued three fouls, disallowing the Bruins to rest their starters while Parker and Wear sat.
It didn’t get any better in the second half.
Despite a run fueled by UCLA’s top (healthy) freshmen and a clutch three-pointer from Adams’ replacement Norman Powell, which brought the Bruins within five, this team just didn’t have the raw passion to win.
Above all, the most common person to point fingers at—as is commonplace in Westwood—is coach Ben Howland.
Although he has been the target of some harsh and mainly unwarranted and unfounded criticism for UCLA’s downfalls this season, there were some noticeable flaws in his game plan on Friday.
With UCLA already down to seven players and in foul trouble, Coach Howland opted to burn his starters in the first half instead of intermittently subbing in reserves.
Muhammad and senior point guard Larry Drew II ended up playing all but one minute of the game and were noticeably fatigued in the second half.
Drew, who has set the tone for the Bruins all season long with his leadership, finished the game with a mere four points and a rare higher turnover total (five) than assists (three).
Coach Howland was also apparently out-coached by Minnesota’s Tubby Smith.
UCLA not only struggled to crack Minnesota’s zone but didn’t adapt to the Gophers’ offense. The Bruins came out in a man-to-man defense that consistently presented Minnesota with open looks from the perimeter.
Even after the Gophers drained a slew of outside shots (9-of-16 three-pointers), the Bruins still didn’t alter their defensive approach and work in a zone.
Despite the checklist of aforementioned factors as to why UCLA lost on Friday, there was one major deficiency that was evident in the Bruins’ final loss of the season that has been a running theme throughout the season.
Lack of teamwork.
It was that something that had been missing from the team from Day 1, something that has prevented this highly touted team from achieving its full potential.
We saw fragments of teamwork only when the team won, in big wins against Arizona.
However, what we mostly saw was its absence, of Shabazz Muhammad and Travis Wear not participating in a team celebration after a buzzer-beating win over Washington.
Perhaps it all emanated from the top down. Maybe Coach Howland couldn’t effectively help bond his team together. Or maybe, maybe throwing together a team of four starters in their first season in a Bruins jersey, no matter their talent, doesn’t always pan out how we’d expect.
Maybe these things sometimes take time. Maybe teamwork is something that can’t be forced. Maybe it’s something that happens over time.
So, as we reflect on a season with soaring highs and sinking lows, it’s hardly a surprise that it ended as such. Perhaps the expectations were just too high to begin with.
The last play of Friday night’s game and UCLA’s 2012-13 season was a layup by superstar freshman Shabazz Muhammad. The Bruins were down by 20 with only a few ticks to go until their solemn destiny would become a reality.
In what was likely his last play in a UCLA uniform, Muhammad halfheartedly went up for the layup and missed it. Of course, the shot meant nothing to the game itself, but it meant something.
And thus the Bruins’ season ended. With a murmur.