On a lot of nights this season the shots have splashed softly through the nylon for UCLA like sweet summer rain into a warm pool of points.
But when the shooting goes arid and the fair weather drifts over to the opponents, the Bruins are as vulnerable to death as a turtle tipped onto its shell under a hot sun.
The loss against the Cardinal in Palo Alto—an 83-74 scorching—was the shooting cyclops coming to life and devouring the crew.
"Our lack of a defensive presence and/or combined with Stanford's shooting game—it was one of those games they shot the ball extremely well—I think it was their best shooting game of the year," said Coach Steve Alford Tuesday on the Pac-12 conference call.
"So playing on the road and and overall when a team's shooting extremely well and we had a few more breakdowns than we had in the previous games, it probably adds up to the kind of offense they showed."
It was not just Stanford's best shooting game this season, it was the Cardinal's best Pac-12 shooting effort in 11 seasons, going back to another game against UCLA in 2003. Last week, the Cardinal shot 62 percent on the game and 74 percent in the second half. It was a 74 percent effective field goal percentage for the game.
That is an almost impossible percentage to overcome, no matter how well you shoot it yourself, and UCLA does shoot it well. The Bruins' 55 percent effective field goal percentage is 11th best, and their 40.5 percent from beyond the arc is fifth.
The dead-eye gunning gets them 83 points per game on average (seventh), with a scoring margin of plus-12.4, which is eighth-best. When those averages hold true UCLA almost never loses, but the faultless through line in each of their six losses is misfiring on offense and allowing the opponent to incinerate the nets on defense.
In road and neutral-site losses to Mizzou, Duke, Arizona, Utah, Oregon State and Stanford, the Bruins shot a combined 40.6 percent from the floor and 32.5 percent from the three-point line. They scored, on average, 69.8 points.
That is fully 9 percent under the team's season average percentage from the floor and 8 percent under the average from three-point range. It is 14 points less than its average scoring output.
On the other side, rather than stifling opponents with angry, aggressive defense that generally shows the rough-neck grit of a championship team, the Bruins have watched opponents pour in points.
The six teams to set-down the Bruins shot a combined 50.2 percent from the floor and 41 percent from deep. They averaged 78 points per game. On the season UCLA holds opponents to 42.7 percent from the floor, 34 percent from three and surrenders 70 points per game.
An unusual, uneasy trend from the three-point line has emerged not only from the losses, but on the season, generally. The Bruins allow 8.1 three-point buckets per game, which ranks them 341st of 351 Division I basketball teams.
In the six losses, three teams—Mizzou, Duke and Stanford—made more than 10 three-pointers on the game. In two other losses, Utah made nine and Oregon State made eight. Arizona made the fewest, at six on 13 attempts.
A reporter asked coach Alford about the strange three-point vulnerability before Tuesday's practice.
"I've hammered at our defense a lot, but I think four of our last five games—we weren't very good at Stanford, but they made a lot of shots," said the coach.
"I like our position regardless of what percentage we're giving up of three-point shots—I like overall defensively that we've shown a lot of improvement. To be honest we give up too many easy ones. If we could make teams shoot more threes and take away more of the inside I'd be much more in favor of that because the percentages are going to go in our favor. It helps our rebounding and our ability to get out and run."
The long rebounds that often come after missed three-point shots are a great way to get out and run, but in their losses that opportunity has been taken away from them. NCAA tournament games have become infamous for allowing teams who get hot shooting the long ball over a 40-minute span to go on deep runs and vanquish teams otherwise out of their league because of the shot's great floor-leveling power.
The Sword of Damocles has been hung tenuously over the Bruins because of this curious chink in their armor. Whether it is a technique deficiency with players failing to close out on shooters or put their defending hand in the right place—or if fate has decried it should be their ominous vulnerability—is difficult to say.
Their losses this season have shown that it is real, and the vaporizing at Stanford late in the season revealed that it has not gone away. Though in the four games leading up to Stanford, the Bruins had chipped away steadily at opponents' shooting percentage and used that success to run out a four game winning streak.
At this late hour, is it the team that appeared to have learned how to redirect the slings and arrows of the enemy, or the squad that chose for most of the year to eat them while attempting to return fire more of its own?
"We thought we were doing the same things [against Stanford]," coach Alford said during the conference call. "We're obviously hoping it's only a one-game deal."
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