Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Good Hoops, But Not Like Wednesday Night. There were so many good games last night, so many wacky outcomes and thrilling finishes, asking for a repeat performance was as unreasonable as it was delusional. Nights like Wednesday don’t come around on a weekly, monthly, perhaps even yearly basis – the number of stunning upsets, in the time frame in which they went down, was not something me, you, nor any obsessed college hoops observer was ready for. If March Madness exists in January, it was Wednesday night. By necessity, the clock ticked, the calendar flipped and Wednesday became Thursday, where – you got it – more games were played in campus gyms across the country. I’ll be honest right off the bat: Thursday night’s slate has nothing on what you witnessed Wednesday. Even so, it was still college hoops, and it was still Gonzaga-BYU and Ole Miss-Tennessee and VCU-Richmond and UCLA-Arizona. It was still a good night. Here’s what stuck out.
Your Watercooler Moment. Bruins Defense Overlooked.
Defense has helped UCLA solve its early season chemistry issues (Photo credit: AP Photo).
The key to UCLA’s December revival, when the Bruins ripped off 10 straight wins, five of which came in Pac-12 play, was widely diagnosed as a product of offensive firepower and a correspondingly poor attention to defensive detail. It was all about Shabazz Muhammad’s offensive explosion and Jordan Adams’ continued development and Larry Drew’s stewardship at the point – or some fuzzy mixture of positive offensive growth. Ben Howland was eschewing tradition, it was widely and casually assumed, as if the Bruins were a fundamentally flawed, offense-only team that couldn’t defend a lick. Tempo-free enthusiasts knew better; UCLA, in fact, ranked first in the Pac-12 in adjusted defensive efficiency heading into Thursday night’s crucial road test at Arizona. The Bruins have been giving up 0.94 points per trip in conference play, compared to Arizona’s 0.98, good for fifth among league counterparts. So when the Wildcats got off to a ghastly 1-of-10 shooting start, and UCLA blew open a 17-3 lead in the first half, the Wildcats couldn’t find a way back. It was smooth sailing in the second half, despite Arizona’s and a super-geeked fan base’s best efforts to rally for a comeback push. UCLA wouldn’t be here without its offense – without the natural talents of Muhammad, the Wear Twins’ old-school finesse and Kyle Anderson’s instinctive play-making. The Bruins are and will continue to be identified by what they do on that end of the floor. But their improved defense brings UCLA to a whole different level. Without it, they are a high-flying, explosive, fun team to watch – something like the college analog to the Los Angeles Clippers (yes, the Clippers defend; I’m speaking strictly in terms of offensive visuals). Now that Howland has gotten his team up to par defensively, the Bruins are able to do some pretty good things – things like beating the No. 6 team in the country on the road in the biggest regular season game UCLA has played in the last five years.
Also Worth Chatting About. Another A-10 Newcomer Goes Down.
In the rugged A-10, road losses are par for the course, even for teams as strong as VCU (Photo credit: AP Photo).
On Wednesday, Butler had its undefeated conference record ruined on a full-court drive and finish at the buzzer from La Salle guard Ramon Galloway. It was karmic justice for the Bulldogs, who just days earlier rushed the court after knocking off Gonzaga at Hinkle Fieldhouse thanks to Roosevelt Jones’ last-second runner. The road to VCU’s downfall followed a similar narrative. One week ago, the Rams fended off a feisty St. Joes’ team in overtime. The Hawks played Shaka Smart’s team down to the final possession, but they fizzled out in the extra period, overcome by the Rams’ high-paced style. Then came Thursday night’s rivalry game at Richmond. A win at the Robins Center would have sealed the Rams’ temporary spot atop the A-10 standings. Instead, the Spiders coughed up a modest 11 turnovers, dealt with VCU’s HAVOC full-court pressure and smothering half-court D, and after 40 minutes of hanging tough and keeping within striking distance, Richmond leveled the score in the final seconds to send the game to overtime. VCU was not as fortunate in the extra period this time around. It’s a great win for the Spiders. For VCU? Sigh. Beyond the coincidence of the league’s two best teams falling on back-to-back days, the Rams won’t come away from this loss doubting its ability to compete for a league title. Teams lose road games in conference play, and even more so against bitter city rivals. This is a tough, tough league, and the Rams – like every team at some point or another – hit a wall they couldn’t break through.
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