I just got back from UCLA's thrilling overtime victory over Stanford at Pauley Pavilion that clinched the Bruins' third straight Pac 10 title. I went to the game because my father asked me, "Have you ever been to a really big time college basketball game?" I rattled off all the amazing games I've attended - regional finals, Texas-Kansas showdowns, and so on, but when I finished he said, "Set aside the NCAA Tournament games, which are their own beast. But this will be something different than what you've seen before."
And it was. It really was as great a college basketball environment as I've ever seen. Part of it was the context - two Top 10-ranked Pac 10 teams battling in the season's final week for the conference crown. But it was more than just a big game, too. This was a real gym, with real history, and real fans who live and die for the hoops team like Texas football fans live and die with the football team.
A few notes on Pauley, and then the game.
- Pauley Pavilion is a basketball gym - not a special events center. It's built to watch basketball, and there are literally no bad seats in the house. I know this for certain, because as my Dad and his buddy were down in primo seats by the court, I was up at the very top row, tucked in the corner. And it was still a great, great vantage point to take in the game. In fact, when I briefly joined my Pops down by the court, I wasn't so sure I didn't prefer my seat at the top. (This is true of the Rose Bowl, as well. Every seat, even at the top row, is a good one.)
- The student section is sizable, occupying the length of one side of the court, ten rows deep. The student section is full, rambunctious, and loud. Unofficially, many more students extend up past the court-side section up to the top rows. Student support for the team dwarfs what we see at Texas.
- Another big difference? Every fan is extremely into the game. The 40-and-over crowd in attendance stand, they clap loudly, do the cheers, sing the songs, and yell like their lives depend on it. Though older Texas fans are as dedicated to their football team as these Bruins fans are to their hoops team, a good many Texas fans are extremely passive in comparison. I wouldn't roll my eyes at anyone who described a Pauley game as "electric."
- On to the game: UCLA's offense in the first half was Ben Howland basketball at its worst. Slow, methodical, predictable, and unimaginative, with painful outside shooting. UCLA managed a meager 18 points by half, trailing by as many as 14 points. Watching the first half unfold, I kept scribbling in my notes: "Stanford is slow. When's UCLA going to start taking advantage of their advantage in speed and quickness??"
- UCLA never did in the first half, but Darren Collison awoke in the second half, keying the big comeback. At one point, UCLA's point guard scored 11 straight points, helping UCLA take advantage of Stanford's subpar transition and perimeter defense. Without this adjustment, I'm comfortable saying the Bruins lose by 10+ points. In the first half, Howland simply had his guards work the ball to Kevin Love on the low block over and over. Love's so good that they got a few good baskets this way, but Stanford's twin centers made life much more difficult than the freshman is used to, and without any perimeter shooting to help, the offense stalled. When Collison got going in the second half, everything else opened up.
- As much as I cringe watching Ben Howland teams play offense, the defense is something to behold. Perhaps most importantly, they stop penetration better than any team in America. But they're also a picture perfect off-ball defending team, as well. They deny passing lanes exceptionally well, and know when and where to rotate (and do so crisply).
- I have never seen a seven-footer try to dribble as much as I did Brook Lopez tonight. He did a lot of things very well tonight, and is surprisingly agile for his height, but it's criminal how often he puts the ball on the floor. His coaches aren't getting the most out of him yet at all.
- Speaking of Stanford coaching... they blew this one badly. Nursing a quickly evaporating five point lead with two minutes remaining in the game, Stanford on back-to-back possessions (once right out of a timeout) took a terrible shot with 25 seconds on the shot clock. Though the Cardinal do a lot well, I would have been infuriated with Trent Johnson if I were a Stanford fan tonight. Beyond the clock management disaster, the lack of adjustments in the final ten minutes of the second half was astounding. It was like Trent Johnson was surprised UCLA was double teaming Brook Lopez. Unbelievable.
- From my vantage point, the whistle Darren Collison got with 2.5 seconds left was questionable, at best. I didn't have the best angle on the play, but I got two text messages from friends watching on TV who couldn't believe the call, either, so I'm inclined to believe UCLA got a bit of a break there. Foul or not - credit to Collison, who did what he'd been doing throughout the second half - attacking. That's why you want your team being aggressive in the paint; it not only pressures the defense, it pressures the officials, as well.
Update [2008-3-7 18:48:1 by HornsFan]: The Pac 10's head of officials tells Andy Katz it wasn't a good call.
- Looking ahead to the NCAAs, Stanford's going to have a tough time with quick teams. Their size inside is terrific, but it's a slow, slow team overall. A quick team that's athletic enough to clean the defensive glass is going to give the Cardinal fits. As for UCLA... well, it's tough to say. The defense is certainly supreme, but outside Collison, their perimeter game is textbook Howland - awful. If I'm a UCLA fan, I worry about a team which won't get dominated by love and who also has an elite defender to deal with Collison. In that situation, UCLA's going to have trouble scoring enough to win. I'll say this: at their best, UCLA's easily a Final Four team. Based on what I've seen so far, though, it's hard to see them winning this tournament. There just aren't enough offensive weapons.
- Congratulations to Ben Howland and UCLA, who won their third straight Pac 10 regular season championship - the first time they've done so since the Wooden era. Another excellent year in Westwood.