Yes, if your expectations aren’t a Final Four. In just one month since the face-plant against Cal Poly, UCLA has staged a slow, remarkable turnaround that culminated with the upset of the No. 7 Tigers — easily the Bruins’ biggest win of the season. (Missouri was technically a slight underdog in Vegas, but come on.)
They’ll pop back into the AP poll next week, after a win that cemented the key to saving Ben Howland’s job: letting go. This team might get incrementally better on defense, but it just doesn’t have the raw ability to ever play man the way Howland likes. But as Shabazz Muhammad said earlier this season, this team needs to up its pace and run fewer set plays. Let its freshmen freestyle on the run and hope they can outscore the other team on most nights.
That plan won’t result in 58.6 percent second-half shooting every night — how often are the Wears going to combine for 38 points? — but the Pac-12 only has one team (Arizona) that’s clearly better than the Tigers.
The high-end for this team could look something like last year’s Missouri squad, one that earned a No. 2 seed before being knocked out in the first round.
“This was a huge win for us especially going into conference play,” Travis Wear said. “To be going in with this type of momentum is awesome.”
Key Players: Shabazz Muhammad, for showing off a killer instinct in drilling two crucial 3-pointers in overtime. The second one, which gave the Bruins a 95-93 lead, was a particularly impressive offensive set: UCLA was patient as it swung the ball around the perimeter, with Kyle Anderson smartly passing up an OK 3-point look before giving the ball to Larry Drew for the eventual assist. Muhammad’s game still isn’t particularly well rounded — see one rebound in 34 minutes – but he’s shaping up as the team’s go-to guy in crunch time.
“I’m really comfortable. I like taking the big shots,” he said. “I just felt comfortable shooting it. Larry trusted me on the shot and I just hit it.”
Phil Pressey gets the other nod for a monster double-double. His 19 assists set a school record and was the best single-game total in Division I this year. He was also three assists from tying the NCAA record of 22, shared by three players.
Key stat: Six turnovers. Howland has talked about how pleased he’s been all season with his team’s ability to take care of the ball, even when it was struggling in nearly every other facet of the game. Missouri turned the ball over 17 times, which helped nullify its 12-4 advantage on 3-point makes.
Home court advantage: Missouri might not make it back into the top-10 for the rest of the season. Some of the Tigers’ flaws were exposed Friday night, and they were still a team playing in their first true road game this year after four neutral-site match-ups.
From the always informative Ken Pomeroy:
Home teams that won by one or two points were 16-52 in the rematches, winning just 23.5% of the time. Most fans like to think the results of a close game as just because teams that emerge victorious show grittiness, heart, and toughness. But those teams were almost certain losers when they faced the same team on the road. What happened to the grittiness then? To me, there’s no greater statement to the influence of luck in the outcome of a close game than the struggles of close home winners in a road game against the same team.
UCLA did get lucky at times Friday night, perhaps most so at the end of regulation when Jordan Adams blatantly fouled Pressey. The Mizzou point guard played up the collision a bit, but Adams nonetheless made no effort whatsoever toward the ball and should have gotten hit with an intentional foul. That would have meant two potential go-ahead free throws with four seconds left. But in the end, the well-devised strategy to use up fouls worked, and the Tigers never got a clean look at the basket.