NEW YORK -- UCLA is 9-0 against all the average-to-bad teams it's played this season and 0-2 against the two good ones. The second loss came Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, where the Bruins were outplayed and outpaced in the second half on the way to an 80-63 loss to No. 8 Duke.
This L was 12 days removed from the 80-71 outcome at Missouri, and there's been a trend over the past three games that has seen this squad go 1-2: It's significantly worse in the second half. The team isn't adjusting, and that's probably on the coaching staff as much as it is the players. Even during a 95-71 win over Prairie View A&M last Saturday, first-year UCLA coach Steve Alford said his team's energy and execution was lacking.
"We have to do a better job as coaches that the toughness is happening for 40 minutes," he said.
Didn't look like that would be a problem UCLA on Thursday, no not at all. It was a 37-all game at the break, and the Bruins looked the part of Duke's equal. The team took some bad shots but rallied in transition and took advantage of some 3-point opportunties (6-10 in the first half) that kept the game close.
But it fell apart rather quickly in the final 20 minutes. It's clear UCLA isn't a team worthy of conversation for the Pac-12's best, and if you want to make the case this group isn't one among the top 30 the country, I think that's accurate. What's indisputable is how talented, fast, athletic (hello, Zach LaVine) and eager this club is to showcase its ability. It's a fun team to watch. But the defense is unquestionably very problematic -- as is the offense, and so here's the crux of the issue.
“I think we have a really high ceiling, but there's a lot of inexperience," Alford said.
UCLA hasn't yet learned how to play effectively in the half-court with the ball, and that of course is a worrisome trend more than one-third of the way through the season. The postseason relies so much on half-court play. And for the issues this team inherits on D, if it can't effectively create in transition and in the half-court, there could be room for real concern. That's where the team has to be better, because hoping for a turnaround on defense is tugging at straws.
UCLA shot 34.5 percent from the field, went 2 for 12 from deep and only got to the line seven times in the second 20 minutes against the Blue Devils. Between this game and Missouri, the Bruins averaged 27 points in the second half.
"I don't know what's going on,” sophomore Kyle Anderson said. “I think us players trust the coaching staff to let us know what's going on in the second half. I wish myself and everyone else knew what it was so we could be a better second-half team.”
The beacon of hope is Anderson, a point guard/forward who had a down game of sorts (due to six turnovers, a few of them ill-timed), yet went for 15 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and five steals. He's got a crafty game that's among the most original in college basketball. (As coincidence would have it, Jabari Parker -- 23 points, 10 rebounds, five assists on Thursday -- was opposite Anderson at MSG, and he can claim just as much creativity in his repertoire.)
"Quinn Cook did a very good job of pressuring the ball," Anderson said; Cook had eight steals. "The 94-feet pressure is tough. They got into us which forced us to not execute. And it's Duke's signature."
It's only Anderson's 11th game as the go-to point man for this team. He fits the role, but it's still an offense that's better suited when it's flowing up the floor and being guided by whomever gets out ahead.
"Look at our personnel, we've got guys who can really run the floor," Alford said. "The Wear twins run the floor run as well as any bigs in college basketball. ... Most of our team is about pace, now when pace is taken away by good teams like Duke, we've gotta do a better job, and we'll spend time on that. We've had several games where opponents haven't been able to take away transition. It's not been fools' gold but we haven't been taken out of hour half-court. Duke took it away."
Alford described his team's past three second-half performance as a “flowing into standing” offense. UCLA's among the fastest and most chaotic teams in the country this year, averaging upward of 72 possessions per game, but without an ability to shrink the court and show execution -- fast execution, as Alford said he wants -- it's going to be tough to win consistently.
Doesn't mean UCLA won't be a joy to watch, though. Alford should be credited for using this group as it can only be used: to run wild, play with style and hope Anderson guiding the offense can be enough for long-term success under a new coach with a different approach.