Cognition & Reality

Friday, 18 March 2011

UCLA & The Clock

Filed under: Sports — drtone @ 9:05 am

I haven’t watched college basketball all season. Last year, I didn’t even watch the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, “March Madness,” but this year is different, because I’m at loose ends. As long as I don’t have much to do, I might as well check out the games, right? For many years, I rooted for UCLA, going all the way back to when I first lived in Riverside. Later, my father taught there, which made for another connection. Of course, I’ve always rooted against Michigan State, because I was born on campus at Michigan. Reason enough, right?

There I was yesterday, watching 10th-seeded Michigan State play 7th-seeded UCLA. It was a close game in the first half, but UCLA got out to big lead in the second, as much as 23 points. At just under 10 minutes to go and up by more than 20 points, UCLA should have been milking the 35-second shot clock on every possession. I can’t quite say “by my calculation” they would have won easily doing that, because I’m not sure how to do the calculation. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see how, if UCLA were using 25 to 30 or more seconds every time down the court, Michigan State could have caught up, given that UCLA was playing good enough defense to keep State in its half-court offense for at least 15-20 seconds pretty much every time. At that pace, MSU would only have made maybe a dozen trips downcourt to their basket. They would have had to score every time and prevented UCLA from scoring altogether, in order to win. That’s not what happened.

UCLA started to run the clock down, but then  started shooting whenever a player got open. It looked like they were seduced into shooting by some early successes following the decision to slow it down, as players were coming open early in the clock and putting it in the basket. Then they got sloppy. On one possession, UCLA point guard, Malcolm Lee, committed an offensive foul with about 3 seconds on the shot clock. On another possession, at a point when merely keeping the ball probably would have iced the game, he lost the ball through sloppy play. UCLA players were missing open shots. The pace, instead of slowing down, became frenetic, with the teams charging from one end to the other. There was almost no way for that not to work in Michigan State’s favor, and their coach, Tom Izzo, could not hide his gloating. With about four minutes remaining, time stopped. UCLA players kept going to the free throw line and missing. Meanwhile, State scored a few quick, easy baskets. By the weird black magic of basketball, the huge lead became one measly point.

In spite of  Ben Howland’s terrible strategy, if you can call it that, UCLA did manage to pull out a two-point win. I will never understand why Howland did not force his team to take the air out of the ball when they had the chance. He’s a successful coach who has three times taken UCLA to the Final Four. In addition, I was amazed that, while his team’s huge lead dwindled away, none of the announcers were talking about his huge coaching lapse.

I’m not suggesting that it’s easy to hang on to the ball for 30 seconds every time downcourt. The reason UCLA kept going to the line was because of MSU’s desperate defense. On several possessions, however, UCLA would set up high, set screens, and fake toward the basket, as if intending to hold on to the ball, but then they would work toward the basket or take a jump shot. It was the only way that MSU was going to get back into the game and was  frustrating to watch.

Right now, I’m going to see if Michigan, an 8-seed, can beat 9th-seeded Tennessee.

It’s a couple of hours later. Michigan won going away, operating in a style that, coincidentally, drives home the point I made above. With about eight minutes to go in the second half, and up by 20, Michigan began to freeze the ball. On their possessions, they stayed out on the perimeter until, with 10 or 12 seconds on the clock, they would initiate a play. As it happens, of the three or four crucial possessions on which they tried this strategy, they scored on all but one. The clock kept ticking, and Tennessee, desperate for a score, took some ill-advised shots at their end. After only a few trips like that, with Michigan patient and Tennessee wild, it was all over: The clock was down to four minutes and the Wolverines were up by 25. The Michigan coach, John Beilein, understands how to win.

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