Commentary

Portland trouncing leaves UCLA stunned

Originally Published: November 26, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- On Thursday night, Portland pounded UCLA in the most lopsided loss of Ben Howland's seven-year tenure in Westwood. Yet after it was over, the question that may dog both programs for the rest of the season is this: Was it a quality win?

For the upstart Pilots, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone associated with the program who didn't believe that beating UCLA 74-47 in the quarterfinals of the 76 Classic at the Anaheim Convention Center was a significant win for the program.

"It's huge for us," said Portland athletic director Larry Williams, whose program is 4-0 for the first time in 14 years. "They wouldn't have recruited a single player off our roster, but we would have taken all of theirs. We'll see how good they're going to be, but it's a big win for us."

Therein lies a problem for Portland in its quest to earn an NCAA tournament at-large berth (if it doesn't win the West Coast Conference tournament) and an even larger issue for the Bruins: If beating UCLA by 27 points isn't necessarily a quality win, just how bad is UCLA?

[+] EnlargeReeves Nelson
AP Photo/Jason RedmondEverywhere UCLA looked, there seemed to be at least two Portland defenders.

It's still early, but the numbers don't speak fondly. The Bruins shot just 33 percent against Portland, and their 47 points was the lowest total under Howland -- and tied for the program's worst offensive outing of the entire decade.

Want more? According to ESPN Stats & Information, the 27-point loss was tied for the program's worst against an unranked nonconference opponent -- in any decade. Only a 1964 loss at Illinois was as bad.

Sure, UCLA can hide behind losing Jrue Holiday to the NBA draft after one season -- the coaches expected the combo guard to be in Westwood for two seasons. And yes, not having any continuity in the preseason because of injuries to a number of players, including one that continues to linger (a stress reaction in the right tibia to Tyler Honeycutt) didn't help. A two-game suspension to Nikola Dragovic didn't, either.

But isn't there a more global issue with this squad?

Just two seasons removed from a third straight Final Four appearance, the Bruins opened the season with a stunning home loss to Cal State Fullerton, a team projected to finish the season in the bottom third of the Big West.

"I'm disappointed that we're 2-2, not 4-0," Howland said. "We've got a long way to go. Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee were highly recruited guys, and they're not playing well."

Howland said there are people in Lee's ear telling him he's a pro -- now. Against the Pilots, Lee was 4-of-12 from the field for 14 points. Anderson was 1-of-4 for five points. Howland said Anderson lacks confidence and is taking too many errant shots.

"We've got to get guys to understand who they are and play within themselves," Howland said.

But there's even more to this drama. The Bruins suddenly have lost their Howland-like edge. His Pitt and UCLA teams of the past mimicked his gritty style, grinding out wins defensively. Yet the defense the Bruins put forth in losing to Cal State Fullerton and then to Portland has been subpar.

Portland can shoot well and proved it by making 11-of-19 3s and shooting 54.2 percent overall. Jared Stohl, who made all five of the 3s he attempted, said it felt as though he was "throwing rocks in the ocean," it was so easy.

"This proved that all of the time flipping tires in the summer paid off," Portland coach Eric Reveno said. "I'm proud of this win against a great program."

But even Reveno had to acknowledge this isn't the same UCLA by adding that it was a "program in transition."

The Bruins are now in the consolation bracket of the 76 Classic, where they'll face 10th-ranked Butler on Friday around midnight ET. If UCLA doesn't beat the Bulldogs, it'll play in the Sunday brunch-hour, seventh-place game, more than likely against Long Beach State.

"We've got to come back with pride and passion and start building for [Friday]," Howland said. "You can see we've got all these young kids and had only 20-something practices.

"We're in a tough bracket right now, playing the 10th-ranked team in the country. My big thing is we have to play with a lot of pride and emotion, win or lose. We've got to play so that you can see that on the floor by diving on the floor, taking charges and winning the battle of the boards, doing the gritty things."

UCLA senior James Keefe had a nervous laugh in the postgame news conference late Thursday night when he said that the seniors had to jump-start the effort Howland desires. That means he, Michael Roll and Dragovic need to pick up the intensity and lead by example.

[+] EnlargeBen Howland
AP Photo/Jason RedmondThe 74-47 loss was the worst margin of defeat and the lowest point total in the Ben Howland era.

Sophomore forward Drew Gordon said he didn't know how everything had gone so far south, "but we've got to find out."

At the postgame news conference, Howland stood up and answered the tough questions, saying that losing players early to the NBA draft has made it hard to plan. But he tried not to make an excuse out of it. The Bruins knew Kevin Love was a one-and-done. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute caught them off guard by leaving one season early, but he would have been gone before this season. Holiday hurt more than any other because the Bruins' staff was convinced he would stick around.

But would Holiday alone have made the difference? He would have provided some scoring pop and helped defensively for sure, but he still might not have masked all the issues.

"We've got to do a lot of soul-searching in the next 22 hours," Howland said.

The Bruins will follow this tournament with a home game against top-ranked Kansas next weekend and still have to go to Notre Dame in December. The Pac-10 won't provide the power-rating boost this season with so many teams struggling, meaning the Bruins could be headed for a March without an NCAA tournament berth.

As for Portland, it needs UCLA to be better than it showed Thursday night. The Pilots beat Oregon at home earlier this season, but then the Ducks lost to Montana. The Pilots could use a win over No. 16 Minnesota in Friday's semifinals to ensure they get a win over an NCAA tournament-bound team. Portland goes to Washington later this month as well.

Dan Guerrero, UCLA's athletic director and the chair of the NCAA Division I men's basketball committee, said during the game that each win matters in the nonconference slate, but they do take on a different value if the teams aren't performing as well later in the season.

Still, the win over UCLA helps Portland's credibility as it tries to get out from under Gonzaga's long shadow in the WCC.

"What this shows is that we can play, too," Stohl said.

That's true. But it also puts the Bruins in a light that makes you wonder not where Portland would finish in the Pac-10, but rather, where this UCLA team would finish in the WCC.

Let's remember, this is a league that features Maui Invitational champ Gonzaga, a Saint Mary's team that has barely missed a beat without Patty Mills, a San Diego team that already has beaten Stanford and Oklahoma and a Portland team that has easily dispatched two Pac-10 opponents.

Would those same Bruins we saw Thursday night finish any higher than fifth in the WCC?

That's something few, if any, would have pondered during the preseason.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com