College B-Ball Pretender Watch: UCLA, Clemson

Were we supposed to care about Clemson? The #9 Tigers came into today’s home game at 17-0, one of three remaining unbeaten teams left in the NCAA. Their opponent was one of the other two, Wake Forest, who only had one real hurdle (UNC) on their spotless resume thus far. But the Deacs survived a late run to close out a 78-68 win, having not surrendered the lead over the last 25 minutes of play. Jeff Teague was the man of the match for Wake, racking up 24 big points on just 12 shots from the field (that 13-18 performance from the charity stripe didn’t hurt).

James Johnson Wake Dunk
(Well, that’s probably not what Clemson had in mind.)

If you’re thinking that this situation has the stink of familiarity to Clemson, yes, it does. Recall 2006-07, when the Tiggers started the season 17-0… then fell apart and couldn’t even make the tournament, limping into the NIT at 21-10. The year prior, they jumped out to a 10-0 mark, only to get pushed around in the ACC and finished 17-12. Yes, last year they got off the schneid with a 23-9 mark, but a first-round “upset” by 12-seed Villanova (one that everybody and their mother picked in their pools) delivered the guillotine to Clemson’s season. No telling where the FAIL will come this year, only that it’s coming.

But while the Tigers have a long-running history of failure, one of the decade’s most successful programs has been Ben Howland’s UCLA. The Bruins have been a Final Four machine, making the hallowed semifinals in three straight seasons, something no other team can claim since Duke’s program in the early 90’s. The #7 Bruins were facing their toughest test of the season this afternoon, #15 Arizona State. The Sun Devils, coached by Herb Sendek, controlled the first half but found themselves down 54-42 with 8:12 remaining.

But then UCLA just stopped scoring. No, really, they just plain stopped; coming off the timeout at the aforementioned score, the Bruins didn’t score a single point in regulation as ASU forced overtime at 54-all. Once in the extra frame, the UCLA offense managed just four points, losing 61-58 in front of a stunned Pauley Pavilion audience.

The difference in the UCLA-ASU game came in a tightening of the zone for ASU, who completely shut down UCLA’s perimeter-oriented game. It’s safe to say the Bruins desperately miss center Kevin Love, who’s off putting the “meh” in “Memphis.”

Is UCLA going to make their fourth straight Final Four in 2009? Clearly, not if they feel like making a practice of taking off the last 8 minutes of the game. If all it takes is zone defenses and jumping passing lanes to shut down the UCLA offense (and without a reliable post man, that sounds about right), then we don’t expect them to get to the Sweet 16, much less any further.