If there was one moment that was indicative of the sea change with these two teams, it came with a few minutes to go in the first half, when UCLA went on a run of fast break scoring to the point where Arizona had to slow the game down, walking the ball up the court.
Imagine UCLA out fast-breaking Arizona six years ago.
In beating Arizona last night, UCLA got its best win of the season, taking down a quality team on the road in a very hostile environment. While we don't think the Wildcats are as good as their lofty ranking coming into the game, they have enough talent, and college basketball is bad enough this year, that you could reasonably expect them to finish the year in the top-20. Considering that the Bruins really had to win this game to stay in the hunt for the conference race (given that Oregon has a very easy schedule the rest of the way), it was even more of an impressive win.
What's more, the game didn't hinge on the freshmen completely taking over. If you were to look at the game, obviously, Shabazz Muhammad stands out, especially for those first five minutes where he looked unstoppable on offense. But Larry Drew guided the offense very effectively throughout the second half, and David Wear, who's been relegated to backup minutes this year, played well in the absence of his brother, and looked more dedicated on the defensive glass than either has looked at any point this season. It certainly was a team effort, especially offensively, with even Tony Parker hitting the most unexpected turnaround jumper in the history of mankind (if Bill won't say it, I will).
Once again, UCLA showed that its Early Offense is by far the strongest aspect of the team, and on Thursday, it was on display from the opening tip. Muhammad, as Bill Walton pointed out ad nauseum, was exceptional to start the game, hitting almost every shot he took, including a couple of difficult looking floaters. The offense as a whole was flowing well, which could in large part be attributed to the sheer number of missed shots that Arizona had. The Wildcats were very bad around the hoop all night, but particularly so in the first half, missing several easy layups around the rim, and even missing putbacks and tip ins. When the opposing team misses a large number of shots, UCLA's offense becomes almost devastating, with its ability to quickly get the ball up the court to finishers like Muhammad and Jordan Adams.
That opening minutes set the tone for the game and, with an early lead that stretched to 18 points, the Bruins never trailed after going down 1-0 to start the game. Arizona did make several runs that cut the lead to four and five at various points, usually due to sloppy play on the offensive end or some porous/fatigued play on the defensive end. Kyle Anderson was guilty a few times of being very sloppy with the basketball offensively, which he does seem to be prone to from time to time.
Really, the main issue of the game for the Wildcats is that they don't really have a point guard. Mark Lyons, who's filling in, doesn't have a great feel or a great handle, and he got picked on by UCLA's defense at times, with several drives to the hoop ending in turnovers because of the Bruins' long armed defenders. Without a true point guard, the Arizona offense has the feel of a team that doesn't mesh particularly well, with several players just trying to take care of scoring one-on-one.
That actually makes it more amazing that the Wildcats didn't try to isolate Solomon Hill on Shabazz Muhammad more. Arguably the most effective play of the game was when Hill just backed Muhammad under the hoop and scored his first points of the game on a layup. Muhammad did do a decent job of denial at times, but there didn't seem to be a concerted effort on the part of the Wildcats to get Hill the ball.
With Travis Wear out for the second half with a concussion and Jordan Adams sitting down for about ten minutes with cramps, UCLA was down to a six man rotation, and obviously fatigue looked like it became a factor. In the last ten minutes or so, Larry Drew really started to get fatigued on defense, and started looping way under screens, which caused huge breakdowns in the defensive rotations. He's been prone to this at times this year, and it could have caused more significant issues if the game hadn't turned into a foul-fest at that point.
Jordan Adams had one of his better games recently, taking just one three and instead scoring mostly from the mid-range and in transition. He has such a nice touch closer to the basket that even having the threat of his three point shot might not be worth camping him out on the perimeter.
While he wasn't particularly efficient on offense, David Wear filled in as best he could for his brother. He looked much more active on both ends of the court than he has this season, although he still seems to get lost on rotations at times. His post defense wasn't bad against the younger, more athletic posts from Arizona, but he (and Travis) didn't provide much interior presence on the drives from Arizona early on in the game.
Of course, the complexion of the game could have changed easily if the Wildcats were able to hit, really, any of those early layups that they missed. After those first six minutes, it was really a pretty even game, with both teams scoring fairly quickly and easily on both ends. The big difference in the game, again, was UCLA's transition offense, and it was devastating in those opening minutes. If the Bruins can rebound on defense like that, and force a decent amount of missed shots, then it's hard to see many teams shutting the offense down.
Credit has to be given to UCLA's post players, who seemed much more dedicated to actually snaring rebounds on the defensive end. There was actually a play early in the first half where Arizona missed another fairly makeable basket and David Wear, who was boxing out his man, actually left his man to go after the ball about ten feet away. Much like his brother talked about after the game against Oregon, they're usually so committed to boxing out that they need to remember to go out and actually get the ball. Kyle Anderson, although he didn't have a great game, was his usual exceptional self on the glass, using his long arms and big hands to pull down a number of baskets.
This game obviously puts UCLA clearly in the No. 2 slot in conference. Although the Bruins don't get another shot at Oregon, the Ducks still have to play Washington a couple of times, as well as go on the trip to Colorado and Utah, which can be difficult no matter what the quality of the teams. If UCLA can get through the conference slate with just two more losses, the Bruins should have a good chance to still win the conference.
Regardless, though, for RPI purposes and overall tournament resume, this win was big. It was also arguably one of UCLA's bigger road victories of the New Howland Era. Now, with a win on Saturday, UCLA will be 7-1 in conference, with only one difficult road trip left on the schedule up in Washington. Despite the loss to Oregon last Saturday, the Bruins has a chance to right the ship and still make a run at the conference title if they don't slip up in a winnable game.