So, whew. Got that out of the way.
So, not being able to conclude much, we'll use this game to speculate instead.
Here are some speculative takeaways:
-- UCLA is obviously going to try to score in transition
-- The Bruins are going to have an interesting year shooting the ball from the outside
-- Offense will probably not be as much of an issue this season as defense
-- UCLA doesn't have enough depth to afford a significant injury
Really, those are all of the points we made in our season preview. Let's start with the transition game. There were a few things to consider when watching the Bruins definitely making a more concerted effort to get out in transition. First, it's fun to watch. Secondly, UCLA has a good number of guys who don't only like to finish in transition but enjoy passing in transition. When you have good passers like Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee out on a break besides your point guards it makes for some great transitional passing. The Westmont coach, John Moore (who is Steve Lavin's brother-in-law, by the way), said: "Our guys got fatigued with how well they (UCLA) ran the floor." That's a great thing, but only if it doesn't necessarily tire out your own team. It also leaves you to wonder what would happen to the scoring if a good defensive team rotates back a few players and takes away UCLA's transition. UCLA scored 26 fast-break points in this game. Without those, the score is 69-59 against Westmont. If UCLA continues to get scoring in bunches through transition you can bet opposing teams are going to do everything they can to take it away.
That leads us to UCLA's half-court offense. Overall, the team is "raw," meaning in this case that it is fundamentally sloppy, on both offense and defense. It's expected, with such a young team. There were a lot of poor screens, lazy, one-hand passes, dribbling into nowhere, etc. The execution of Howland's plays were substandard, both against Westmont's man D and its zone. Without much attention to detail it will make your halfcourt offense suffer when you play against a real defense with real, D-1, experienced athletes. Of course, it's the first game of the season and there is some "rawness" to be expected, especially again for such a young team. Many fans are pointing to the 2-for-23 three-point shooting for the night and that is a bit of a worry but not necessarily the primary worry offensively. UCLA has enough offensive weapons where it doesn't really have to rely on its outside shooting to carry it offensively, but it does need to execute plays with more attention to detail and discipline.
The offense had a few good possessions where it executed well, particularly one where Jerime Anderson fed Brendan Lane a pass at the high post and he dropped it down to a posted-up Anthony Stover who laid it in nicely.
Despite not shooting well from the outside it didn't necessarily struggle more against the Westmont's zone than it did against its man D. UCLA had guys flashing to the top of the key, catching the ball and then looking to pass or shoot. One of Tyler Honeycutt's best possessions was when he did just that, caught the ball and made an under-control, pretty jumper from about 15.
If you want to worry, though, the offense probably won't be the issue this season. Yes, they'll probably not be the best outside shooting team. But there are enough weapons in the arsenal, with Honeycutt, Lee, Reeves Nelson, and Josh Smith, to put points on the board some way. Yes, there will be times when the scoring bogs down, but if you're prioritizing your worry you should probably save most of it for UCLA's defense.
Compensating for the fact that this is an NAIA team without really one D-1 athlete, you'd have to say that the defense didn't dominate as it should have. There were many issues, but the primary one is UCLA defenders being unable to stay in front of the ball. Jerime Anderson, the guy who couldn't do it last season, couldn't stay with Westmont's moderately quick, 5-9 point guard Niko Brooks, and Anderson was probably having scary flashbacks to last season. But it wasn't just Anderson; Lazeric Jones, Honeycutt and Nelson all couldn't stay in front of dribble drives. Again, remember, these are average NAIA players on these dribble drives, so, taking that into consideration, this would be your primary concern with this team coming away from the Westmont game. The excuse that we heard – that Westmont's Princeton-type offense created some backdoors, which was true – really wasn't the issue. The issue was staying in front of your man who had the ball in his hand. Now, perhaps UCLA was a bit jacked up and over-extended in their defense, which Howland pointed out in his post-game comments. Perhaps they'll calm down in the upcoming games and give their man a bit of space. So, perhaps Honeycutt and Nelson will improve, but Howland's offense is predicated on pressuring the opposing point guard so it's vital that either Jones or Anderson can do that and not allow their guy to blow around them, which they weren't able to do Thursday. Overall, the team is fundamentally a long ways away from playing the kind of tight, disciplined man-to-man defense we used to see from a Ben Howland UCLA team.
In the middle of the game, Greg Hicks texted me, and said, "I miss the days when UCLA defended guys."
Nelson led UCLA in scoring and rebounding, with 20 and 12. We only remember one basket by Nelson that wasn't a dunk, which isn't necessarily a good thing. While it's great that he's getting scoring in transition – where almost all of the dunks came from – we would have like to see him show more in the half-court offense. Perhaps the most disappointing Nelson moment was when he caught the ball in the block and, instead of backing his man down and going strong to the basket like he did all last season, he attempted a fall-away jumper that clanged off. He also attempted one three-pointer from about 23 feet. He also led the team in turnovers, with 4. A few of those came when he had gotten a defensive rebound and, instead of passing the ball up on the break, he decided to put it on the floor and do it himself, and the ball was stripped away. It sounds like he has the green light to do this, so it should be an adventure this season. The punky attitude also flared a couple of times, one time at a ref and another time when he was arguing with Howland.
Honeycutt had a disappointing performance. The best way to describe it is: It seems that, with Howland wanting to get out and break, Honeycutt has taken this as a bit of an endorsement to play street ball. While there were some good passes, there were a few sloppy ones. There were some ill-advised shots (going 1-4 from three) and, mostly, the issue was on defense. The entire team was reaching instead of moving their feet, and Honeycutt was the primary culprit.
Lee has always been a bit out of control but, to his credit, he is getting more under control in increments, and if you're actually taking anything away from this game about Lee, you could say this was another increment in that direction. Lee had 12 points, with 7 assists and no turnovers, and 5 steals. As you would expect, he's the guy most capable of staying in front of his man on defense, and he's now one of the most under-control on offense.
If we're talking under control, Jones' performance was impressive. For his first time in a UCLA uniform you'd think he could be too jacked up, but he played with poise. He did allow that pesky Niko Brooks to go around him a few times, but he supplied better on-ball defense than did Anderson. While he missed a few shots, they were good shots to take, and he did hit a three and a nice, under-control, mid-range pull-up. He's not a passer like many of the other guys on the team – like Anderson and Honeycutt (which is a bit of an irony since Jones is your point guard) – but he might not have to be. UCLA could get some nice assists from everyone else while, on the defensive side, Jones' job is to pressure the opposing point guard.
Anderson, despite struggling to stay in front of Brooks, did everything else fairly well. He, too, hit an under-control mid-range jumper and actually had the two best finishes at the basket on the night, one being a leaping scoop shot that he banked off the glass.
With both Anderson and Jones, we'll see if not being able to stay in front of Brooks is actually an indication that they'll struggle at on-ball defense for the season, or if Brooks is actually difficult to stay in front of.
Smith only played the first half and he looked like what you would expect – just too big of a body for Westmont to be able to contain. He had 9 points and 4 rebounds in 8 minutes. All of his four rebounds were offensive, and he got a couple of nice putbacks on them, basically because there is no way any of the 220-pound Westmont players are going to be able to block him out. When Smith didn't play due to the sprained right thumb in the second half, though, UCLA didn't stand out physically against Westmont. It seemed that UCLA suddenly became a team of 220-pound guys itself. In other words, UCLA can't afford to lose Smith for any prolonged period of time. He is, truly, the difference maker, perhaps not in scoring or anything that necessarily shows up on the stat sheet, but being able to physically be superior to UCLA's opponents. Howland subbed him quite a bit, obviously to keep him fresh, and, if he isn't injured, you can probably expect him to play 20-25 minutes. Fairly encouraging, too, was Smith's good stroke from the free-throw line (he shot 3 of 5, but the stroke looked solid).
What was encouraging was the play of the back-up posts, Anthony Stover and Brendan Lane. Again, they were playing against NAIA players and should be superior, but it's reassuring that they were. Stover showed some offense, mostly in being able to get position down low, scoring 8 points. He had five rebounds, blocked four shots with his long reach and played perhaps some of the best defense from any Bruin on the floor. He was good in his man D and very good in his help defense, sliding over to contest many shots. Lane, while he didn't score, did many little things that were impressive. Namely, he has the quickest feet of any of UCLA's bigs and is most able to stay in front of his man. He also looked stronger in pulling down rebounds, finishing with 6, and with him and Stover in the middle, they were hunting blocks. We think some scoring will come from him in the flow of the offense, in much the same way Stover got his points in this game.
Tyler Lamb, as a freshman, had some freshman moments, with a couple of poor turnovers, but he also showed some considerable ability. He made a couple of nice plays on offense, one a nice up-and-under finish, and he looked active on defense.
Freshman Matt Carlino also had a good showing. There were some Westmont wings his size so the match-up worked for him. With the rest of the team reaching on defense, it was refreshing to see him move his feet to stay in front of his man, and he did it decently. On offense, too, he clearly looks more fundamentally sound than many other Bruins, with nice chest passes, catching the ball and going right to the triple threat, and making the nice, smart pass. He had two nice assists.
It's funny – you could notice a difference in the sharpness fundamentally when guys like Stover, Lane, Carlino, Lamb and even Jones and Anderson were in the game. Of course, they're not as effective as Honeycutt and Nelson but when they're in it was clearly more disciplined basketball as opposed to street ball.
Again, you can't take too much from this since it was just an exhibition. You certainly shouldn't take that, because UCLA blew out Westmont by 36 points, UCLA is a juggernaut. And you probably can't conclude that some of the issues we pointed out will be chronic throughout the season. If you, though, wanted to narrow down your concern, it's pretty safe to say that staying in front of the ball defensively is going to be something UCLA will have to solve if it hopes to be successful this season.