Coach Howland said after the game that the first half was the Bruins' best half of the season to date and it clearly was. Pacific isn't a great team, but they are clearly better than the previous opponents and the Bruins had little trouble building a 40-24 lead. And yet it still didn't feel like UCLA was close to top form. They didn't have Lee, and Josh Smith played very limited minutes with foul trouble. At halftime a friend said to me, "You know a team has a chance to be good when they're up 16 and it doesn't even feel like they're playing great yet." As I wrote in my previous review, that's what is exciting about this team. They're winning pretty easily against the teams they should beat, but they have a lot of room for growth. Of course, having potential and actually realizing it are two very different things. But at least you can see the possibility of a much better team by the second half of Pac-10 play.
On Monday night the Bruins didn't come ready to play against a bad Pepperdine team and they struggled for almost an entire half. In this game, though, it was clear that UCLA had much more respect for Pacific. The Bruins were much more focused at both ends of the court and played with a purpose. Tyler Honeycutt was shooting the ball well from the perimeter and Reeves Nelson dominated inside against the UOP big men. Pacific tried to play both zone and man, but it didn't seem to matter which defense they were in as the Bruins generally got high-percentage shots.
At the defensive end of the court, the Bruins had a couple of nice sequences where they had good rotations. Honeycutt, in particular, did a good job of challenging shots a few times on help situations. The Bruins didn't allow a lot of open shots and generally stayed in front of the ball pretty well. The Tigers have one very good player in all-conference center Sam Willard, but Brendan Lane did a good job on him early, blocking a couple shots (and getting robbed of another on a bad foul call). Lane is clearly the Bruins best post defender right now, both in terms of guarding his own man and also playing team defense. The perimeter defense was pretty solid as well, with Lazeric Jones, Tyler Lamb and Jerime Anderson all doing a good job.
As I said, though, there were some negatives in this game. In the second half, the Bruins lost their focus early (even before they got tired) and missed some easy shots while also breaking down a bit on defense. Fortunately for UCLA, the Tigers missed a ton of very easy shots in the second half. Coach Howland mentioned that the Bruins held UOP to 25% shooting, but that stat is very misleading. This was not a dominating defensive effort by UCLA for forty minutes. We've all seen dominating UCLA defense for forty minutes (against teams far better than UOP) and this performance was nothing close to great defense. In fact, that UOP shooting percentage could have been well over 40%, with UCLA losing the game, if UOP hadn't missed a number of open shots. Of course, the Bruins also missed some easy shots in the second half as well.
One of the big concerns for this Bruin squad is how they respond to adversity. They were, frankly, terrible in that department last season and it remains to be seen how they react this year. Reeves Nelson is one of their best scorers and rebounders, but his defensive effort, even in the best of times, is mediocre. When things go poorly for him, whether it's a bad call or missing a shot, his head goes down, the shoulders slump and he stops competing. He also has terrible body language when his teammates make mistakes. That can be a chemistry killer on a team. You can't have one of your best players start pointing fingers when things go bad or stop competing when he doesn't get a call. Coach Howland's ability to correct this behavior is a big key to the season, as Nelson is clearly going to play a huge role on this team.
Nelson, however, wasn't the only Bruin that didn't react well last night to the second half offensive struggles. The entire team seemed to lose its sharpness, as they seemed willing to rest on their lead and just do enough to come away with the victory. That might work against UOP in Pauley (although it wouldn't have if the Tigers made open shots). But it certainly won't work against most of the teams in the Pac-10. The Bruins have to learn that they need to keep playing hard even when things aren't going well. There's definitely a bit of a front-runner mentality with this team and that needs to change. You can't be excited to play defense, or get back in transition, only when your shots are falling. Playing hard all the time needs to become a habit.
Tyler Honeycutt had a terrific all-around game for the Bruins, despite committing a few turnovers in the second half. His shot was falling early and he dominated the defensive boards in the second half when UOP was trying to rally. It was especially encouraging to see him as active as he was in help defense situations. Honeycutt is a terrific weak-side shot blocker and the Bruins really need that aspect of his game.
Despite getting into a bit of a funk in the second half, Reeves Nelson played a very good game overall. UOP had no answer for him inside in the first half and he rebounded very well for the game. His defense was a bit shaky at times, but it was better than it has been previously. And one very pleasant surprise this season has been his passing out of the post. Last year Nelson would just put his down and barrel to the basket, often turning the ball over or taking a bad shot. This season he's doing a much better job of being patient, assessing the defense and kicking the ball out to an open teammate. He also made a couple nice decisions in transition with the ball where he pulled up for a shot or passed when there was no open lane. And he knocked down a couple of perimeter shots in the first half, including his second three (in three attempts) for the season.
Brendan Lane hasn't scored a lot of points in the last couple games, but he's probably been the most "solid" player for the Bruins. He rarely makes a mistake, he does all the little things right, he doesn't force things and he's the Bruins best defender. He's now 3-3 on his three-point attempts and the Bruins probably need to find a way to get him more open looks.
Josh Smith's foul trouble was frustrating, as a couple of the calls appeared to be a bit questionable. His right thumb is clearly still not right, as the ball isn't coming off his hand real well when he shoots it. He's also rushing things a bit when he gets the ball inside. But his effort level has been good overall and he's just going through some normal growing pains right now for a big freshman post player. When his thumb heels, he adapts to the college game, and learns how the officials call the game, I expect Smith to take a big leap forward in his progress. Once he gets regular minutes, and continues to get in better shape, he's going to become a much bigger part of the puzzle for the Bruins.
Lazeric Jones had a very nice first half, but the second half really showed a few of his deficiencies. As we've said, he's not a naturally good distributor of the ball. He had a couple nice passes to Honeycutt and Lane for lay-ups but, overall, he doesn't have great vision and he's not a particularly good passer. When the Bruin offense stalled for a long stretch in the second half, part of it was due to Jones' inability to make a play for his teammates. He's pretty good at penetrating the lane in transition to create for himself, but he's not a natural passer. Fatigue definitely played a factor in his struggles, as he had a couple shaky turnovers and his transition defense suffered as well. He's certainly been an upgrade for the Bruins at point guard, but a few good games against bad to mediocre competition does not a season make. When the Bruins begin to play good teams, Jones needs to show that he can continue to defend the ball, limit his turnovers and just be solid.
Neither Jerime Anderson or Tyler Lamb did much at the offensive end, but both played very good defense. Lamb didn't shoot the ball much after a bad shooting night Monday, but he made the pass of the night on an assist to Nelson in transition. And Lamb's defense has been good all year. It's unusual to see a freshman defend the way Lamb has so far. Hopefully, he can grow into that role of defensive stopper that the Bruins previously had with Arron Afflalo and Russell Westbrook.
Anderson's struggles staying in front of the ball have been well documented, but he's been much better in the last couple games. He isn't shooting the ball with any confidence, but he did have a solid game otherwise with four assists, only one turnover, a couple steals (of which only one was credited) and a block. Anderson is playing more aggressive defense this so far, with active hands in help situations, and that needs to be a continued focus for him. He's not going to be a big scorer for this team, but if he can limit his turnovers and be solid on defense Coach Howland will be much more willing to give Jones a breather when he needs it.
Each win this season so far has given fans some reason for cautious optimism and the UOP game was another step in that direction. However, the Bruins haven't played any good teams yet and it remains to be seen if they're going to be successful against quality teams and not just dominate the bad to mediocre teams. Next week's trip to New York, with games against Villanova and either VCU or Tennessee, will give us a much better understanding of just how good this Bruin team might be.