It might not sound that impressive, beating UC Davis by only 7 points, but the Aggies were easily one of UCLA's toughest opponents this season, probably a better team than, say, Montana, who UCLA lost to last week.
And the game wasn't as close, really, as the seven-point deficit implies.
The game, though, was won mostly because of the excellent point guard play from both Jones and Jerime Anderson.
Of course, there were other contributing factors – the great rebounding (44-28), the improved focus on defense, Smith's continued assertiveness in the paint, and the fact that Davis obliged and played a man defense instead of a zone for most of the game.
But the difference was the play of Jones and Anderson. And it's not entirely accurate to say the play specifically at the point guard spot because Jones and Anderson are now playing alongside each other for a good amount of minutes. Jones and Anderson weren't just a complementary positive force on the game, but one that was directly responsible for the win. When Davis made a run, it was Anderson and Jones, or a combination of the two, who stemmed the tide with either a key basket or three-pointer, or a good defensive play.
In the second half, when UCLA was going through the inevitable lull of effort and focus, Davis had climbed back into the game and only trailed 50-43 with 11 minutes remaining. Anderson then hit a big three-pointer, got a steal, and on another possession got a rebound and took it the length of the court for a lay-in. That pushed the score to 55-43. Then UCLA unleashed Jones, who supplied a nice dish to Lee on a break, hit a big three with the shot clock expiring, and then went up strong to try to throw down a dunk and was fouled. UCLA was then up 61-47 and had a comfortable lead, which they clearly needed as Davis made a flurry of shots at the end.
We said Anderson played his best game as a Bruin Saturday against Cal Poly, and he now has put together his two best consecutive games of his college career. In the two games he's made 11 assists against just 1 turnover, finding shooters in the halfcourt offense with vision and nice passing. His pass underneath to Lee in the first half was one of the prettiest in recent memory. Jones, while not being as natural a point guard as Anderson, is starting to more and more to play within himself and not force things he's not capable of. His passing has improved, making the solid pass, and his shooting and ability to pull up off one bounce is a weapon. Defensively, both of them performed well, even though they weren't that challenged because if there was a glaring deficit to Davis it was their lack of quickness on the perimeter.
It was, though, particularly encouraging that Anderson and Jones continue to improve and both gain more confidence.
Smith was a force in the middle and will only get more effective as he asserts himself more. UCLA was a different team with him on the court, on both sides of the floor. On offense, when he touches the ball, UCLA's man offense executes and flows. On one possession, Smith caught the ball in the post, was quickly double-teamed, which didn't bother him at all, and then he calmly found a cutting Nelson for an easy lay-up. He kicked out a couple of passes to wide open shooters. And his offensive rebounding (he had 7 in this game) is a weapon itself. A couple of times UCLA hoisted up a shot at the end of the shot clock and Smith merely got the rebound and a putback. Speaking of putbacks, is there a more impressive sight than Smith's big body clearing out the paint, going up and getting an offensive rebound and shaking the rim with a putback dunk? Defensively, too, Smith has clearly improved, moving his feet better and staying in front of his man.
UCLA's rebounding power was clearly a huge factor in the game, and it was a team effort. Smith, as we said, was a force (he finished with 10 boards), but so were Honeycutt (12), Nelson (8) and Lane (6). When UCLA rebounds like it did Monday it's a tough team to beat, with defensive rebounds creating transition opportunities, and offensive rebounds creating easy putback points.
Offensively, as we said, it was fortunate that Davis obviously wasn't comfortable in a zone and played mostly man. UCLA's man offense was exceptional in this game, making the extra pass, getting low-post touches, finding cutters, and taking the high-percentage shot. Even on possessions when UCLA didn't convert it actually executed its offense well. Where UCLA faltered the most offensively was in transition, getting opportunities to run but being unable to capitalize enough, struggling to finish. If UCLA had, in fact, finished a majority of their transition chances they would have beaten Davis by 20.
Defensively, UCLA wasn't fantastic by any means, but improved from its recent defensive efforts. Going against the Princeton-style offense of Davis it's imperative that defenders don't fall asleep, and UCLA for the most part stayed on its toes. There weren't an excessive amount of back-doors, and generally better help defense. Coach Ben Howland looked like he opted for his defenders to sag off their men and cheat back into the key, which opened up shooters, a pretty dangerous thing against a good outside-shooting team like Davis, but it did help with cutting off dribble penetration. UCLA was better at help D, then, and was credited with 7 blocks (5 from Honeycutt) but it seemed like considerably more.
There were some defensive lapses, and mostly from the two same defensive culprits, Honeycutt and Nelson. Nelson struggles with switching on picks, losing his man and his defensive focus. Honeycutt sometimes lacks intensity in his on-ball defense and allows too-easy of dribble penetration. But the lapses were less frequent than in previous games this season, and it did appear that both were trying harder to play defense.
Nelson, to his credit, played a more team-oriented game. He and Honeycutt had a great two-man game going early, which launched UCLA on its 7-0 run at the start. He is looking to make the pass, and finding open teammates. He's also moving well away from the ball.
Honeycutt showed flashes of brilliance, in his rebounding and passing. His dish to a breaking Nelson in transition for a lay-in was beautiful. But Honeycutt also had the most disappointing play of the night. With 2:30 left in the game, UCLA was weathering a late-game push by Davis, with the score 68-56. It was critical that UCLA use all of the shot clock, but Honeycutt took an ill-advised, off-balance three-pointer with 19 seconds left on the shot clock. Davis came back and hit a quick three, and it keyed a min-run that put the game in a bit of jeopardy. It was, in my eyes, Honeycutt clearly putting his own welfare first by trying to pad his stats at the end of the game at the expense of the team. It was disappointing that Howland didn't immediately yank him off the court.
Lee is truly one of the most hot-cold shooters in recent memory. He shot 5-for-7 from three against VCU, then 1-for-11 in his last three games, before shooting 3-for-4 in this one. It's funny, too, because you can almost predict when he's going to shoot well, because he calmly catches and shoots in rhythm and with balance when he shoots well, and is hesitant and forces shots when he doesn't. When UCLA's offense is running screens for him to get him open he definitely benefits, which was greatly a result of UCLA being able to use its man offense rather than its zone offense.
All in all, it was an encouraging effort. As I said, UC Davis is a good team, that would probably finish in the top half of the Pac-10 this season. UCLA was, again, particularly fortunate that Davis isn't comfortable playing a zone defense because UCLA is a different team when it can use its man offense, especially with Smith as the focal point. And especially when it gets such improved guard play from Anderson and Jones.
But, in that one game, that will probably be the most man defense UCLA will see for the rest of the month.