After a disappointing 4-8 football season, and then a 3-4 start to the basketball season and a loss to Montana, which made an NCAA tournament bid look unlikely, UCLA fans didn't have much to cheer about.
There was Black Friday. There were six losses between the football and basketball teams in 12 days.
But then UCLA basketball climbed back into a competitive season by beating BYU Saturday in the Wooden Classic, 86-79.
It was the best game performed by a UCLA football or basketball team this season. There were huge implications in the game (if UCLA lost it would make it unlikely they'd have a chance at the NCAA tournament), and the Bruins played exceedingly well and with intensity, beating the #16 team in the country in a game that felt like an NCAA Tournament game itself.
It was probably the best win by any basketball team in the Pac-10 so far this season, too.
So many things that the UCLA basketball team has been trying to put together came together Saturday. Its zone offense clicked as well as its man offense; it exploited its superior passing ability as a team; it took care of the ball and limited turnovers; and it got the ball inside to the guy who is clearly the difference-maker, Josh Smith.
UCLA in recent years has always struggled to feed the post. Whether it was because its perimeter players weren't good at it or too selfish, the ball just didn't get touched by UCLA's bigs enough. UCLA had perhaps the most skilled post player to come out of high school in the last decade – Kevin Love – and it still didn't get him enough touches.
But this year's team, probably through a combination of being collectively talented post feeders and unselfish, knows how this all works: Feed the big dog. UCLA's zone and man offense operated well in this game because its players worked hard to get Smith and Reeves Nelson a touch in the post. Not only did they score in the post (Smith had 15 and Nelson had a team-high 23), but they create easy baskets for others when they touch it. They find cutters and kick it back out to shooters for open looks. After so many years of watching UCLA's offense either really struggle, at the worst, or at the best still not quite operate optimally, you finally now are able to see it work the way it's supposed to work.
And it makes for pretty basketball.
For a coach that has been given the label that his team plays "ugly" at times, Ben Howland certainly has an offense that, when it executes the way it did Saturday, is one of the prettiest I've seen in college basketball this season. Recruits might be impressed with an offense that has players running and gunning up and down the court, but the type of offense UCLA displayed against BYU is truly the one they'd want to play in, a structured one designed to flourish when teammates make the extra pass and find cutters for dunks and shooters for wide-open threes. UCLA had 17 assists in this game and that was with both of its point guards getting none. That's not a slight on Lazeric Jones or Jerime Anderson, who both played good games and passed the ball well, but it's a testament to the fact that UCLA is a great passing team, getting 17 assists from non-point guards.
Smith is the difference-maker. UCLA is a different team with him on the court. On offense, so far this season there hasn't really been anyone who can defend him when he catches the ball in the post, and it's unlikely there are too many post defenders out there in college basketball who can. Defensively he's such a huge presence in the paint that it changes the way opposing defenses execute their offense. Plus, he's becoming a very good post defender and the best on the team at taking charges. He's also getting good at hedging, and even forcing turnovers out of it (that last pick on Jimmer Fredette by Smith was priceless). The key, as we all know, is keeping Smith on the court. He's prone to foul trouble, and sometimes by no fault himself, but merely getting calls go against him "because he's big." You have to give Howland a huge amount of credit for managing his big boy well in this game, subbing him in and out very effectively. In the second half, after BYU had made its run with Smith on the bench, Howland's subbing, using him during offensive sequences when UCLA needed to stem the BYU tide, but then taking him out for periods to minimize his chances of getting that fifth foul, was a true key to the game. Also give Smith credit for playing under control with four fouls.
In perhaps the most critical sequence in the game, BYU had pulled to within two points, 61-59, with about 10 minutes left in the game, and then Smith comes into the game and takes control. BYU had gone on an 11-0 run, but then Tyler Lamb feeds Smith the ball in the post for a lay-in. Smith then takes a charge from Jimmer Fredette on the other end. Jones hits a big three. And then Smith gets another post feed from Lamb, he goes up and is fouled (what should have been an intentional foul by Logan Magnusson, by the way). Smith stays composed and hits one free throw. BYU gets a basket, and then Lamb uncannily feeds Smith again in the post for another lay-in and UCLA goes back up 69-61. Smith then draws a foul on Magnusson again on the defensive end.
UCLA then had a very pretty possession. In this game there were probably four or five UCLA possessions that consisted of a series of quick, one-touch passes, and UCLA got a big one. Lamb feeds Smith in the post, who finds Tyler Honeycutt cutting on the baseline who then finds Lane cutting to the basket. Again, for all the recruits out there, this is the kind of offense you'd want to play in.
Jones then feeds Smith again, and he gets fouled going up, and makes both free throws. It's 73-65, with now 6 minutes left in the game, and Howland takes out Smith so he doesn't pick up his fourth foul on the defensive end, since BYU was going into its post player Brandon Davies on every possession, trying to draw Smith's fifth foul.
UCLA, through this sequence of a few minutes, weathered the BYU storm, mostly through Smith playing phenomenally with four fouls and converting on the offensive end when it had gone through a dry spell. It did so by getting Smith touches in the post, with Lamb the star post-feeder.
While Smith was the difference-maker, in the way he so completely impacts the game, Honeycutt is the guy who keeps UCLA in the game from possession to possession when Smith can't. Honeycutt had a particularly good game, with 17 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assist and only 2 turnovers. He also played the most consistently active defense he has in any game this season. When UCLA was struggling at the beginning of the game, it was Honeycutt who kept them close. He also is looking more and more like that NBA player with the way he pulls up from three or on his mid-range balanced and squared, as opposed to what he did at the beginning of the season when he took more off-balanced, mis-timed shots. And he's clearly taking better care of the ball. He is a key cog to the Extra-Pass Posse that has become UCLA's offense.
Nelson had one of his better games, finding his scoring touch after averaging just 9 points in the last four outings. Give him a great deal of credit for playing far more under control and composed on both ends of the court. He did hurt the Bruins in that second-half sequence when BYU made its run, trying to kick a ball out of a Cougar's hands, and then practically tackling a three-point shooter, which gave BYU three free throws to pull them to within 61-59. But in this game, Nelson did enough to counter some of his mistakes, converting on the offensive end when UCLA needed a big basket. And, having always been a good passer, he gave up the ball and made some exceptional passes to his teammates in both the half-court and open-court offense.
Also having good games were Jones, Anderson, Lane and Lamb.
Jones is settling in, having recognized the things he does best rather than forcing others. He is proving to be a good outside shooter (38% from three on the season, and 50% in the last three games), and particularly clutch; is solid now in the offense and making less turnovers (only 7 in the last 4 games), and is jump-stopping and driving with more control.
Anderson had another very good game, having now put together easily the best three-game series of his UCLA career. He is instrumental in the offense's execution, and has become an offensive threat with his shooting and ability to penetrate. His crossover at the end of the first half displayed the type of quickness Anderson is capable of, that has been greatly non-existent because of a lack of confidence. He has become a good defender, not just on-ball, but help defender, and leads the team in steals.
Lane had five points, five rebounds and two assists, and played solid on-ball defense.
Lamb, as we said, really facilitated UCLA stemming the BYU tide, staying composed and knowing he had to get Smith the ball in the post during that critical sequence. He does so many little things well, not just passing the ball and feeding the post, but knowing when to utilize his very effective pump fake.
And then you have to give a huge amount of credit to Malcolm Lee, who had 9 points, and a very impressive 7 assists against just one turnover. He continues to play more under control , and make the smart pass. While Fredette finished with 25 points, it was a pretty quiet 25 (just 8 in the second half), with Lee doing an exceptional job of defending him. Fredette looked out-of-sync for most of the game, many times taking off-balanced shots, almost entirely due to Lee's harassing on-ball defense.
The team has bought in to its offense, both man and zone. BYU probably didn't use enough zone against the Bruins, but the Bruins seemed to be just as good against BYU's zone as its man defense, mostly because it's attacking both with passing and penetration. UCLA aggressively went at BYU's zone in this game, posting up its bigs, moving the ball around crisply and then with penetration, instead of settling for shooting over it. Even when UCLA went through its offensive drought in the second half it was still executing effectively on offense, getting inside looks that they just couldn't convert (or couldn't get a call on from the refs).
As I said, there were a number of times in this game when the offense was a thing of beauty. It stems from an unselfishness and then a team-full of guys who are good passers. It culminated in this game when, with a minute or so left, Honeycutt found a cutting Nelson for a big dunk to seal the deal.
Then, also, a huge key in this game was also converting free throws. If you're going to get touches for your bigs, it's key that they're able to convert their free throws, and Smith's 7-of-9 from the line was greatly instrumental in the game.
While the Bruins' offense looked like a Sweet 16 team against BYU, its defense didn't. It's improving, yes, with generally a better effort in staying in front of the ball. But if there are two primary aspects of the team that are holding it back from being very good it would be transition defense and help defense. It's uncanny how UCLA allows easy baskets in transition merely because it won't hustle back, or players won't find their man. Then, it's even more mind-boggling how many easy baskets UCLA gives up – particularly in the BYU game -- because its bigs simply won't step over and provide help when there's dribble penetration. BYU shot 53% from the field, and 61% in the first half, because UCLA simply allowed too many uncontested lay-ups when a Bruin big should have stepped over and provided help. There were even a couple of times when UCLA's ball pressure forced a dribble drive along the baseline, which is exactly what you want it to do, but a UCLA big failed to step over and trap the dribble-driver and allowed an easy lane to the basket. Every UCLA big was guilty of poor help defense in this game.
Again, there are going to be times when the offense doesn't flow like it did against BYU. There will be times even when it executes well but can't convert (like it did during the offensive drought in this game). Because of this UCLA is going to need its defense to improve, to get it through those rough offensive stretches. It won't be able to out-score everyone.
It was, overall, though, like I said, the best game of the year. It not only perhaps saved UCLA's basketball season from oblivion, but saved it from dying a death of somnambulism. The team played generally with energy, and didn't fall into its sometimes sleep-walking mode. And also, playing at the Honda Center there was so much more energy in the building than at sleepy, construction-burdened Pauley Pavilion. The game was a pure injection of energy.
It was fitting that UCLA played its best game and played with Wooden-esque effort and intensity in the Wooden Classic, in the first year when Coach wasn't able to attend.
And it must have been particularly rewarding for Howland, because these kinds of things, like doing well at the event named after John Wooden, actually mean a great deal to him.
It also must be particularly satisfying to see his program that has sometimes been labeled "ugly" look so pretty.