The game Thursday, in which UCLA beat Oregon, 64-54, was one in which UCLA did eke out a game, but generally played well, and actually did generate a bit of satisfaction with what seems to be continued improvement.
The distinction between the two types of games is pretty easy: Against Oregon, UCLA, for the most part, played hard and with effort. There were just times when, trying to do the right thing, the Bruins failed. That's going to happen. But that's so much easier to watch than the type of game that was far more common earlier in the season – when the Bruins didn't play hard or with much effort, and they struggled against lesser opponents because of it.
Earlier in the season in the game analyses, we'd harp on the fact that UCLA simply wasn't putting in an effort on defense. It was predominantly on three fronts: 1) UCLA's help defense was horrendous and slow 2) It struggled greatly in defending screens and 3) its transition defense was lazy, allowing far too many easy transition baskets. As UCLA has improved in recent weeks, it's done it in stops and starts, doing better at, say, one or two of these and maybe not as good on one of the issues, week to week. But overall, as you take the last few weeks as a whole, the team has generally gotten better at all three.
Against Oregon, the Bruins were actually adequate in the first two – help defense and defending screens -- but had a bit of a lapse in transition defense. The Bruins allowed Oregon to get a little momentum in the first half when the Ducks went on a 6-0 run on three successive easy baskets in transition, with UCLA completely disregarding hustling back on defense and stopping the ball. To UCLA's credit, it really wasn't much of a factor for the rest of the game, but allowing Oregon that little run was a key element in making this a close game for most of the night. If you combine that with some things you simply can't stop – like when UCLA puts together a very good defensive trip down the field, staying in front of the ball, defending screens well and actively moving their feet, only to have J-R Stowbridge hit a 22-foot three-pointer near the end of the shot block – and then throw in some very poor officiating and it's easy take that the Bruins were behind for a good portion of the game.
But again, it's far easier to watch UCLA defend well for about 30 seconds of the shot clock and see an opposing player hit a low-percentage shot, than what we had mostly watched earlier in the season, which was a lack of hustle and focus on defense.
The Bruins now are very watchable, even when they're trailing.
And it's even watchable when the Bruins' offense struggles, as it did Thursday night. Oregon's 2-3 zone wasn't particularly tough, but UCLA just couldn't get in a consistent rhythm against it.
And, of course, we have a theory why: It settled for outside shots instead of trying to get the ball inside against the zone. And why did it do that? Because, without Josh Smith on the court UCLA's offense forgets to feed the post, and then gets into an anti-post-feeding mode even when Smith is on the court.
We have to blame Coach Ben Howland a bit for this. First, he should be working harder to keep his offense focused on getting the ball down low, even when Smith isn't in the game. It's very evident that the Bruins tend to wander in their attention over it. Then, secondly, in my opinion, he's mis-using Smith a bit. The tactic to not start Smith so that he doesn't get into immediate foul trouble is more of a psychological ploy to keep Smith out of foul trouble than anything else; it's not limiting his minutes at all. But what Howland is basically doing is substituting one supposed psychological advantage (which we don't believe is effective anyway) for a psychological disadvantage. When Smith starts the game on the bench, the players on the floor get into an offensive mode without him, one in which they tend to settle for outside shots more than get the ball inside. So, even when Smith does come into the game, his teammates on the floor have already established a non-post-feeding mindset. If you might have noticed, when Smith comes in, they don't immediately try to get him the ball. You would think they'd be saying, "Yo, the big dog is in, get him a touch!" It's clear that Howland has a team that has to keep re-focusing to get the ball inside; many times they'll do it on an offensive possession after a timeout, and it's clear that Howland reminded them to do it. So it doesn't help when he, himself, is establishing that anti-post-feeding mindset by starting the game without Smith on the floor.
The other way I think Howland mis-used Smith a bit tactically against Oegon was not to help him on defense with a doubling of the post. When Smith had two fouls in the second half, it was pretty expected that Oregon was going to get Joevan Catron the ball down low against Smith and hope that he could draw another ridiculous call from the refs. When they did exactly that, got Catron the ball on the block against Smith, every decent basketball mind in Pauley Pavilion was screaming, "Someone help him! Keep him from fouling!" But the double didn't come and Smith, of course, got another bad call against him, his third, and then sat. Howland, to his credit, went to doubling the post on the defensive possession after that, and it greatly helped, forcing Catron into turnovers. But the post-doubling came too late, and that contributed to Smith getting into foul trouble and playing just 14 minutes in this game. It seemed pretty easy to surmise going into the game, that Smith would need help in the post against Catron, and it was a miscalculation that Howland didn't go to it until well into the second half – and only as a response to Smith picking up his third foul.
UCLA's zone offense struggled in this one, and that's going to happen. UCLA actually had some good looks from the outside against the zone but just didn't knock down the shots. That's going to happen. But the thing is -- you're going to live and die by that outside shooting against a zone – unless you consistently try to get better shots against it, and Smith touching the ball down low definitely represents that. To better ensure against UCLA struggling against the zone like it did Thursday it simply needs to get Smith on the floor, do whatever it can to help him on defense to stay out of foul trouble, and feed him the ball.
Earlier in the season, when Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt were leading the team in headlines, we said that Malcolm Lee was the MVP of the team. He recently has made that call look brilliant, because now he's the one worthy of most of the headlines. He scored 25 points Thursday night, and pretty much carried the offense in the first half when it was struggling. Beyond just his improved three-point shooting, he has become extremely effective in scoring in two ways – getting out quickly in transition, and making excellent cuts in the halfcourt offense. If you may remember, earlier in his career, Lee would try to drive to the basket and it'd usually end up in folly, with him being out of control and turning over the ball. Now, he's moving without the ball, brilliantly, in fact, which plays to his strength far more than trying to take defenders off the dribble. Add his offensive re-birth to being the defensive stopper on the team and the MVP vote is a landslide. It's funny, too, because when there is a discussion of which Bruin might be best suited to an early jump to the NBA (none of them really are, by the way), Honeycutt's name always tends to be brought up, but Lee has now, by far, proven he's more NBA-ready. First, he can guard someone. Secondly, he's showing considerable development in his offensive game, which just isn't his shot improving, but progress in his offensive approach, unlike Honeycutt.
Honeycutt, though, played pretty well against Oregon, even though he only had 5 points. The 13 rebounds were big, but perhaps the biggest stat was his 6 assists against just 1 turnover. Honeycutt's passing in this game was excellent, cutting up Oregon's zone with great passes that found teammates underneath the basket. And defensively, Honeycutt did a better job of staying in front of his man and also providing help.
The offensive stat sheet can also be deceiving in regard to Nelson, since he only scored 9 points (and had 9 rebounds), and many might conclude he didn't play well. But this easily was one of Nelson's best games of the season. He played better defense, and not just on the ball, but in defending screens, in help, and even in hustling back in transition more often. When UCLA's offense was struggling, its defense kept them in it, and Nelson's defensive effort was a huge part of it. This was one game, if you were keeping track of plus/minus plays, in which Nelson was significantly on the plus side. His defense has made some strides ever since he took it upon himself, according to Howland, to guard USC's Nikola Vucevic. Not only has his post defense gotten better, the effort has seeped into the other aspects of his defense that were lacking.
Give credit to Jerime Anderson, who turned in a solid effort on both sides of the floor, finishing with 10 points, with two big three-pointers, and continuing to, for the most part, play defense with intensity.
Anthony Stover, too, has been instrumental in UCLA's recent improvement. It's not coincidental that, as his minutes have increased so has UCLA's improved play. He not only brings athleticism to the post, but his hustle and defensive effort is contagious, and key to the team playing much better defense recently.
Improvement, as I said above, always comes in starts and stops. Two steps up, one step back sort of thing. And that's definitely been the case for this year's Bruins. So, you can naturally expect them to still have some steps back for the remainder of the season. Like in this game the lapse in transition defense, or the team's disregard for getting the ball down low on offense. But what has been encouraging is the obvious steps up we've seen recently. This was easily one of the team's best defensive performances, holding Oregon to 39% shooting, and doing it with a clearly improved defensive effort. In its last three games UCLA has held its opponents to 50, 59 and 54 points, which is very reminiscent of the Final Four era.
It very well might be that this young team is starting to slowly learn, in stops and starts, that it's much easier to win when you play defense with effort.