I've been writing all season about the Bruins' inability to play with sustained focus and energy. But while they obviously had a few lapses in this game, we didn't see the long stretches where the intensity wanes and the lack of focus snowballs into a big run for the other team. Instead of hanging their heads and letting a few bad plays turn into a game changing run, the Bruins are now responding and stopping the run.
Defensively the Bruins did a better job of helping one another with their rotations. They had a couple miscommunications on some ball screens, but we didn't see the total confusion that we saw earlier in the year. Reeves Nelson is doing a better job in this area and so is Josh Smith. I thought Nelson's effort defensively was very good and Smith has made huge improvements in moving his feet and not getting into foul trouble. He's also sustaining his effort much better when he's on the court. His quick, active hands are an asset on defense and he's starting to get some blocks that he wasn't getting earlier in the year.
The other guy that is obviously a key for the Bruins defensively is Malcolm Lee. As usual, Lee drew the assignment of defending the other team's best perimeter player. One might look at the box score, see that Jeremy Green scored 27 points, and assume that Lee did a bad job. But Lee actually did a solid job until late in the game when Green threw hit a few deep, contested threes.
The offensive balance for UCLA was very good, as Nelson led the way with 18 points, Tyler Honeycutt had 16 and Josh Smith contributed 13. Lazeric Jones added nine points and it was encouraging to see him find his shooting touch again, as he knocked down three big three-pointers. Jones looked more comfortable in this game with his injured hand than he did previously and he played a very solid game overall, as he added six rebounds to go with four assists and only two turnovers.
The turnovers are a concern, of course, as it will be difficult to beat good teams if you commit 17 turnovers in a game. The main culprits in this game were Honeycutt with five, Nelson with four and Jerime Anderson with four. Honeycutt and Nelson are to be expected, as they lead the Bruins in turnovers for the year. But the four turnovers from Anderson were a bit unexpected, as he has generally been pretty solid with the ball this year. While he did knock down a big three-pointer, and get some big rebounds, this wasn't one of Anderson's better performances. He looked a little shaky at times with the ball and was more tentative than he has been in recent weeks.
We've been very critical, at times, of Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt. They have both had stretches where their defense was severely lacking and they lost focus at both ends of the court. Both guys, though, played big for the Bruins in this win. I thought it was one of Nelson's best performances of the year. He was engaged at both ends of the court and he made a couple very good decisions when he could have easily turned it over or taken a bad shot. His improved passing out of the post is one reason why the Bruin offense is running smoother. Honeycutt did have the aforementioned turnovers and his defense was spotty at times (although not terrible). But his early three-pointers were huge for the Bruins in establishing the tone and getting them off on the right foot. He can be maddening at times with his casualness and careless turnovers, but he can also do more things on the court than any other Bruin. And if he starts knocking down threes a little more consistently, along with Lee and Jones, the inside game will open up even more for Josh Smith. This wasn't one of the Smith's most dominating offensive performances, as he had trouble converting on some lay-ups that he usually makes. But he did lead the Bruins with nine rebounds and he continues to be an offensive weapon that other teams have to account for at all times. As his teammates get more familiar with how to feed him the ball, and as he learns to do a better job of sealing and holding off his man, the Bruin offense is going to become more efficient.
While the starters obviously put up the majority of the stats for the Bruins in this game, there were some nice moments from the reserves. Anthony Stover played solid defense in limited minutes, Brendan Lane had a couple rebounds and a putback and Tyler Lamb played his usual solid defense as well.
Stanford is by no means a great team, but they are pretty decent at home and this was a big win for the Bruins. Earlier in the year, there's no way UCLA wins this game with 17 turnovers and several missed free throws late. They would have found a way to lose the game. But now the Bruins are finding ways to win even when they make a fair amount of mistakes. And it seems like they are learning from those mistakes. They've corrected some of their early season defensive deficiencies. They've also figured out that Josh Smith needs to get a lot of touches. They aren't perfect in those two areas, but they have improved a great deal. If they can get a handle on the turnovers, and just cut them by a few per game, then the Bruins have a chance to exceed our preseason expectations and possibly even do some damage in the tournament.