UCLA Overtakes Itself to Win

The Bruins played well -- for 30 minutes or so -- overcoming a bad beginning to overtake Arizona State and win it going away Thursday, 71-53. One Bruin in particular had a spectacular performance...

With a win desperately needed to keep alive its NCAA Tournament hopes, UCLA teased us Thursday night by starting off miserably, only to recover pretty quickly and beat Arizona State going away, 71-53.

The general feeling from the UCLA community: Yeah, good win, needed win, played well for the most part. But what's up with that first 10 minutes against the last-place team in the conference?

The Bad-Effort Bruins took the court first and held it for those first 10 minutes. While we did diagnose last week that UCLA's habit of playing poorly at times this season is like a case of the herpes (in its latency period you convince yourself you don't have it and it won't come back), as Dr. Bruin, we now have made some advances in the field of predicting when the Bruin herpes will flare up.

In the case against Arizona State Thursday, UCLA came out flat and trailed ASU 21-9 in the first 10 minutes. This kind of flare-up happens mostly when UCLA goes into a very bad defensive lull, allowing the opposing team easy baskets, which it definitely started with against the Sun Devils. Arizona State got all lay-ups until Chanse Creemur hit a three-pointer to give the Sun Devils that 12-point lead at the 9:31 mark in the first half. So, on one end of the floor, UCLA's defense is very poor, playing with little energy and allowing the opposition easy baskets. That lack of defensive energy, then, spills over onto the other side of the court, and then infects UCLA's offense like a, well, disease. When the team is lazy on defense it then becomes lazy on offense, and that was exactly the case against ASU. The Bruins very simply settled for jumpshots against ASU's zone – and then the worst thing that could possibly happen -- they hit some. There's nothing worse against a zone when you're settling for jumpshots is actually hitting a couple, because then it only reinforces the lazy approach. UCLA didn't get one inside basket until deep into the first half, going 1 for 10 to start the game, because it attempted all outside shots. If you want to recognize quickly which version of the Bruins are on the court merely pay attention to whether UCLA is trying to get the ball inside on offense or not.

All in all, Ben Howland coached a pretty good game against Arizona State, making some adjustments that fueled UCLA's first half run that put them in the driver's seat and kept them there. But, in my opinion, one of the contributing factors to UCLA starting off the game in the ditch is the fact that Howland continues to insist that Josh Smith doesn't start. Without him in the game, UCLA just doesn't get in the mindset to get the ball inside, and they become a jump-shooting team. UCLA started small against ASU, with Reeves Nelson playing the five, and there just simply wasn't enough effort to get him the ball on the block. Without that big bear of a target, Smith, UCLA mentally doesn't look to feed the post.

In fact, in this game, Smith came in at the 15-minute mark, so it took the Bruins a long time to get out of the perimeter-oriented mindset they established and start feeding Smith the ball. Then, if Smith does touch the ball, having sat out the first several minutes of each game, he looks out of sync and cold, missing his early lay-ups. If he does that, which he did against ASU, UCLA's perimeter players will even further get cemented in the mindset of not feeding him in the post.

Howland, to his credit, seemed to recognize this trend. After a key timeout as an answer to Creemur's three-pointer, UCLA then picked up its defensive effort and insisted on getting the ball inside on offense. With UCLA's posts now touching the ball more often, UCLA got much better looks and the run was on.

Tyler Honeycutt's two three-pointers definitely helped UCLA's run, but those were fairly lucky. We're not saying that Honeycutt making the threes was lucky, since his outside shooting has improved recently, but they were two instances where UCLA didn't get the ball inside and the shot clock was about to expire and Honeycutt forced the shot. While that helped the run, what really established – and then sustained UCLA's offensive edge throughout the game – was UCLA shifting to the mindset of getting the ball inside. When Malcolm Lee found Reeves Nelson with a beautiful inside feed at the 8:30 mark it was a sign of things to come – that the Bruins were going to start playing inside-outside.

Of course, it also helped, as we said, that UCLA picked up its defensive intensity, and it's not coincidental that the run began at the same time when Howland started using his bench. Subbing in Brendan Lane and Tyler Lamb, two guys who immediately provided more defensive energy, was a key to the run. They helped to start a defensive tone, and it seemed that everyone else who then stepped on the floor picked up on it.

But if you're going to give out credit to the player who truly established the right tone for the game it's Lazeric Jones. He had easily one of the best individual performances of the season Thursday. Not just one of his best performances, but one of the best of any Bruin. He single-handedly started the defensive stops that began the run, getting a steal on one possession that led to his dunk, and then a block on the next defensive trip. On the offensive side, he had just begun to dish out his 10 assists for the game – against 0 turnovers (that's the kind of assist-to-turnover ratio you have to like). Then, once he got the defense kick-started, and was the integral part to the offense getting going by consistently setting up his teammates and feeding the post (his over-the-top lob to Smith for a dunk to finish the first half was beautiful), he then started scoring, too, hitting a couple of three-pointers in rhythm. And if you take into consideration the guy did all of this with two injured hands, it truly was an astounding performance (It's not as if your point guard needs his hands or anything). Not to discount it at all, but perhaps Jones' hand injuries help to lead him to playing this way, making him think more like a point guard and look more to setting up his teammates, and realizing that he has to make a difference on defense. If so, maybe UCLA should continue to re-injure Zeke's hands every couple of weeks. Whatever it was, Jones was sensational.

In doling out credit, Honeycutt deserves some. He played one of his best games in recent memory, making those big shots at the end of the shot clock, but also playing improved defense and committing no turnovers. It was clear Howland didn't want Honeycutt to match up defensively with ASU's Trent Lockett too often, and Honeycutt did much better against guys who are less offensive threats and less apt to take you off the dribble. He did match up with Lockett a couple of times and Honeycutt seemed to do something a bit different in defending him. Honeycutt simply isn't very good at moving his feet and staying in front of a quicker player, and a couple of times, once a Sun Devil turned the corner against him, instead of futilely trying to remain in front of him, Honeycutt sprinted to beat him to the basket, and it resulted in a couple of blocks and shots being altered. On offense, besides making those shots, he had a few very nice assists, particularly one during the big first-half run where he fed Smith in the post.

Another game, another reason to praise Malcolm Lee. Not only did he lead UCLA in scoring (16 points), had four assists against 0 turnovers, and shut down ASU's scorer, Ty Abbott, he did so many little things in this game that contributed.

Nelson, too, played well, finishing with 12 points and 12 rebounds, and playing mostly solid defense, which resulted in three key steals, one of them being critical in fueling that first-half run. Perhaps the only nit-pick would be his three turnovers, but he got at least a couple of those trying to lead the break, which we fault Howland for more than Nelson.

Smith had 12 points, and it's funny because, even with a couple of thunderous dunks, you still come away thinking it's not close to even scratching his potential. He's incrementally improving at asserting himself inside, but there are still too many soft lay-ins around the basket, and still not enough effort to carve out position in the post every time down the floor. He did, though, play good defense for most of the game, doing well at plugging driving lanes. It's almost uncanny how sometimes someone who is, really, about 325 pounds can move his feet to stay in front of a wing and then actually steal the ball.

Defensively, it was a tale of two teams, of course. UCLA has a curious problem not being able to defend a screen, a ball screen or even one away from the ball. They just simply don't know what they're doing too often. That definitely helped ASU build its early 12-point lead. But even more curious is that ASU went away from exploiting UCLA's weakness against screens. UCLA did improve against it, but ASU, luckily, didn't do it enough. One of the most exciting developing aspects of UCLA's defense is its improving help defense. The team is starting to find its identity in help defense; it seems that many of the players are now looking for the block instead of trying to stay in defensive position, and while that can be dangerous, it seems much better suited to a team that collectively don't move their feet really well defensively but are a very good collection of shot blockers. UCLA had 10 blocks in this game, most of them coming from help defense.

Of course, the biggest development in this game for the Bruins was committing only 8 turnovers. If UCLA keeps its turnover total under 10 it's going to win. If Honeycutt keeps his turnover total down, takes care of the ball and is more selective in his passes, like he was against ASU, it's pretty likely UCLA will win.

You have to take this all with a grain of salt. Arizona State, while they're not as bad as you might think a last-place team should be, they certainly aren't good. And the fact that UCLA struggled and got down by 12 points against them is definitely a cause for concern. But at least it's not a new worry; it's the same old one we've come to embrace, and we're now fully prepared when the bad version of the Bruins come out to play.

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