Exhibition: UCLA Plays Hard, At Least

The Bruins beat Cal State San Bernardino, 80-72, and clearly have some issues to clean up defensively, but at least the team played hard...

UCLA beat Cal State San Bernardino Sunday night in Ontario, 80-72, and even for an exhibition game it had a weird feeling to it.

Being played at Citizens Business Bank Arena, in front of a good amount of CSSB hometown fans, made it feel like a regular season game, more like the Wooden Classic. There definitely wasn't the sleepiness of a typical exhibition game in Pauley Pavilion; with the Arena holding just under 10,000, the 6,000 that were there made it look fairly full.

And then there was CSSB, who did not look or play like a typical D-2 team. There were some clearly D-1 bodies among the Coyotes, and you wouldn't have been surprised at all if they came on the floor wearing jerseys of a mid- to low-major like Mercer or Morgan State.

It made it even weirder with all the new Bruin faces getting so much playing time.

And then the game itself was weird. The Bruins looked like they were playing hard. They made some clear mistakes and had some breakdowns, but it wasn't a matter of the game being close because it was the low-energy Bruins we've seen on occasion in the last couple of years.

So, what to conclude? Is CSSB pretty good, as good as, say, a mid-major? And even so, shouldn't the 17th-ranked team in the nation blow out a mid-major anyway? Are the Bruins just not very good?

Well, you know what I'm going to say: You really can't conclude much from the exhibition.

If you had to narrow this down to just a handful of takeaways, this would be them:

-- First, like I said, the Bruins, for the most part, played hard. It was refreshing to see the vast majority of the players on the court get after it. New or fairly new guys getting a great deal of playing time like David Wear, Travis Wear, Tyler Lamb and De'End Parker all brought a high degree of energy to the floor.

-- UCLA, defensively, has a very long way to go. The individual defense isn't great, but the team defense is a mess. And again, this was with the team generally putting in a good effort defensively.

-- Despite getting a team-high 26 points, Josh Smith still needs to finish strong. It was an issue last season and, if you go by this exhibition, it will be an issue again this season. He lays the ball in too softly, enabling defenders to swat it or bump him a bit, which disrupts the shot just enough for it to not go in. He ends up coming away with nothing or getting fouled. Luckily, perhaps the biggest revelation of the night, was Smith shooting 14 of 18 from the free-throw line. Wow, the free-throw stroke looks very good, and that is probably worth another 6 points per game right there. But instead of getting fouled and going to the line for two shots he should be getting the basket and the and-one. On the bench, Jerime Anderson and Anthony Stover were yelling, "Josh, go up strong!" -- UCLA shot a miraculous 80.5% from the free-throw line. I can't recall the last time a Bruin team did that. And it doesn't appear to be a fluke, since UCLA is now predominantly a team with good free-throw shooters.

Getting a bit more in-depth with the dfense, as I said above, the team has a long ways to go. The effort is there but the individual technique and knowledge of team defense isn't. Perimeter defenders were off-balance at times and getting up in a player too far, enabling him to get a step. Other times they didn't close out on open shooters. It broke down considerably in the second half when CSSB rotated the ball quicker and got open looks, and UCLA looked a bit fatigued in closing out. There was a lack of anticipating having to push through screens. On team defense, there were breakdowns almost every time down the court. As it's been the last couple of years, help defense is a primary issue, with very little stepping up to cut off drivers. Some of the Bruins got it, and were a just a step slow, others seemingly were content with just watching. Much of it is a matter of the UCLA posts getting more active and proactive in cutting off the lane, and then the rest of the team also rotating quickly to not allow a kick out to an open shooter. Smith does look a step quicker, and had a couple of nice steals in the game and three blocks, looking quicker off his feet also. The Wears weren't great in post defense, with Theron Laudermill, a square-shouldered, 6-8, 235-pounder, able to back them down in the block and score fairly easily. UCLA didn't provide much if any post double teams, which they probably haven't installed yet in practice, so CSSB was trying to get Laudermill matched up in the post against the Wears for most of the night. Plus, in an exhibition, it's good to get the Wears some one-on-one work against an effective post scorer like Laudermill. Laudermill was a match-up problem all the way around because then CSSB would go small and Smith was matched up with him, and Laudermill then stepped out and hit two threes. He's a guy who, at least from his showing Sunday night, is a mid-major level player. Laudermill led CSSB with 16 points.

CSSB's D.J. Shumpert, who transferred from Arizona, was also a match-up problem, scoring 14. He's about 6-8 and has the body of a small forward, but playing power forward, he would draw out Reeves Nelson and then go around him easily. Kwawe Alexander, a 6-7, 240-pounder, was also a defensive challenge but luckily fouled out.

UCLA, with its personnel, will match up pretty well against big front lines, but could struggle against smaller quicker ones, and if you look around college basketball, it seems most teams look more like CSSB than UCLA. It gives UCLA an advantage offensively, but a clear disadvantage defensively, which Ben Howland is going to have to make up for with team defense. Of course, a zone defense would be considered the conventional solution, but we won't go there.

Offensively, though, the UCLA frontline was what you would expect. UCLA's set offense looks schemed to getting Smith touches inside, and then Nelson does well in cleaning it all up on offensive rebounds. Nelson hit two three-pointers when he was left wide open, and his stroke looked better. The Wears looked a bit nervous, particular on offense, missing their first handful of shots. David did have a three-pointer late in the game when he looked far more comfortable and in rhythm.

The UCLA backcourt was funky because it was without Jerime Anderson. So, Lazeric Jones was on the court too much, a bit fatigued and wound up, and then in foul trouble. Tyler Lamb then had to step in and play point guard, and did acceptably, even though he also got wound up a bit and into some tough situations. Jones is going to be the enigma for the season. There will be times when he's serviceable as the point guard, but not having a natural feel or vision for the position there will be other times when offensive opportunities are missed, as they were last night. There were a couple of times when UCLA was executing its offense, with the set intending to get a big open in the post, and when it was functioning well, and the big then did get posted up, Jones didn't see it or looked away too early. Anderson is the only true point guard on the team and there are going to be times when UCLA desperately needs him this season.

Lamb, even though he was clearly wound up a bit, played well. He does so many little, heady things that might not necessarily show up in the stat sheet that are big, like anticipating when an opponent is rebounding and about to turn up court and stepping into him to cause a turnover. He's in better shape and condition, physically looks better than last season, and he showed the motor to potentially be that go-to perimeter defender, but it's going to take a lot of refinement.

Parker brought a good deal of athleticism to the court, particularly on defense. He's about 6-5 and long, and was the only guy who physically could match up on defense against some of the guys built similarly on CSSB. For not having practiced that much, he looked surprisingly comfortable. What was encouraging, too, was that on offense he wasn't afraid to have the ball in his hands, either on the break or in the halfcourt.

Norman Powell had a few nice flashes, particularly the three-pointer that he nailed smoothly from the corner on a kick-out. If there is someone who looked a bit behind the learning curve right now, though, it's Powell, particularly on defense. His energy level defensively was a bit under par, mostly because it appeared he was still thinking quite a bit and not just playing, getting a bit lost on screens. But when he did have to move his feet and stay in front of his player he did it fairly well.

If you had told me UCLA would only beat Cal State San Bernardino by 8, and were actually trailing in the second half at one point, I would have chalked it up to what we've seen in recent years, a Bruin team that didn't play with intensity, not taking the exhibition game seriously. But that definitely wasn't the case here. Again, it's difficult to surmise if CSSB was actually pretty good, but I tend to think they were. And like we all know: It's a matter of UCLA's defense improving. But at least, from this exhibition game, you can take away that UCLA's personnel now is made up of guys who play hard, so there is some hope for the Bruin defense.

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