But while you can't really draw any conclusions from any of the individual Bruin performances, it was encouraging to see the team playing with focus and intensity for the majority of the game. The Aggies got a few open looks (that they mostly missed), but for the most part UCLA was doing a good job of challenging shooters and rotating on defense. Again, it's a lot easier to rotate against low major talent than, say, the guys at Washington or Stanford. But earlier in the season the Bruins were getting lost and playing with sporadic effort regardless of the opponent's talent level. So the fact that they continued to hustle on defense and were trying to play the right way, even when they were up 30, is a good sign.
The Bruins reportedly had some very good practices this past week and the attitude of the team was apparently much better than it had been earlier in the season. Watching them play on Saturday, I'm inclined to believe those reports. The bad body language of earlier in the season was nowhere to be seen and the players actually seemed to be having fun. Of course, it's always fun when you win by 43 and the true test will come when the Bruins open Pac-12 play with a road trip to the Bay Area.
But watching them in this game one got the sense that everyone was pulling on the same end of the rope. And that's going to be a huge key for this team to merely be decent this season. There are far too many holes and problems with this team to dream of a late season run like last year. But if they want to be decent, and finish above .500 in the Pac-12, the Bruins absolutely need to be buying in and playing together every game. They have to help each other on defense, close out on shooters and rotate properly off of ball screens. They need to pound the ball into Josh Smith when he has a clear mismatch (as he did against the Aggies) and show good shot selection when he's not available. In short, they need to play as a team.
The first several weeks of the season we saw a bunch of individuals playing with half-hearted effort and very little sign that they had been coached at all. Most of the time, they looked no more organized than five guys playing in a pickup game. But the last couple games you have started to see a more cohesive effort. The Bruins actually looked like a team trying to execute a game plan at both ends of the court. On offense, they clearly wanted to establish Smith early and he scored or assisted on four of the first five baskets. The Aggies had nothing close to an answer for Smith and the Bruins pounded it inside to him from the beginning of the game. Smith ended up with 18 points and 10 rebounds, while looking more engaged than he had in many of the earlier games. Again, he was going against no one, but hopefully a game like this will be something he can build on.
As I said, you can't really take too much from any of the individual performances. Every Bruin had some positive moments in this game. And the stats don't mean much in a 43 point win. But watching Norman Powell attack the basket in transition, and Anthony Stover attack every Aggie trying to shoot the ball within 15 feet of the basket, made me think it might be a good idea for Coach Howland to find more minutes for the best athlete and best post defender on the team.
Both Powell and Stover have considerable upside. Powell's upside, to borrow a line from the late Chick Hearn, can be called with Braille. Yes, he had four turnovers in the game (40% of the team total for the game). But he also has a chance to be the best guard on the team by March if he's allowed to play through his mistakes. Confidence is everything in basketball and you can't play with confidence if you are yanked every time you make a mistake. So far, Bruin fans have only seen glimpses of Powell's ability. In high school, Powell made plays all over the court. With UCLA, he's ended up taking a lot of jump shots – which isn't really his forte. Powell is at his best in the open court and he's a big-time finisher – as evidenced by the dunk he had on one of the rare Bruin fast breaks. As he gets more comfortable, and less worried about making mistakes, he will likely settle for fewer jump shots and get more opportunities closer to the basket.
Anthony Stover had no points and two rebounds in sixteen minutes, but he also had five blocks. It seems like he challenges every shot in the paint. And on a Bruin team that is consistently beat off the dribble, Stover can make up for a lot of defensive mistakes. He's getting more minutes now with the absence of Travis Wear, but hopefully as the season goes on he will get the majority of the minutes backing up Smith at center.
The Bruins next game is against UC Irvine, another bad Big West team, followed by a very mediocre Richmond team. Both games will likely be more competitive than the Davis game, but the Bruins should manage to win each game. What will be interesting to see is if the Bruins can build on the last few wins and continue to play with a purpose, and play together, for forty minutes. Some of the Bruin problems – sporadic perimeter shooting, a lack of athleticism, and a mismatched roster – aren't going away this season. But any team, no matter the talent, can play hard and play together for forty minutes a night. It remains to be seen if the Bruins are one of those teams.