UCLA Improves, But With an *

The Bruins played well in beating UC Irvine, 89-60, showing signs of improvement, but in going 4-0 against cupcakes it's difficult to surmise if the improvement is real...

UCLA played well in beating UC Irvine, 89-60, Tuesday at the Sports Arena.

There were some very encouraging aspects of the game, and signs of definite improvement, particularly a very improved vibe from the team in the post-Reeves Nelson era.

It all comes with an asterisk, however, because Irvine is really pretty bad. They're not UC Davis bad, but they definitely are in the bad category. Not only did they not have anyone who even approaches physically matching up with Josh Smith, they didn't have anyone who could even remotely match up with Travis Wear or David Wear.

So, on one hand, it's encouraging that the Bruins have won four in a row and put themselves on the improved track. But on the other, it's difficult to get too encouraged since UCLA hasn't struggled since it last faced a real high-major D-1 team in Texas (9-2) – which is completely the type of team the Bruins are going to face next weekend in the Bay Area. You could easily make the case that Cal (10-2) and/or Stanford (10-1) are just as good as Texas (in fact, we can see how good the Longhorns are tonight when they face North Carolina).

It raises the long-debated issue of the pluses/minuses of scheduling cupcakes. You can argue endlessly about how it affects a team's RPI, but in the pure terms of whether it helps a team get better or not is really the issue. In UCLA's case, what would have been better? To get a little fat playing against cupcakes and going 4-0, or playing some real teams, perhaps struggling a bit and losing possibly some of those games, but getting better against better competition?

Beating Irvine in decisive fashion certainly creates that good vibe. The team clearly is gelling better without Nelson, and it's easy to see that volatile, moody Nelson, despite his talent, was ultimately a negative influence.

Where it's particular evident is on the defensive end. The Bruins pulled away from the over-matched Anteaters in the first half in their man defense when they got stop after stop, mostly through forcing Irvine to put up a bad shot and not allowing them a second one. UCLA then pulled out its zone in the second half, Ben Howland probably thinking that a 20-point lead against a bad Irvine team being a good time to get in a little zone work. The zone was effective primarily in almost completely eliminating any dribble penetration; when an Anteater got into the paint and tried to dish, UCLA's size and length cut off passing lanes pretty quickly to create turnovers. The zone, however, was a bit slow and lazy at times, too, in a way that a high-major team that knows how to beat a zone with good ball movement you could see cutting it up.

A thing to note defensively: When UCLA plays man (or even zone) with Smith or one Wear – or both Wears -- it is generally a slow defensive team with plenty to exploit. In the first 10 minutes of the game, against UCLA's man, the Anteaters had some advantageous match-ups, switching to get its scorer, Damann Starring, matched up with David Wear and then clearing out for him, resulting in Starring scoring 6 quick points to start the game. On one possession, Wear had to sag off Starring by about eight feet, and Starring took an easy two-dribble pull-up from about 15 feet. Again, once UCLA gets into the Pac-12 that's just not going to play. Conference opponents are going to do the same thing as Irvine did, get that match-up against one of the Wears, with someone who's better than Starring.

At least Howland, in getting the zone some work in the second half, seems to recognize he can't stay with his man defense, and didn't get deluded by its general effectiveness in the last four games.

The zone was actually a bit more effective in the second half than the man in the first half. UCLA held Irvine to 38% shooting in the second half and about 43% in the first. This is all a clear sign that Howland fully intends to utilize the zone in conference play.

Offensively, the Bruins had perhaps their most effective performance of the season, specifically in executing in the half-court. It shot 55% from the field, which was boosted by some transition baskets, but it also shot 50% from three. If it could do that the rest of the way the Bruins would probably end up in the NCAA tournament.

There was a step forward in UCLA's offense mostly because of a generally improved approach to team play and passing and, well, better shooting. Better shooting will make any offense look good, and both Tyler Lamb and Norman Powell having good games (career highs at 17 and 19 points, respectively), combining to shoot 6-for-12 from three, makes all the difference. We've been maintaining all along that both Lamb and Powell have the upside that will pay off greatly, but that they needed to get playing time to play through their inexperience. Of course, all improvement happens it starts and stops, and undoubtedly both Lamb and Powell will have some setbacks the rest of the season, but this game illustrated what type of potential contributions the two of them can make. Both of them have some of the best upside on the team. Lamb is a good athlete that has a very good offensive feel, but needs seasoning in terms of decision-making, and more honing of his shot. Defensively he has a chance to be very good but, again, needs experience. Powell is an exceptional athlete, and it's just not because he looks spectacular throwing down alley-oop dunks. Probably his most athletic play was on a shot he missed, when he drove the baseline, was cut off, but darted diagonally and hung in the air for a lay-in he should have made. Not too many players are capable of making that type of an athletic play. Powell, too, has shown flashes of being an exceptional defensive player.

How's this for an impressive stat line: 19 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals, two blocks and no turnovers.

Perhaps one of the most interesting and entertaining aspects of this season is going to be watching the learning curve and improvement of Lamb and Powell.

The offense, though, looked better not just because of the outside shooting, but because there was a much better flow in the half-court, mostly stemming from the team having more players who understand team play and have a good feel for passing. With Jerime Anderson and Lamb, and then Lazeric Jones and even Powell all making nice entry passes into the post, there was perhaps more post feeds in this game than the five previous games combined. The team needs to always remember that the offense is an inside-outside affair, one that needs to get Smith touches in the post first. Just because it shot 50% from three in this game hopefully the perimeter players won't start believing they're excellent shooters and forget why it made 50% in this game – because Irvine was packing it in, as every team is going to do against UCLA, and the ball came back out to find open shooters. Smith, in the last two games, looks a bit more like he did toward the end of last season, particularly in his composure in the post. Irvine doubled the post just about every time, but he didn't panic, and passed out of it well. Lamb particularly sees the weakside open lane and Smith found him again with a nice pass out of the double.

Smith made another step forward -- toward the point he was at the end of last season. He had 12 points and 7 rebounds in 22 minutes, and only three fouls. He's looking far smarter on the defensive end, not getting called for reaching or not going straight up, and even is doing better getting his body in front of dribble drivers, drawing a charge. Offensively he was better in going straight up the rim, and had one resounding dunk. We could say, though, UCLA still didn't get Smith enough touches in this game. Even when it's generally playing well, and executing well in its half-court, it still goes a number of possessions without Smith getting a touch. It has to be always at the forefront of this team's collective mind: This season hinges on Smith's continued improvement and eventual production, because he's UCLA's one clear potential advantage against all opponents, and he needs touches.

Give Lazeric Jones – and indirectly Howland – a great deal of credit, too, for the steps forward on offense. Jones has settled down and is now clearly looking to play within the flow of the offense, and actually making some nice passes, as opposed to how badly he was forcing things earlier in the season. It will be interesting to see if he stays this composed and focused once conference plays starts.

The Wears seem to also have settled down and found their niche. They have to get touches in the post, just to keep other teams honest from collapsing their entire team on Smith, and they're realizing that so much of their game is going to be about crashing the boards, on both ends. David Wear had 7 defensive rebounds, which were key in keeping Irvine at one-shot-and-out, and he and his brother are learning that they can get a good amount of points by cleaning up the offensive boards for putbacks. Nelson was very good at this, and it's a role that the Wears need to step into for UCLA to be successful.

Anthony Stover was injured, seemingly getting his eye poked. He, though, looked fine in the second half sitting on the bench, but for whatever reason it seemed like he was removed from Howland's rotation after that. Stover is a vital key to this team and needs to play, much like Lamb and Powell need to play to not only benefit from their impact on the game but to allow them to get experience and reach their potential. Again, UCLA under Howland is all about defense; when it plays it effectively the Bruins are a good team, and this Irvine game is a testament to that. Stover, no matter his offensive deficiencies, is a defensive force. He brings such a different influence to the game than the Wears, and you'd think that it'd be pretty obvious that getting Stover minutes is more important to the team than getting both Wears minutes.

A thing to note about this year's team that is clearly an improvement in terms of Howland's teams: less turnovers. The team tends to take care of the ball, which helps it not get burned in transition defense as much other recent Bruin teams. It's averaging just 10.7 turnovers per game, and committed just 7 against Irvine.

Overall, as we said, it was a well-played game, but there's the question of just how much UCLA really has improved going 4-0 playing against cupcakes.

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