The Bruins have looked good at times this season against mid-major-level teams, and that's what they faced in the Wildcats.
You have to give UCLA its due, but you have to acknowledge that the Arizona team that took to the Honda Center floor Thursday night is one of the worst Wildcat teams in memory. I would take the 2009-2010 Arizona team, which went 16-15, over this year's version in a match-up any day.
Arizona's frontcourt is, seriously, one of the worst UCLA has faced all season. That was kind of expected. But its backcourt, which is normally its strength, was collectively horrendous. Kyle Fogg, a usual Bruin-killer, had just 7 points, took just 5 shots, and made just one three-pointer. Combo Jordin Mayes had 0 points on 0-4 shooting. The freshman backcourt of Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson were three-of-twelve shooting, and had just four assists against three turnovers. It very well might have been the case that Turner returned to the starting lineup against UCLA; he had started initially to begin the season and faltered, and Arizona head coach Sean Miller had turned over the point guard duties to Johnson, who isn't a natural point guard, but the Arizona offense functioned better. The Wildcats, though, with Turner getting starter's minutes, went back to its dysfunctional offensive ways, and Johnson completely disappeared. Even though you can't necessarily blame Turner for all of the Wildcat's poor offensive play, it seemed that Turner's increased minutes got Arizona's offense out of its groove.
And it was perfect timing for UCLA.
Arizona, too, was kind of a mess both offensively and defensively. Going against Arizona's defense, UCLA hadn't seen as many missed assignments against any opponent yet this season. Offensively, Arizona's execution – when it did try to execute a play – was sloppy. Most of the time it merely tried to free up a player one-on-one and Arizona simply doesn't have good enough one-on-one offensive players for that to be effective. Arizona's only possible offensive match-up advantage was power forward Jesse Perry going against UCLA's less-athletic frontline, pulling his defender away from the basket, but Arizona didn't seem to realize that, not getting Perry enough touches throughout the game.
Give credit to Ben Howland for easily out-coaching Miller in this one, not only with his in-game adjustments but overall, because the lazy, sloppy Wildcats looked poorly coached fundamentally on both ends of the floor.
The Wear brothers have had some good moments this season, and they, too, timed it well to have their combined best game against a bad Wildcat frontline (and that's not coincidental). You might have thought that the smaller, quicker Arizona frontcourt of Perry and Solomon Hill would have a possible advantage, but the Wears used their size and were very active to completely out-play both. Travis Wear had a career-high 20 points and David had 14, and they were not only scoring well in the post with nice, turn-around jump hooks, but were in the right place at the right time, taking advantage of Arizona's defensive breakdowns as UCLA's backcourt found un-guarded Wears all night for easy lay-ins. Give the Wears credit, but also, again, give Howland credit for offensive sets that seemingly left the Arizona defenders completely baffled.
We, though, can't give Howland credit for Arizona's defensive I.Q. being so bad that they couldn't even guard a pick-and-roll, looking like it was the first time they had ever seen it when Jerime Anderson and David Wear executed one easily.
There were some hiccups on UCLA's part. Lazeric Jones had an overall poor game, making a negative play for just about every positive. He almost single-handedly killed UCLA's lead a couple of times, with his bad decision making and shot selection stifling UCLA's offense and allowing Arizona some easy baskets on the other end, which enabled the Wildcats to make two runs – one in the first half and one in the second – that made the game close. Jones is a bit of an enigma. He clearly has kept UCLA in games this season with his offense, but he's also kept opposing teams in games with his offense. Jones started out the season playing the type of game he did against Arizona, but he had settled down and helped carry the Bruin offense for a good stretch. Returning to that bad form against Arizona, and showing it a times throughout other recent games, makes it clear that Jones is going to be a mixed bag most of the time when he takes the court, and you have to both live and die with him.
It does seem, though, that, luckily (again, good timing) that Jerime Anderson has a good game when Jones doesn't, and vice versa. Anderson was a stabilizing force, both on defense and offense. Tyler Lamb, also, showed some maturity in this game, not necessarily looking for his shot but executing the offense and taking what Arizona's bad defense was giving the Bruins, and that was mostly uncontested easy lay-ups from UCLA's bigs. Anderson and Lamb combined for 8 assists against just 2 turnovers and five steals.
You can see Howland's tactical choice of not playing Anthony Stover that much against Arizona. Well, you can understand the rationale, but not necessarily agree with it. Howland, undoubtedly, thought that this wouldn't be a good match-up for Stover, going against Arizona's quicker, smaller frontcourt. It's something Howland has always done, adapted to the opponent, rather than dictating to the opponent. Stover simply brought something to the floor that no one else in the building had, length and athleticism in the post, and when Howland went to him out of desperation in this game (due to the Wears being in foul trouble), Stover showed it. Howland utilized Brendan Lane, and to Lane's credit, he was mostly solid, being athletic enough defensively – and smart enough defensively -- to not allow the Wildcat frontcourt easy baskets. But Stover impacted the game and showed he was a difference-maker because Arizona had no one who could match up with him. It's not that Stover needed to play 35 minutes in this game, but he only played 12, not getting in the game until very late in the first half, and it was clear Howland only gave him 12 minutes because of the Wears' foul trouble.
It seems that Howland's mixing of the man and zone defenses, as we said a few reviews ago, is his best bet. Neither defense is really good, but it does make opponents have to prepare for both and switching between the two gets them out of their rhythm. While Arizona's offense was inept, and probably entirely on its own, the fact that the Wildcats had to execute both an offense against a zone and man definitely contributed to them being out of their rhythm offensively. Howland, did, though, play primarily man defense and it was probably its best performance of the season. Hopefully, though, Howland won't get overly confident in it, realize that the more effective man defense has to do at least partially with utilizing a zone, and not scrap the zone.
Also, much was being made about UCLA being better without Josh Smith, but that's a simplistic view of the game. With the way Arizona's frontcourt was playing – and defending in particular – Smith very well might have had his best game of the season. The Wildcats struggled with the Wears' size, imagine what Smith's bulk would have done to them. And defensively UCLA probably wouldn't have been much worse since Arizona's offense was downright dysfunctional.
There is a recurring issue with the team that happens in almost every game. The Bruins come out too hyped up most of the time, starting the majority of the games committing turnovers, and putting them at a deficit. It's really a testament to how well they take care of the ball the rest of the game when they commit, say, four turnovers in the first two minutes (like they did against Arizona), and finish the game with only 9 total. If the Bruins could start games with the same kind of care they show the rest of the way it would definitely keep them from seemingly having to climb out of a hole every game.
Robert Carpentier, in the game preview, wrote that this game would be so much about whether UCLA could sustain focus and play with heart and intensity throughout. When I read the preview, I completely agreed with him. And even though the Bruins did more or less, the game really didn't come down to that, since Arizona's poor play made it fairly easy for the Bruins to sustain effort.
As I said, this game was more about timing, and particularly good timing for UCLA – in terms of Sean Miller deciding to install Turner again; UCLA getting a frontcourt match-up it could still exploit with Smith out, to the Wears playing well; Anderson and Lamb compensating for Jones' poor game; and UCLA getting one of the worst Arizona teams in recent memory at the Honda Center (which has better energy than the Sports Arena) when it really needed a win desperately.
If UCLA could benefit from this kind of good timing the rest of the season it could have something.