Arizona State was bad. Perhaps one of the two or three worst teams UCLA has played all season.
So, beating the Sun Devils, 75-58, doesn't mean much, except that at least UCLA didn't trip up and got two conference wins to right itself in the Pac-12 at 2-2.
It also means that USC is really bad, too. And we'll almost certainly be writing about how bad they are when the Bruins play them next weekend.
When UCLA plays against such bad teams, and looks good beating them, there's a dilemma drawing any conclusions. You want to believe that what you're seeing is improvement, and you have to believe there is, at the very least, some improvement even when beating up on the Sun Devils. Then again, when you think the Bruins have improved they could take an ill-fated trip to the Bay Area and pretty much make you re-consider all those improvements.
But the optimistic side of our BRO personality makes us believe this UCLA team is making strides, however truncated because of the poor quality of its opponent.
Perhaps the biggest truncated step forward Saturday was Josh Smith showing signs of development. He actually dunked the ball a couple of times, and used the glass in finishing. He caught the ball in the post and was calm and relaxed, as opposed to usually rushing and falling off-balance toward the basket. He scored 18 points in 21 minutes, and stayed in the game for just about the longest stretch of the season for him in the second half. Again, there's an asterisk because next to this because he was playing against barely D-1 post players, but at least there was an indication of some awareness of what he needs to do – like dunk the ball and use the glass. It's uncanny, though, that after scoring by dunk and by glass a few times, he then returned to missing a few gimmes by trying to finger roll it in again, when that big, shiny backboard is sitting there so invitingly. He did have three fouls, and at least a couple of them were stupid ones, which is his M.O., but he generally played with more control and composure. And he still only had 4 rebounds, but at least 3 of them were offensive rebounds. Perhaps the concussion has changed the chemical balance in Smith's brain? I don't think it would be advisable for Smith to intendedly experience a concussion every week in practice.
Along the same lines of Smith perhaps looking so much better because he was playing against ASU's poor bigs, Travis Wear also benefitted, finishing with 16 points and 7 rebounds. Both he and his brother, David Wear, had a good weekend, but it was the Opponents' Bad Big Weekend, as opposed to the Bay Area Exposure Weekend (we think we'll name every weekend for the remainder of the season). The Wears have proven they can be superior to inferior competition, and there's nothing to be ashamed of in that. Now, they have to show they've got themselves set and are ready to take another step, and have a good game against even a decent, high-major frontcourt. What's uncanny is that they very well might not get that test until the Bay Area schools visit Los Angeles.
It's an interesting thing watching the Wears. They're generally very active, and you definitely see it in the game. It appears they're really hitting the boards and dominating them, but then they only average 6.4 rebounds (David) and 4.7 (Travis). Compare that to, say, Reeves Nelson, when he averaged 10 rebounds per game last season, and you didn't seemingly notice those boards near as much. Travis Wear is averaging 25 minutes per game, on a team without a big rebounding big (meaning there are plenty or rebounds available), and he's not one of the top 21 rebounders in the Pac-12. Smith, who isn't a great rebounder by any means, by comparison, is averaging 5.3 rebounds in just 18 minutes per game. I've concluded then that the Wears are benefitting a bit by the Twin Effect -- a phenomenon in which your mind has constructed a kind of Combined Wear that you give credit for so much activity and production. It's really one entity getting credit for the work of two players. It appears like the Combined Wear is getting about 20 points per game and 10 rebounds, but in reality, if you take the true average of the Combined Wear, he's averaging 10 points and 5.5 rebounds. Understanding that helps you re-calibrate your brain in evaluating the Wears. One one hand, it's not fair to the Wears, since they're both individuals, obviously, and deserve individual credit for what each of them accomplishes. But they are also both benefitting a bit from the Twin Effect.
Lazeric Jones showed another side of his game, one that really displayed some maturity. Of course, we have to take into consideration, again, that it was against ASU, but Jones seemingly decided to give up taking bad shots and opt for that extra pass. He took some bad shots early on, but then he seemed to settle in and look for teammates. He finished with an impressive 10 assists against just 1 turnover. It's interesting because Jones clearly has been moved off the ball more, with Jerime Anderson taking over more of the point-guard duties of initiating and executing the offense. But Jones, playing more of an off-guard role this weekend, had one of his best games in creating for others. If you tally up the positive/negative sheet for Jones in this game, at least offensively, it was a game with far more positives affecting the team's play.
The most worrisome aspect of the game was Howland utilizing the man defense for probably 90% of the game. We wrote in the Arizona review that there was a worry Howland, who wants to do anything he can not to play a zone, will begin to believe this team's man defense is pretty good and get away from utilizing the zone. UCLA's defense, really, wasn't great in this game. You have to take into consideration, again, that ASU isn't very good, without really anyone capable of taking a defender off the dribble, except maybe Trent Lockett, a 6-5 wing playing out of position at point guard. UCLA still struggled to stay in front of its players, especially to start the game, with Lockett, in fact, completely toying with Jones for an easy basket, and the Wears getting burned down low by a mediocre post player in Ruslan Pateev. ASU shot 56% in the first half, and still finished the game shooting 49% overall, while they're averaging 46% on the season. UCLA's man was better in the second half, and got far more active, but you still wouldn't call it good. The primary problem with UCLA's man is that the Bruins lack athleticism and have average defensive I.Q.s so rotations and close-outs are late and slow. The zone can mask that better, but the man really exposes it. The Sun Devils, particularly Johnathan Gilling, a poor athlete who is a decent three-point shooter, benefitted from many open looks, scoring 17 points on 5-of-6 shooting from three. Howland used the zone probably not more than a handful of times, and ASU hit a couple of threes over it and that was enough for Howland to reject it. We can't take much from UCLA beating ASU, but we can take this: UCLA's man defense isn't good; it wasn't good against ASU; and UCLA, for it to be successful this season, is going to have to utilize a zone far more than it did against the Sun Devils. We'll see if Howland keeps using it enough or moves to using it less and less.
Howland did throw in a new defensive wrinkle, using a press on a few ASU possessions in the second half. He brought it out when Lockett went to the bench, and ball-handling duties fell to a walk-on freshman, Max Heller (since ASU is down three players due to suspensions). UCLA got one steal from it, and while it wasn't exactly suffocating, it was good enough to put some pressure on Arizona State and force them into some hurried half-court possessions. I suspect the press was mostly a one-time thing because of Heller, but it'd be great if Howland brought it out on occasion during the rest of the season just to keep opposing offenses off-balance.
Perhaps what's most impressive about this UCLA team this season is the way they take care of the ball. The Bruins committed just 8 turnovers against Arizona State, and are #1 in the Pac-12 in turnovers allowed, just 10.9 per game, and third in the Pac-12 in turnover margin (+2.67). It really has been a big factor in keeping UCLA in some games; when the offense can't convert and the defense is giving up easy baskets, at least opposing teams aren't able to make big runs against the Bruins due to a lack of turnovers.
As we said in the Arizona review, UCLA starts games usually pretty sloppy and making mistakes, mostly because they seemed too hyped up and out of control. Against ASU, they looked asleep. They were really sluggish, particularly on the defensive end, and really didn't get out of the funk until the second half. You, at least, have to give the Bruins credit for pulling out of the funk and getting some motivation, against a team that everyone knows is pretty bad.
Hopefully the Bruins will be motivated to not start out in slow motion next Sunday against USC, a team that could very well be worse than ASU.