That was probably the worst USC team I've ever seen.
There, got it out and over with.
UCLA played well in stints and not-so-well in other sequences, and it was easily enough to beat the D-2 Trojans.
The run that the Bruins put together in the second ten minutes of the first half was probably good enough to win the game by itself. UCLA might have been able to just sit down on the court and lose every possession and still win because of that ten minutes or so when the Bruins outscored USC 28-10, shot 13 for 15, outrebounding USC 11-4, had 6 assists and forced USC into four turnovers. It was very pretty basketball, with UCLA getting points in transition (running a textbook break with Jerime Anderson leading and feeding Travis Wear), Anthony Stover blocking two shots in a row leading to Lazeric Jones hitting consecutive jumpers, one of them a three-pointer, and the Bruins executing their halfcourt offense very efficiently, making the extra pass to find the open man. It also really helps when you seemingly make every shot you take.
We know it can't always be that way, but heck, that was fun to watch.
It wasn't just random luck, though, that made that sequence. There were definitely some factors that contributed, and those factors could continue to contribute to the team having more sequences like that for the rest of the season.
First, the team, as a whole, is really buying into Ben Howland's halfcourt sets. Perhaps more than any team under Howland at UCLA. That's right – this team might be doing something better than any other UCLA team under Ben Howland. It might be that this team is made up of players who have subverted their egos to enough degree and it shows in the execution of the offense. The Bruins are getting lay-ups as a result of halfcourt execution, with sharp screens and cuts being made by their bigs, and a trio of guards that are willing to look for their teammates rather than their shot most of the time. Howland's offense is about execution, and in the past there was always one or two players who wouldn't quite put in enough effort – be lazy on setting a screen or late on a cut – and the entire offensive set would be out-of-sync. But this group more often executes well offensively, mostly because Travis Wear and David Wear are following orders to a T, and Anderson, Jones and Tyler Lamb are doing exactly what they need to do in terms of moving and passing.
The Wear brothers aren't stupid; they realize that if they buy in and execute they'll fill up their stat lines, which they did Sunday. Travis led all scorers with 19 points and David had a very solid 13. Travis now has put a string of three games together in which he's averaging 18.3 points, and is shooting 68% from the floor, mostly because the great majority of his shots are point blank as a result of successful execution of the offense. These guys are Howland's dream players – good kids who do exactly what they're told and execute his offense with an attention to detail, with very little selfish deviation. Even when one of them takes an outside jumper that is seemingly out of the flow of the offense it's because they have a greenlight from Howland to take it.
Jones, too, is buying in. He's far less prone to go rogue and over-penetrate like he did in the beginning of the season. In keeping track of his penetration in this game, there was only one that was perhaps ill-advised, while 6 were with a clear purpose, either leading to an open lane to the basket or an assist. It's definitely benefitting his stat line also, in this game scoring 15 points, with 5 assists against just 2 turnovers. You have to give Jones a great deal of credit not only getting his game under control but also making strides in passing the ball.
The team, as a whole, looks like they have a completely different offensive mindset – the kind you sense from good teams that take the floor with confidence. You can see it in their body language and the purpose they have in executing offensively that they believe in the offensive sets.
Defense also contributed to that game-winning run in the first half. UCLA used man-to-man defensive exclusively, with no zone, and there were a few little wrinkles. For one, UCLA didn't double the post, which actually got them burned early on, but it proved to be a smart move. Without doubling there are far less rotation assignments, which these Bruins are notoriously bad at doing. Howland had confidence that his bigs could stay with USC's bigs one-on-one and he was correct. Then, instead of UCLA pushing through and going around screens, UCLA did some switching, which also helps a team like this that isn't good at staying with its man. It seemed, at one point, to confuse USC, since so much of their offense was predicated off a high ball screen. It also was greatly significant that Anthony Stover was in the game for a majority of that first-half run; if you're talking defense, UCLA is clearly a better defensive team with Stover in the game, not only blocking shots but making opponents aware of his presence and altering shots.
And then there was the rebounding. It was truly where UCLA was clearly dominant, out-rebounding the Trojans by a whopping 44-19 for the game, and 21-7 in the first half. And much of that, too, is UCLA's players buying in – the bigs blocking out effectively and the wings and guards crashing. Not only did Travis have 8 and David 7 rebounds, but Anderson had 5 and Norman Powell had 6.
The Bruins couldn't sustain that quality of play in the second half. In fact, the last 20 minutes were mostly made up of slow-footed offensive execution and some very slack man defense. The Bruins only beat the Trojans by a point in the second half, shot just 38% after shooting 64% in the first half, and allowed USC to shoot 42% after it had shot 29% in the first. It also had 9 turnovers in the second half as opposed to 5 in the first 20 minutes. It was, to a degree, a matter of any team not being able to sustain such superior play and execution, especially after the opposing team that is well coached like USC, especially defensively, makes some second-half adjustments. It was also, to a degree, a matter of the Bruins losing focus and intensity.
Then there is the issue of Josh Smith. Against Arizona, when Smith didn't play because of a concussion, UCLA played well and won, and many observers attributed that to Smith not being on the floor. I thought that was a little short-sighted, that Smith probably would have dominated Arizona. But it was all speculation. Against USC, it wasn't left to speculation since Smith played in this game and UCLA was clearly better with him on the bench. This isn't to say that this is clear proof that UCLA is better without Smith. There are just too many elements to every game and every match-up for such a broad statement to be absolutely true. Against Arizona and USC, two teams with pretty bad frontcourts, UCLA doesn't need Smith. So, without him – and then adding Stover – the Bruins are a much better defensive team. That's obvious: They're better defensively without Smith. Offensively, against USC, they were better without Smith since it was easier to execute Howland's offense without him in the game. USC's defense was entirely geared toward stopping Smith from getting touches, with its bigs fronting him. And Smith obliged, not working hard enough to get position once a USC big did front him. The ball would rotate to Smith's side but he was fronted or had given up. Once you removed Smith from the offense, it seemed like USC – and, if you remember, Arizona – didn't know how to defend UCLA nearly as well. In other words, Smith might very well help UCLA's offense more being on the bench since opposing teams are preparing so much to stop him in the post and look lost defensively when he's not in the game.
Now, this could all be moot as soon as Smith's light turns on, and he decides he's going to work harder in the post, not commit silly fouls and just simply use the backboard or dunk the ball, and opposing defenses can't stop him regardless of what they throw at him. But until then, UCLA will, at the least, have to take advantage of teams preparing defensively to stop him and then not seemingly being prepared to face UCLA's offense without him. I think opposing coaches feel they need to pick their poison – that they'd rather work on a defense that shuts down Smith and allow the Wears and Co. to do what they'll do. And for now, Howland looks like he's fine with that.
It has to be noted, too, that Powell's presence on the floor helps simply by upgrading UCLA's athleticism on the floor. There's one more quicker body to match up against opposing defenses. He played 23 minutes in this game, and is averaging 21 minutes per game in conference play, so he's getting enough minutes as this point in the season to make an impact. He looks more comfortable and confident, but we'll see how that holds up when he goes on the road in Oregon and Washington.
Perhaps the biggest worry over this game, again, is the zone being unused. It's abundantly clear that Howland doesn't like zone and vastly prefers man, and it seems like he's starting to edge back toward using man exclusively. It'd be foolish to really believe that your man defense is better because it shut down this bad USC team and not to know that these Bruins need to be able to go to a zone to be effectively defensively. You would think that Howland, at the very least, when UCLA is up by 20 or so against USC, would utilize the zone for a few possessions just to keep it from getting rusty, if he were intending to use it extensively again.
Now the Bruins go on the road, a place that pretty recently wasn't very nice to them. It will be interesting to see against the Oregon schools -- and then on the road against the Washington schools in the next few weeks -- if this UCLA team has actually made some strides since the Bay Area trip, and if the team they showed they can be Sunday night is a result of them starting to gel or just playing against bad competition. Sitting at 10-7, with four of its next six games on the road, and all four of those road games looking like they'll be tough ones, and then playing conference leading Stanford and California at home after that, this is where it will be made clear and the season pretty much gets decided.