UCLA did it again, beating a bad Utah team, 76-49.
We aren't, though, going to take absolutely anything from this, like we have before. We can't say that the Bruins looked better, or that they improved with this game. We're not that stupid; we've been down this road (Or should it be post-road) before and you can't fool us this time.
The biggest takeaway? UCLA is extraordinarily fortunate that the Pac-12 (or Pac-10) is the worst it's ever been in its history. If it were even decent, UCLA would be in a heap of trouble. Well, a bigger heap of trouble that they're in at 11-9 and 4-4.
So, if you're going to read any further, don't take anything from it. Don't assume that, since Josh Smith played fairly well in this game, it signals a turnaround for him. He gave you false hope at Arizona State, then followed that up with three of his worst games against USC, Oregon State and Oregon. Of course, it has to be said he played better in this game, led the team in scoring with 14 points in just 18 minutes. But realistically, against a team like Utah that had no one who could remotely stay within three feet of Smith, he should have scored 35 points. So, really, relatively speaking, it wasn't a great performance.
You probably have to discount the play of Jerime Anderson, too, who might have had one of the best, complete, all-around performances of a guard yet this season Thursday night. He did actually miss one shot and had one turnover, but he was close to flawless. He shot the ball well (5 for 6, 2 for 3 from three), and he set up his teammates very well, particularly good at penetrating, jump-stopping and then finding a big with a little drop-off. He also played good D.
But again, don't take anything from it.
As a team, UCLA shot almost 59% from the floor, and kept Utah to 37%. They shot 56% from three, taking good, well-selected three-pointers in rhythm. They sliced up Utah's zone with controlled, smart play from Anderson and Lazeric Jones. They out-rebounded the Utes, 34-23. UCLA's man defense was the best it's ever been this season staying in front of the ball handler and defending screens, and often times defended the Utes to the end of their shot clock. It took about 12 minutes of the game for Utah to get off a shot within the paint, and that was a random putback.
But discount it.
Perhaps the most interesting aspects of the game were some of Ben Howland's use of personnel. Smith and Anthony Stover actually got on the floor together at the same time – in a man defense (UCLA didn't play one possession of zone). It was so unplanned that when Smith was taking the floor to replace one of the Wears, Stover started to jog off and was uncertain what to do when he was told to stay on the court. Norman Powell actually played 21 minutes – when Travis Wear played just 18.
But we found out in Howland's post-game interview that these personnel tweaks were mostly due to the coach trying to keep the Wears fresh for Saturday's game against Colorado. Howland said: "I didn't want to bring the Wears back in because we needed to keep their minutes down getting ready for Saturday's game and not playing them more than they have to."
In regard to Stover and Smith playing together, Howland said, "That won't be something that we'll be going to a lot I don't think."
At the very least, the coach realized that a big contributing factor to UCLA's losses in the state of Oregon was fatigue. But it's funny, and extremely telling, that the players he first and foremost wants to keep fresh, and values the most, are the Wears. Jones played 32 minutes – in a near 30-point blowout -- and you'd think it'd be pretty imperative to keep him fresh for Saturday.
Give the team credit for playing well, on both ends of the court. Even if you have to discount it, the offensive execution is pretty. UCLA runs the same set, with a guard flashing out to catch and turn, and then the post downscreening for a curling wing/guard, and then the post rolling to the basket. There are, like with any set, many shooting options out of this, and UCLA has executed it consistently well – even when you would have to believe that opposing teams know exactly what they're going to do. But this Bruin team executes it so well it continues to be effective.
But we know not to be fooled. At this point, at 11-9, and five of UCLA's remaining 11 games on the road, and home games against Stanford, Cal and Washington, probably the three tops teams in the conference, you just can't fool yourself into believing UCLA has a very good chance of salvaging a slightly positive season. It would be positively revolutionary if UCLA actually won a game on the road, since it hasn't won one all season (we just can't count the game at USC). Particularly worrisome is the upcoming road game at Washington, the most difficult place to play in the conference, where UCLA hasn't won since 2003-2004, a game being televised on ESPN.
Give the team credit, too, for continuing to play hard and seemingly staying tuned in to the task at hand. You might think that, after the Oregon trip, the players could be starting to check out, and that could very well begin to happen. But it was fairly clear in this game that it hasn't happened, with the team staying focused throughout. But playing a bad team with an RPI of 252 among 345 teams will do that for you.