So much, however, became far more clear in UCLA's win against Long Beach State Tuesday night at Pauley Pavilion, 89-70.
What we saw was quite a bit closer to the team that we thought the Bruins would be before the season: one that could score in bunches -- and have to out-score you to win.
You could say that this was perhaps the first game when the Bruins played up to expectation this season.
We've repeated in our reviews a number of times that you couldn't derive much from the specific game because of the mediocre level of competition. Long Beach State was probably in that mediocre category also, but at least it had a couple of very high level players that did present a challenge to the Bruins,
And UCLA overcame that challenge, again, by out-scoring it.
As you would expect from a game that pitted a UCLA team that needs to outscore you and a Long Beach State team with two players, the game was within single digits for most of the night. You had the feeling UCLA was always on the verge of busting it open, but the 49ers hung around -- because, with those two players, that was enough for LBSU to do so against a UCLA team that plays mostly poor defense.
UCLA's offense was just about what you would expect for this team when it's playing well. Shabazz Muhammad looks like he's almost completely acclimated, and about the guy we thought he'd be this season. He scored 21 points on a combination of some good outside shooting, transition points and his sheer will inside. Muhammad, as we expected, hasn't been able to take a defender off the dribble, but is a force around the basket, either in scoring with accurate floaters or just working hard on the offensive glass to get putbacks. He had four offensive rebounds (to only two defensive rebounds), mostly because it's clear he's highly motivated on the offensive side of the court to get the ball and put it in the basket.
Jordan Adams, after a poor offensive outing against Prairie View A&M, bounced back to score a team-high 24 points, on 8-of-11 shooting and 3-of-5 from three. He was far more in rhythm offensively than he was Saturday, a result of him clearly being in a better groove Tuesday, but also because Long Beach State, as opposed to PVAM, seemed to not realize that Adams can fill it up. PVAM did a few things to get Adams out of his rhythm, mostly playing him tight, bumping him and being physical with him, but LBSU pretty much decided to allow Adams all the space he needed. Adams, when he's playing well and his shot is going down, also brings quite a bit more to the court than just a spot-up shooting touch; he is a scrappy offensive player, clever around the basket and good at cleaning up garbage. His ability, too, to draw fouls (he shot five of six from the line) boosts his scoring at least a few points a game.
Larry Drew continues to improve offensively, not only in his ability to find his teammates with assists but to be more of an offensive threat himself. He scored his season-high 14 points Tuesday, and did it all within the flow of the offense, making 6 of 7 from the floor and knocking down two open threes that needed to be knocked down. His total of nine assists were pretty typical, but he's clearly getting more comfortable in UCLA's offense and is being a bit more aggressive in his passing, which has paid off with some easier baskets for his teammates. He had a couple of flashier assists, one early to Travis Wear in semi-transition, another on a nice drop off to Muhammad on a break. He's clearly seeing opportunities more and making the pass.
The Wears played their offensive roles well. They are good face-up shooters, who use the pick-and-pop well, and find open looks from around 10-17 feet consistently as a second or third option in UCLA's offense. David Wear, in his 23 minutes off the bench, had 11 points and seemed to have more of a shooting touch in this one than his brother Travis. Combined, they went 9 for 14 and added 19 points between the two of them.
Kyle Anderson didn't score much (8 points) and missed his two three-point attempts, but was a critical part in UCLA's offense, many times either getting the assist (4 on the night) or making the pass before the assist. He had one really great assist that was all instinct when he found David Wear with a bounce pass slipping to the basket off a down screen.
The Bruins' Early Offense, too, really reaped some rewards against LBSU, not necessarily in traditional breaks but in getting early open looks. Adams and Muhammad definitely benefitted from Anderson and Drew getting the ball in their hands before the 49ers could get set in their defense. The Early Offense sometimes lures the Bruins into taking bad, early shots, but when the opposing defense is pretty lazy in picking up shooters in semi-transition, like Long Beach State did, most of the early, bad shots go in. It was curious, too, since the 49er strategy was to quickly drop defenders back after a shot; it then had the bodies back to defend in transition but those bodies were just pretty bad in picking up open Bruin shooters. What it effectively did was take 49er bodies off the offensive glass, with UCLA sometimes having four Bruins rebounding the ball to one 49er, but it then wasn't effective in shutting down UCLA in semi-transition. Pretty much the best of both worlds for the Bruins. Long Beach State used some zone and man defense, even though its man looked like a zone much of the time. It was a weird defensive approach -- to pretty much sag in and clog the middle, when UCLA's primary offense truly doesn't come from the paint (Josh Smith transferred, remember?) It left Bruins open for outside looks and UCLA took advantage, shooting a whopping 59% from the field and 50% from three. That 59%, too, wasn't necessarily inflated by many dunks and lay-ins; UCLA earned that 59% by hitting its outside shots.
Defensively, well, UCLA just isn't very good. Without looking at the stats you'd say that Long Beach State shot the ball poorly, but they actually shot 48%, and 52% in the first half. The takeaway from that would be: If Long Beach State had actually made more of its open shots it would have probably been far more in this game. UCLA's defense, both on the perimeter and inside, is just plainly slack. Like we said, this game illustrated so much about this team, and it clearly showed that UCLA has some pretty poor post defenders, with the Wears and Anderson unable to control Long Beach State's junior post Dan Jennings. The 6-9, 255-pounder pretty much had his way with all three of them, mostly the Wears, backing them down in the post and scoring over and around them easily. UCLA went back to its Ben Howland tradition of attempting to double the post, and it did cause a couple of turnovers, but the double was slow and clueless many times when Jennings caught the ball down low. He had his career game, scoring 27, accented by one particular putback dunk in which UCLA's defenders stood and watched, without thinking about blocking out, as Jennings soared over them and slammed it back in.
For so long we've been emphasizing that the Wears have athletic limitations, but when they match up against mid- or low-major post players it's just not that clear. Against Jennings, who is a high-major post, it was clear. Then throw in a freshman, Anderson, who isn't very athletic himself, and you have an NBA-looking guy in Jennings looking about as much of an NBA guy as he could in front of a handful of NBA scouts in attendance. Jennings needs to send UCLA's bigs a gift certificate to Fat Sal's as a thank-you.
UCLA's perimeter defense, too, isn't much better. While Adams is worth having on the floor, especially when he's producing on the offensive end like he was Tuesday night, he can really be a slack defender, too. He does make a couple of clever defensive plays, mostly in poking away passes with good anticipation, but he lacks lateral athleticism, and then sometimes just plainly doesn't put in the effort defensively.
In the run-up to this game, so much was made of Drew potentially stepping up his defense, with Howland saying that Drew should assert himself more defensively with his quickness. In his post-game interview, Howland praised Drew for his defense on Long Beach State's point guard, Mike Caffey, and Drew did play better defensively, putting more pressure on the ball, but it wasn't consistent enough and didn't have as much of an impact as you might think. Caffey's scoring was down (he scored 6 instead of his average of 10), but he's not a scorer, and he was still effective in getting the ball to the teammates who should be getting the ball.
UCLA, defensively, had no one who could match up with the other NBA-level guy on Long Beach State, James Ennis, who scored 20. UCLA tried a few of guys on him, Shabazz Muhammad, the Wears and Anderson, but it was another instance of a a clear exposure of UCLA's personnel, in this case, the limitations it has athletically in being able to defend a 6-7, long athlete who can both shoot it a bit and take you off the dribble. UCLA's defenders sagged off him, obviously preferring he shoot rather than drive, but also looked a bit afraid to defend him. There is definitely not a Luc Richard Mbah a Moute on UCLA's roster that Howland can put on someone like Ennis to shut him down.
Luckily, both Ennis and Jennings collected four fouls each about halfway through the second half and, not coincidentally, it's when UCLA started to pull away. Long Beach State's Don Monson had to try to manage them, actually keeping both off the court at the same time for a stint, and UCLA took advantage.
So often UCLA fans (heck, all fans) complain about the officiating when it goes against their hometown team, but never seem to notice one-sided officiating when it goes in their favor. If you were a Long Beach State fan you very well might have noticed some poor officiating, mostly with LBSU getting called excessively compared to UCLA. The 49ers were called for 16 fouls to UCLA's 7. When both Ennis and Jennings were on the bench with four fouls each, UCLA had 5 total fouls. Ennis and Jennings being unable to stay on the floor in the stretch drive of the second have due to foul trouble was clearly a factor in this game.
So, these are your 2012-2013 Bruins. This is UCLA, this season, in its true form. It's now clear, and it's manifested itself in the way we pretty much thought it would: UCLA is going to score in bunches, but then be unable to put even a decent defensive team on the court. UCLA will probably continue to improve on defense incrementally throughout the rest of the season, but this game clearly illustrated that there is no overcoming UCLA's lack of athleticism on defense.
A few other things, too, have seemingly become clear: That Ben Howland is going to shorten his bench even further, if that's possible. Norman Powell played 16 minutes and Tony Parker a mere five. Powell never got in the flow, forcing some shots early, and then was pretty much relinquished to the bench. While Parker might have been beaten like a drum by Jennings, he couldn't have really done much worse than the Wears. And here's the thing: Parker is an athletic big man who might give Howland his best chance at a decent post defender by the end of the season. Playing against Jennings, even getting worked over by him, might have been a big step in his development. With only 8 scholarship players, Howland looks like he's widdling down his rotation to six, the starters and David Wear. At least it makes it easier to deal with that pesky problem of getting everyone playing time on a deep team.
This game was a great look at what you're probably going to see the rest of the season and throughout Pac-12 play. It's a UCLA team that is starting to come together offensively as Muhammad gets comfortable and will attempt to out-score you. But one thing to consider: The Pac-12, while not talented by any means, will be far better at scouting and preparing defensively for UCLA than was Long Beach State. I would bet the Pac-12 will put a far better defense to match up against UCLA than that sagging man/zone Long Beach State had, and be far better in finding shooters in transition. UCLA's defense is limited, so hope that UCLA's offense continues to get better, and get even more points in transition, if it's going to be able to succeed in the Pac-12.
Now that we know exactly what type of team this is, we'll also get to see how it matches up against a potential Sweet 16 team when it faces #12-ranked Missouri next Friday.