In several game reviews this season, we've provided the caveat that UCLA's opponent just wasn't very good. And it's certainly been true—the Pac-12 is undertalented, as it has been for most of the last three years, and UCLA's non-conference slate was full of soft, delicious cupcakes.
While the Buffaloes aren't world beaters by any stretch, Saturday's win over Colorado marked one of the few times this year where UCLA has played a decent team, and in that respect it was probably one of the Bruins' more encouraging games of the season.
UCLA , to a large extent, spent most of the game getting easier shot opportunities than Colorado, which is a testament to the Bruins' offensive efficiency and, perhaps more importantly, their improving defensive effort that is creating better shot opportunities in transition. What was interesting about this game is that clearly, from the opening tip, UCLA's goal was to run, even after made baskets. With Colorado's defense being fairly good in the half court, the Bruins' played as if the goal was to never let them get fully set up, and for most of the first thirty minutes, that worked like a charm. Colorado made some difficult shots in the first half, so you had the sense at the half that UCLA would have a good chance at pulling away, just given the disparity in the kinds of shots both teams were getting.
It's really astounding, actually, that UCLA was able to get such high quality shots given that Larry Drew did not play a particularly good game. He looked a bit out of sync offensively, and it might very well be the case that he was worn down after playing a lot of minutes at altitude on Thursday and then had to wake up early for the game on Saturday. Whatever the case, he didn't look like his usual self, but still didn't turn the ball over much. More than his assists, his ability to keep the ball in UCLA's possession is one of the biggest assets he's provided this year's team. Is there much doubt that Ben Howland would have nixed this Early Offense if Drew turned the ball over, say, three or four times per game?
Kyle Anderson, though, picked up the slack for Drew. During the second half run, where UCLA pulled ahead 58-45, Anderson actually spearheaded the initial burst with Drew on the bench. Anderson has combined in the last two games for two very encouraging performances, and he seems to be settling into his role fairly well. His commitment on the glass is probably the biggest asset he provides the team, so it's encouraging to see that he recognizes that and continues to do it.
The one worry, of course, is the last ten minutes of the game. In one of the few points that Ernie Kent made over the last two games that was relevant, Kent observed that UCLA slowed its pace down to milk the clock much too early, and, from our vantage point, he was correct. With about 9 minutes to go (until about the four minute mark) and the Bruins up by 13, UCLA tried to milk the clock more than it had all game. It's a Howland staple, of course, the desire to take the air out of the ball as soon as his team has a decently sized lead, but it's always been one that's a bit curious. It's even more curious when you consider the nature of this year's team. Given that the Early Offense, and neither the defense nor the deep shot clock offense, is the strength of the team, and given that UCLA probably has more offensive talent than most of its opponents this year, it makes more sense to maximize possessions on offense to get as many of them as possible. Up 20 with 9 minutes to go, it's probably a different story. With a lead of just 13, though, it's probably a bit early to start milking.
Still, that wasn't the only issue with the end game. The defense, which had been passably decent most of the game, with only a few breakdowns that mostly weren't converted into points, broke down considerably over the last nine minutes. Colorado scored 30 of its 75 points in the last 9:38, and that tremendous scoring load was due in large part to poor rotations on defense by the Bruins.
Muhammad, as was pointed out by Kent, looked very bad on a couple of rotations, but most everyone was guilty at that point in the game. Anderson, who had been active all game, looked like he tired down the stretch, and Drew also looked fatigued. Obviously, much of the defensive woes at the end can be attributed to fatigue. As the second game of the mountain road trip, at high altitude, it's understandable.
We've said this a few times now in the last few weeks, so it might be becoming a trend, but Travis Wear probably had his best game as a Bruin on Saturday. Offensively, he was automatic facing up, and made a variety of shots late to stifle Colorado's huge rally. Defensively, he generally played pretty well, looking active on the perimeter and, on the few times UCLA hedged, was much better than his brother at recovering. Indeed, it might be about time to discontinue the use of the term "The Wears". Travis, at this point, is clearly a better player on both ends of the court, with David having serious deficiencies on the defensive end that diminish what value he has on the offensive side. In this game in particular, there were a number of instances where he rotated poorly, or complained about a foul call, or just gave poor effort on the defensive end.
Travis, though, for the second consecutive game, largely saved what could have been a devastating loss in the last four minutes. Much like Jordan Adam's mid-range pull up, or Shabazz Muhammad's running one-hander, Travis Wear from 14 to 16 feet is more or less automatic. It's to the point where it's amazing that teams aren't setting up inside of his shirt on defense, given that he's not much of a threat to drive.
Muhammad again didn't have a great game, and didn't provide much of an impact on either the glass or on defense to offset his offensive woes. When his shot isn't going in as much as he'd like, he really does need to learn how to impact the game in other ways. His defensive lapses became more noticeable as the game wore on, which was in contrast to Jordan Adams, who actually played with some generally good effort for much of the game, even if he does have some athletic limitations that got exposed a couple of times. Adams, too, continued to show his penchant for scoring from mid-range during this game. Surprisingly, his three point percentage isn't even that good this year, at about 35%, but he's hitting about 48% overall. Because he's developed a reputation as a gunner from three, he doesn't have to show much of a fake to get defenders to bite, which allows him to take one or two dribbles and pull up from 12 feet or so.
Tony Parker played some decent minutes, and actually looked OK on the defensive end for a series of possessions. He had one play where he pretty clearly fouled his man, and looked a little immobile in the post (rather than immovable), but he luckily didn't get called. On the offensive end, he once again showed some nice touch on a decent jump hook. The flagrant was a pretty obvious elbow, though, and given how few minutes he's already playing, he should probably avoid doing those outwardly damaging things.
Norman Powell played a much better game than he did two nights ago. He was much more under control on offense, and his defensive effort was better. He didn't seem to get totally in rhythm, as Howland seemed to have a bit of a shorter leash with him today. His three to go up 61-48 was huge, as that was at the start of Colorado's big run.
Looking ahead, now, the prospects for this team are looking, actually, pretty good in the Pac-12. At 4-0 in conference, and 14-3 overall, UCLA reasonably only has to win seven more games in the regular season to ensure a tournament slot. At this point, though, it's unlikely that UCLA wins any less than 8 or 9 more games, given the way the schedule breaks and what we now know about the quality of the conference (it stinks). Much will hinge on how UCLA plays against Oregon next week and at the Arizona schools the following week, but it looks pretty clear that the Bruins are, at the very least, one of the top three teams in the conference, with potential to compete for the regular season championship. And if the Bruins somehow manage to sweep the next two weeks, or even go 3-1, then very quickly the remainder of the conference season will become a battle for NCAA tournament seeding for the Bruins.
How's that for things you never thought you'd say after UCLA lost to Cal Poly?
UCLA Gets Big Win in Boulder
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