Just when you thought they were out, they pull themselves back in.
After a revolting loss at Cal on Thursday, the Bruins bounced back and beat a motivated Stanford team, 88-80. The win was critical to keeping UCLA in the Pac-12 race, and vital in keeping the team from falling off the proverbial cliff after Thursday.
We've been talking about the types of games you'll see out of this team, given their talent and style of play, and the last two games are really perfect examples. We had said earlier in the season that, given UCLA's dependence on its shooting and transition scoring, combined with some usually pedestrian defense, the team would be susceptible to getting blown out when it doesn't shoot well, and especially when it plays with little effort like it did in the first half against Cal. But then, on the other hand, Saturday was the other stereotypical example of this team's performance – when it's still playing its pedestrian defense but hitting its shots and getting points in transition. It beat a pretty mediocre Stanford team, 88-80, and outscored them to do it. UCLA shot a sizzling 54% from the field and 50% from three (6 of 12), and that's something when there is a very low percentage of its shots taken from within five feet of the basket. For any team that would have an interior offensive game and be better in its offensive rebounding that's the equivalent of shooting about 70% for the game.
As Robert Carpentier keeps emphasizing in his BRO game previews, it's all about match-ups, and the reason UCLA played one of its stereotypically good games was because of its favorable match-ups against the Cardinal. Stanford just didn't have much in the way of matching up defensively against UCLA's explosive offense. In particular, Andy Brown is a limited athlete who would have problems matching up against a high-major power forward, much less a talented scoring small forward like Shabazz Muhammad. When Brown was on the bench, the assignment went to Muhammad's former high school teammate, an equally limited athlete and power forward – and freshman – Roscoe Allen. When UCLA made its first run in the first half with about 8 minutes remaining, there was a play that really typified the defensive challenge for the Cardinal: in transition, Muhammad ran by Allen, who was trying desperately to get his body moving to keep up with Muhammad, when Larry Drew laid out a pretty bounce pass for Muhammad, and Allen, big and stiff, flailed at it as it skipped past him, into the hands of Muhammad for an easy dunk. Not to sound like we have the stereotypically unattainable high expectations of UCLA fans, according to the national media, but UCLA actually didn't do enough to exploit Muhammad's offensive match-up advantage. He was the high scorer for the game with 25 points, but he got 8 of those in the last minute and a half. If there was a game when Muhammad should have been clapping and demanding the ball, this was it, but UCLA didn't get it to him enough.
Looking at the game from a pure player match-up perspective, it's easy to see why UCLA won. The Cardinal defensively couldn't match up against UCLA from player to player, the only exception being Stanford's Dwight Powell over-matching the Wears in the post. Drew and Jordan Adams functioned in their offensive roles pretty unencumbered for the game, because of the easy match-ups Stanford had for them defensively.
Really, the one really exceptional performance by a Bruin, given his Cardinal match-up, was Kyle Anderson. Besides the Powell/Wears match-up, the Anderson/Josh Huestis match-up is one that definitely leans in Stanford's favor in terms of athleticism. Huestis matches Anderson in size, but is a superior athlete. But throughout the game, Anderson pretty much owned Huestis – and most importantly, on both ends of the floor. Anderson had a stellar game, scoring 18 points and getting a game-leading 13 rebounds against Huestis, mostly by having better basketball instincts. There were so many times in this game when Anderson's smarts overcame Huestis's athletic superiority, in Anderson's craftiness around the basket on offense, or in his ability to get to a defensive spot before Huestis on the other end. It was a critical match-up, because given the personnel UCLA and Stanford could put on the floor, winning this match-up, on both ends of the floor, seemed to tip the scales toward the Bruins.
This UCLA team, clearly, is all about out-scoring you. The approach was very evident again Saturday, with the Bruins playing pretty mediocre defense for most of the game but winning just merely because it can put the ball in the basket with more regularity than the Cardinal. But it might have been on the defensive end where Anderson did most of his scale-tipping for the game. Huestis scored a pretty quiet 11 points, and even though it was right around his scoring average on the season, it was a match-up athletically Huestis could have exploited for 20+, but Anderson, for the most part, played good defense against him. It was critical, because in the other post match-up, Powell's athleticism was clearly exploiting the limited defense of the Wears, with Powell scoring almost effortlessly around the basket and finishing with 22 points. In the games that UCLA has lost or not played well in for the last month, Anderson more or less lost his defensive match-up with his opponent. With the defensive ability of the UCLA center position very limited and with no potential to get better (since Tony Parker is sitting on the bench, undeveloped), a critical aspect of UCLA's remaining season could be the improvement of Anderson's defense. Like in this Stanford game, he's flashed some hints of being able to match up defensively against better athletes, and as he continues to improve defensively that could be the tipping point more often in future games.
The Stanford game was clearly going to be decided by who might get a couple of defensive stops here or there. UCLA, offensively, was scoring almost on every possession, and Stanford was answering, being able to score against UCLA's defense. It seemed like all either team needed was a few stops for a short stretch, and it'd be able to establish a 6-to-8 point lead and then continue to exchange baskets, hold out and win. Stanford tried to get those few stops by going to a zone a few times, but that didn't even minimize its individual player match-up deficiencies. It ended up being pretty simple: UCLA's offensive advantage over Stanford's poor defense was 8-points superior to Stanford's offensive advantage over UCLA's mediocre defense.
As we said, it was a critical win in keeping the Bruins apace in the Pac-12 race. A loss would have been devastating, with the Bruins probably having the toughest remaining schedule among the contenders. It's clear, too, that UCLA definitely has a chance to win the conference, since anything can happen in the wild and wooly Pac-12 this season -- anyone can beat anyone on any floor on any given day. In fact, the Pac-12 is so shaky and volatile that, if not for a stupid foul committed by Washington State's Dexter Kernich-Drew in overtime against Oregon, your UCLA Bruins could very well be tied for the conference lead right now.
Hopefully these Bruins will approach their remaining games, and most critically its remaining conference road games, with the focus they had in the last three halves, and the first half of the Cal game functioning as a wake-up call for the remainder of the season.