Monday night Cal State San Marcos offered up a few challenges to UCLA but, of course, not enough to even approach making the game close, with the Bruins prevailing 109-79.
There was no way CSSM could threaten the Bruins, without a D-1 post player on the roster. It made it appear like UCLA's Tony Parker was playing in a 6-foot-and-under league.
But San Marcos did do some things that exposed some of what could be UCLA's weaknesses, particularly its defense. The Bruins could defend CSSM pretty easily, because of the size differential, but there were enough possessions in which the under-manned Cougars were good enough to give the Bruins some problems. UCLA's man D is sagging in the paint, obviously to compensate for a team-wide lack of quickness in staying in front of the ball. But there is clearly a trade-off, and that's allowing far too many outside open looks because they're late in closing out. It exacerbates the problem when the team isn't playing with much defensive intensity, closing out lethargically and losing their man quite often. There were many instances in which a UCLA defender, after being screened on the perimeter, would simply let his man go, and it wasn't just that they were switching.
Not particularly defending well Monday were freshmen Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford. LaVine clearly doesn't know how to defend very well, and doesn't seem to be very interested in it. Alford struggled with the San Marcos' guards quickness, which isn't a good sign, and athletically is a bit stiff, which doesn't lend itself particularly well to defending. They are freshmen, though, in their second exhibition game, so you have to give them somewhat of a pass. But the real worry is the lack of defensive urgency from the team as a whole, with the veterans not looking particularly committed to D. Jordan Adams isn't a great man defender, so he needs to keep his defensive intensity and focus at a consistently high level – but that wasn't the case Monday. Perhaps he'll improve as he continues to recover from the foot injury. You would think Parker would have a good defensive game, since he blocked and altered so many shots and plugged the lane, but on the few possessions where he had to actually play post defense he struggled to move his feet. David Wear isn't a good defender and he fell asleep a couple of times defending his own man and in help defense Monday. It allowed CSSM to drive lanes, do a couple of back-doors and get to the basket. They didn't necessarily finish, since they didn't have D-1 height and athleticism to do it against, but the fact that they were able to get into the paint fairly easy is a worry.
Perhaps the biggest defensive worry is the lack of hustle in getting back in transition. Cal State San Bernardino and Cal State San Marcos both scored far too many points in transition merely because the Bruins were lazy in getting back. You can't fault a defender if he just naturally isn't good at defending, but there's no excuse for the worst, most-non-athletic defender not hustling back in transition.
UCLA's zone defense, though, has some potential. The Bruins utilized it for about 15 possessions, for about four or five consecutively in the first half, and it easily was the best and most cohesive of UCLA's defensive possessions. Coach Steve Alford employed mostly a 2-3 zone, but it morphed a bit into a 1-2-2, depending on the personnel on the floor, apparently. Many of the same issues the team had in man it had in zone – a lack of intensity and laziness in closing out on shooters – but those issues, at least, are masked more in a zone.
It wasn't coincidental that the game overall looked cleaner, less sloppy and more fundamentally sound when the Bruins were in a zone.
After two exhibitions it's clear that defense is going to be an issue, in the zone or in the sagging man in the halfcourt, and with intensity in defensive transition. When it faces even just a decently good outside shooting D-1 team, there is a potential for a massive amount of open outside looks. When it faces a good running team it's going to give up some easy transition baskets. If it faces a good transition team that can shoot from the outside, well, that could be a considerable problem.
Of course, it's only been two exhibition games, so it's far too early to think that the defense can't get vastly better. As I said, the zone shows some considerable potential, given the team's length and size.
You do get the feeling, though, from these two games, that this team is going to have to outscore its opponents, and that it has that capability. To do so, they'll need some easy baskets, and transition scoring has been promising in both exhibition games; the team definitely shows interest in getting up the floor in transition. What's key is that there are enough players on the roster who have a good feel for passing on the break to go along with good finishers in Adams, Powell and LaVine. It's clear that the team has a green light to run, and not the controlled transition, or "early offense" of Ben Howland from a season ago. Adams, as you might remember, is lethal in transition and semi-transition. If he's able just to get a little space, and not necessarily leading a traditional break, but just as a trailer, or taking advantage of the defense not matched up yet, Adams will pick you apart.
Of course, the concern is that, when you face D-1 competition, transition is based on rebounding, but trying to conclude anything in terms of UCLA's rebounding from the San Marcos game would be extremely dubious. Alford has emphasized a few times that defensive rebounding is an area the team has to work on.
The halfcourt offense against CSSM showed more good signs than poor ones. The players look completely comfortable in the motion, even though it's pretty easy to look comfortable when there's only resistance coming in the form of a D-2-level defense. But even beyond the level of competition, you can see there is an ease within the offense for the players. It's a player-friendly offense, and when you generally have happy players that are comfortable they're going to be more apt to score. Norman Powell looks like the poster boy for this.
Anderson led all scorers with 22 points, and looked the most composed and at-ease shooting the ball than he ever has. He hit a couple of threes and some smooth baseline jumpers. His shot mechanics are still slow, but he looks far more confident in his shot than last season. Anderson finished with a triple double, with 10 assists and 12 rebounds.
Parker looked good offensively, but you would expect him to matched up against small San Marcos. He scored 17 and had 16 boards, but there were things he was able to do in this game – like pluck a rebound from over the head of an opponent without leaving his feet – that he just isn't going to be able to do against real D-1 competition. Perhaps the best takeaway for Parker offensively was the seamless, turnaround, 12-foot jumper he swished in the first half.
Without any real go-to inside scoring presence, it's going to be key that this team shoots threes at a good clip, unlike it's done in the first two exhibition games (it made 4 of 17 against CSSM). Adams should, hopefully, be a little improved on his decent three-point shooting from last season; Powell should also be better; we know that LaVine is a good outside shooter and Alford has been billed as one, so we expect them all to be threats from behind the line once they get over their freshman-shooting jitters. Anderson, too, looks like he'll make more than the 8 three-pointers he did a year ago. In the motion, there will be outside open looks, and it's critical that they can be made at a regular clip or opposing defenses can sag in and disrupt the motion offense movement and screening.
Overall, the biggest impression of this UCLA team from the San Marcos game is that the Bruins look and feel sharper and more cohesive when they utilized the zone – and on both ends of the floor. The zone only had a few possessions against San Bernardino, and probably 30-40% of the possessions against San Marcos. It could be the zone isn't going to be just an experiment.