Bruins Hang On For Win

The Bruins seemed headed for a relatively comfortable win Friday night against Drexel, but faltered a bit late and had to hang on for a tough win...

UCLA opened up the Steve Alford era officially Friday night with a 72-67 win over Drexel and, while it wasn't always pretty, the Bruins did come away with a win on a night when they very easily could have lost. The Bruins had some breakdowns at both ends of the court, and they were short-handed with Wannah Bail and Travis Wear both injured, but they managed to make just enough plays down the stretch to hold off the Dragons.

The Bruins opened up a lead fairly early in the game, but it felt a little like fool's gold as Drexel was getting some open looks and failing to capitalize against less than intense UCLA defense. The Bruins got lost a few times on screens, had a couple breakdowns in communication and the close-outs weren't great. But the Dragons appeared to be a little out of sync themselves in their season-opener and they didn't take advantage of the Bruins' miscues.

Offensively, the Bruins were in a pretty good rhythm for most of the first half. They got quality shots most trips down the court, doing a good job with their motion offense and getting everyone involved. Tony Parker had a nice turnaround baseline jumper early, Zach LaVine knocked down a few deep threes and Kyle Anderson was able to get in the lane repeatedly to break down the Dragon defense. With a 42-31 lead at the half, it seemed like the Bruins were in good shape.

The second half, though, was a different story. Whether that was due to the Bruins wearing down from fatigue, or Drexel getting more comfortable after some opening night jitters in Pauley Pavilion, is difficult to know. It looked like maybe a combination of both factors. The Dragons made just 5-23 shots from three-point range, but they got some big offensive rebounds to stay in the game. Dartaye Ruffin, in particular, hurt the Bruins with 13 rebounds (five at the offensive end).

After looking fairly sharp and crisp in the first half, the Bruins appeared to lose their focus at times in the second half and allowed Drexel to hang around. The shot selection was a little iffy at times, the defense was sporadic (Drexel shot 45% in the second half) and there were a few breakdowns in matching up in transition defense. You can probably attribute some of these issues to fatigue, as the Bruins played only seven guys, and maybe also to a little bit of over confidence. The Bruins led fairly comfortably for a large chunk of the game until a late Drexel run made it a tight game. It felt like the Bruins may have been a little too comfortable having led the whole game and maybe assuming that it wasn't going to be a battle down the stretch. There wasn't a great sense of urgency until the last couple minutes when Drexel made it a one possession game.

In those tight situations late, it's always interesting to see how a team responds and which guys they go to when they need a bucket. One of the many differences between NBA and college teams is that in the NBA there is a definite hierarchy and players have very specific roles. You know that down the stretch of a close game the first or second options on teams are probably going to have the ball in their hands. And if guys like LeBron James or Kevin Durant aren't taking the shot, they're making the play that leads to a shot.

With NBA teams playing 82 games a year, and the rosters relatively fixed for a period of years, it's easy for guys to know their roles and react accordingly in a tight game. In the college game, it's a little more difficult as the personnel changes much quicker and you have basically new teams every year. Add in the fact that it was the first game of the year and it's not surprising that the Bruins had a couple hiccups down the stretch when they settled for some questionable jump shots from David Wear and Bryce Alford. At first glance Wear's shot wasn't that bad, as he played a fairly solid game and seemed to be in a good rhythm. The issue, though, is Wear's shooting percentage on jump shots in the first ten minutes of the game versus the last ten minutes. He clearly is a much better shooter when he's fresh and he's got his legs. So a 17-footer from him four minutes into the game is a lot different than when there's four minutes left in the game. Alford's shot with eight seconds remaining on the shot clock was just a bad decision made by a freshman playing his first game. He hadn't played a good game to that point and it would be understandable if he was pressing and trying to make up for it.

The guys that UCLA needs to get the ball to in those situations are obviously Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson. Anderson played a terrific game overall, finishing with 12 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. He took advantage of his size several times by getting in the lane and scoring or finding teammates when the Dragons came to double him. In this game, Anderson was clearly the best player on the court and the difference-maker for the Bruins. Without his contributions this game goes in the loss column for the Bruins. While I had some concerns about his ability to rebound if he played point guard, it seems like he'll still be able to rebound while playing the one. That's due in part to the Bruin motion offense not requiring a point guard to stay out on the perimeter. Once the offense is initiated, Anderson can post up or play around the basket and have plenty of opportunities to rebound. And at the defensive end, he's not guarding a point guard, but is usually on a small forward or power forward. So he's typically not way out on the perimeter and he's in position for defensive rebounds.

Adams had, for him, a fairly mediocre game. His defense early was pretty lax and he missed some shots that he normally makes. He did still manage to end up with 16 points, thanks to some typically crafty moves and the ability to draw fouls and get to the line. Zach LaVine had a solid game overall, knocking down a few jumpers and doing a better job defensively than he did in the exhibition games. He did take a couple questionable shots, but that's going to happen with a freshman playing his first game. I think Coach Alford should probably err on the side of giving LaVine more freedom than pulling back the reins because LaVine is capable of being that third scoring option to go with Anderson and Adams. I'd rather have LaVine playing free and easy -- shooting deep threes and just letting it fly -- rather than playing tentatively and passing up shots. He has the kind of offensive ability to potentially carry the Bruins at times this season.

While LaVine should probably have a green light, fellow freshman guard Bryce Alford probably does need to be pulled back a bit in terms of shot selection. This was a rough first game for Alford and the aforementioned bad shot late in the game wasn't the biggest issue. His defense in the first half was non-existent as the Dragons went right at him as soon as he came in the game. Bryce is obviously going to be under a lot of scrutiny with his father being the coach and it's a tough situation. Putting aside his last name, though, Alford isn't ready to play major minutes at this level. It's not his fault that the Bruins have a short roster right now and he's had to play more minutes than he probably should at this time. Hopefully when Wear and Bail are healthy Coach Alford will be able to scale back Bryce's minutes and let him develop in practice.

Norman Powell had a solid game for the Bruins, as he continued to show off his improved ball skills and decision making. He had a crucial drive late when he found Tony Parker for a bucket and he generally made good decisions throughout the game. He's doing a much better job of slashing to the basket in Alford's offense and he's also more under control. He had five assists and only one turnover on the night. That's a big plus for the Bruins if they can get some playmaking out of Powell. He did have a couple defensive breakdowns when he got beat off the dribble, but he's easily UCLA's best perimeter defender and the one guy capable of staying with athletic wings and guards.

Tony Parker started off well, hitting an early shot and being active around the basket. But foul trouble seemed to derail his momentum and he struggled getting back in the flow after having to sit out some minutes. He's still got a long ways to go at both ends of the court and it will be interesting to see how the minutes are divided up when Bail and Wear are healthy.

Drexel isn't a great team, lacking size and not being particularly potent offensively. So I wouldn't say that winning by five points on opening night at Pauley against a mid major opponent is particularly encouraging. The issues on defense and rebounding are likely going to be season-long areas of concern for the Bruins. However, when you factor in the short bench that Coach Alford is dealing with, and the fact that he's a new coach with a fairly young team, this wasn't a bad game. The Bruins could have easily lost this game, but they made some crucial plays late and found a way to win. Hopefully they can beat the teams they should beat early, get Bail and Wear healthy, and have all their roles figured out when conference play opens in January.

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