But after watching a great deal of college basketball in the last week, it might be that this year's Bruins don't have to be really good since the rest of college basketball is pretty bad.
UCLA's defense again had its issues against Nevada. But, relative to the rest of college basketball, to be successful this season the Bruins might not have to be really good defensively.
On defense, there is still a lack of intensity, in both the man and the zone, with neither looking particularly better against the Wolfpack. There were a considerable amount of open looks for Nevada, like there has been for every UCLA opponent so far this season, and that is mostly just a lack of urgency in rotations and getting back in transition. It wasn't just UCLA losing interest later in the game when they were up by 25+; the Bruin defense wasn't great throughout the game. UCLA's defensive philosophy right now is to pack it in, in both the man and the zone, so that leads to a good amount of steals (10 against Nevada, and 6 by Jordan Adams) and blocked shots. But when you have a big team like UCLA, and one that isn't particularly quick or dedicated to defense, it leads to those open looks. So far, UCLA hasn't faced a high-major team that can shoot, and it makes you shudder a bit to think about what could happen.
But the thing is – perhaps there just aren't a great many teams out there in college basketball that are good enough to exploit UCLA's poor defense enough to dominate the Bruins. You'd have to bet there's going to a team or two that gets really hot and exploits UCLA's defense, but with how bad college basketball is now, there probably aren't many.
We'll concede this – that UCLA's defense is going to be exploited at least a couple of times this season, but the question is whether this high-scoring offense will be able to continue to score so easily against a tougher competition. Against Nevada, the margin of the game was made in transition for the Bruins, with UCLA getting its runs that stretched the lead through breaks. The question is whether UCLA can out-score a higher level of opponent if that opponent actually gets back on defense and takes away easy transition scoring.
So, in other words, it could really come down to UCLA's halfcourt offense. So far this season, it looks good enough to be able to score on just about anyone. The man is Jordan Adams, who has become clearly one of the best players in the Pac-12, at least offensively. He's shooting threes at just about a 40% clip, but his crafty scoring in transition and the halfcourt is really stunning. He is a master clever scorer, being able to draw a foul on an easy lay-in on a break (as he did against Nevada), or just having a knack for knowing where that offensive rebound is going to come off the rim. Adams is so good at creating points that he even drew a technical against Nevada's Jerry Evans and, of course, Adams shot the technical fouls. He also laid off a number of nice assists against Nevada, one alley-oop to Norman Powell in particular. He is clearly also about sharing the wealth, and has consistently shown a very good passing ability, which gives his game even more dimension. Heck, even without being able to stay in front of his defender on the other end, his ability to get steals and create turnovers is a huge part of UCLA's defense. He finished with 21 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists and 6 steals, against just 1 turnover.
The other head in the double-headed UCLA monster is Kyle Anderson. After watching each Pac-12 team at least a couple of times now, it's safe to say that Adams and Anderson are easily among the top five players in the league. When UCLA goes up against Arizona, who hasn't looked particularly great so far this season even though they have a good amount of talent, Adams and Anderson might be the best two players on the floor in that game. Anderson had 17 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists against Nevada, and in many moments he looked dominating. As he has against all of UCLA's opponents this season, he was able to get into the paint a number of times and use his crafty, hesitation moves to get space to score. Nevada also left open Anderson on the perimeter, by design, and he answered the challenge by casually hitting 3-of-3 from three. And, obviously, his passing ability is exceptional, especially for a player his height. It will be interesting to see when smaller – but better – athletes get the assignment of guarding Anderson and how he responds.
The UCLA monster now, though, has discovered a third head and that's Zach LaVine. He made another stride against Nevada, scoring 21 points and going 4 from 6 from three. With Norman Powell faltering initially against Nevada, Steve Alford went to LaVine earlier than usual, and it paid off. LaVine was the scoring catalyst and offensive energy early on, hitting two threes on his first two possessions of the game on pretty and fluid catch-and-shoots. At one point toward the end of the half, LaVine was 5-for-5 shooting and 3-for-3 from three. While we're sure he'll have some shaky moments during his freshman season, especially when he goes up against good, experienced, athletic defenders, he clearly has found his confidence, especially in his shooting touch.
The issue offensively now will be LaVine getting enough playing time, and where the increased minutes are going to come from. Norman Powell struggled some in this game, with some errant passes and one bad out-of-control drive that drew a charge, and it's the reason Alford smartly went to LaVine early. Powell only got 19 minutes, and it looks like Alford might opt to enhance LaVine's minutes with Powell's. Powell still finished with 14 points, and brings much-needed athleticism to the court.
Against Nevada, you'd be remiss not to mention the contribution to UCLA's offense by David Wear, who had one of the most impressive stretches of his career toward the end of the first half. Wear hit a three, then on the other end created a steal and made a lay-up; he then hit another outside jumper and on the next possession was fouled and made both free throws. He finished the half scoring UCLA's last 9 points and was truly the main reason UCLA went into the locker room with so much momentum and its biggest lead of the game at 56-39.
An offensive issue going forward, though, is going to be a lack of inside scoring. Tony Parker started off the season looking confident scoring in the post, and his teammates fed him the ball. That's not happening near as much now. Parker, against a Wolfpack team without much interior defense, had just 4 points and 5 rebounds, in 23 minutes. We know the limited inside scoring ability of David Wear and Travis Wear. Without any kind of inside scoring threat, opposing defenses that are actually good will be able to extend their defenders and try to take away the open looks of UCLA's perimeter scorers and be athletic enough to take away their penetration. But as we said, after watching a good deal of college basketball, there might not be many teams that are good enough to do that. Or good enough to stop UCLA's perimeter scoring, or its transition scoring.
The easiest way to be good, in just about any walk of life, is for your competition to be bad. UCLA is clearly pretty good, and might be even better than we anticipate this season since the rest of college basketball isn't.