Bruins Beat Bad Opponent Again

In beating Northwestern, 95-79, it was a very similar game to the win over Nevada the night before, and the positives -- and the worries -- remain the same...

You could practically use the review of the Nevada game from Thursday for the Northwestern game Friday, when #19-ranked UCLA beat the Wildcats, 95-79, to go to 7-0 on the season.

There were a few different elements, but the main points of both games were very similar.

UCLA's defense, in both the man and zone, isn't great. It's utilizing the tactic of packing in the defense for both, but with UCLA's mostly big team, which isn't greatly quick or athletic – and prone to playing with little urgency – that leaves a good too many open shooters from the outside. In the zone, UCLA's two defenders on the top of the 2-3 made a special effort to cut off penetration through the middle of the lane, but that made UCLA's defensive rotation slow when the ball was rotated into the corner by Northwestern, creating open looks from the corners. It leaves the responsibility of closing out on that corner shooter to a UCLA post. While you can't do anything about the team being big and not greatly athletic, something can be done about the level of intensity and urgency – and that's the potential for improvement for this team defensively. It will be interesting to see if the lack of defensive effort is due mostly to UCLA playing a mind-numbing amount of cupcakes and they'll pick it up when they actually play against a good opponent, or if this is just who this team is. It will be a significant indication of just how good of a coaching job Steve Alford can do this season.

On the other hand, UCLA's offense is good, at least against this level of competition, because it has some offensive talent. Against Northwestern it had slightly less chances on the break, but it didn't falter at all in creating points in the halfcourt. The team has definitely bought in to passing the ball, and making the extra pass has created some very good, open looks. UCLA shot 64% for the game, 76% in the first half, and 12 for 20 from three (77%). It was easily UCLA's best shooting game so far this season. Of course, it helps when there are so many open looks, which is a testament to both how well Steve Alford's motion offense is currently working and a poor Northwestern defense. Like against Nevada, the concern offensively is, when a good defense takes away UCLA's transition points and the Bruins have to win with their halfcourt offense, and that opposing good defense has good athletes that can actually guard the ball and take away the space for outside shooters, UCLA doesn't have an inside scoring presence.

While there were many similarities in this game and the Nevada game, the main difference was the performance of freshman guard Bryce Alford, who easily had his best game as a Bruin, finishing with a career-high 18 points and 4-of-4 from three. Alford looked truly comfortably shooting for the first time this season and it definitely paid off. He also didn't try to do too much but played within himself and his abilities, taking good shots when he was open, and he made better, more fundamental passes. Defensively, he is what he is in terms of his ability to stay in front of an opponent, but he has a little bit of Jordan Adams in him in his ability to poke away balls for steals (he had 2 against Northwestern). If Alford can play the role as the complementary outside shooter – and hit the open outside shot – that gives the UCLA halfcourt offense another dimension.

The significant dimension is Zach LaVine, who had another very good offensive performance, scoring 18 points and hitting 4-of-5 from three. We watched LaVine shoot the lights out of it in high school, but there's always a question of whether a good high school shooting ability can make the transitional jump to college. After a few games, it's clear that LaVine's has. He had a few catch-and-shoots in this game that were pure NBA-caliber in their level of quick release. If his offensive confidence can hold up against a real high-major defense then UCLA will have the firepower to out-score just about any opponent.

The two sophomores, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, again were the driving force of the offense. Anderson almost got another triple-double, with 16 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists. He's creating for his teammates and making very good passes, especially within the halfcourt, but the best development for Anderson is his improved shooting, hitting two-of-three from three against Northwestern. Adams was Adams again; it's interesting that he isn't a great athlete, doesn't have great lateral quickness, but he has a very good first step to the basket. And there isn't anyone in college basketball who has such a limited ability to jump that can finish at the basket as well as Adams.

Wanaah Bail got some more minutes in his second game of the season, mostly because both Tony Parker and David Wear were in foul trouble in the game. Bail is pretty raw at this point, especially on defense, looking like these two games were the first time he's ever actually played defense, picking up two poor fouls pretty quickly. He, though, does have some defensive potential. In a couple of defensive sequences he moved his feet very well to stay in front of the ball. Offensively, he made a pick-up game move to the basket in the lane, which showed some good natural ability but a lack of polish. His free-throw stroke looks fluid, even though he went 1-for-4 from the line. And, of course, there was that drive down the middle of the lane and the slam at the end of the game that strangely got Northwestern coach Chris Collins chippy. In other words, Bail has some tools to work with, not just hops but good lateral quickness, and a good, natural offensive feel. It will be interesting to see if, with UCLA's lack of interior scoring, Bail can develop this season and perhaps give UCLA even just a modicum of an option in the paint.

Parker struggled again. Admittedly he went up against one of the bigger centers he's faced so far in Northwestern's Alex Olah, who is 7-0 and 265 pounds. That got Parker into foul trouble pretty quickly and limited his minutes (just 12 for the game). As we've said, Parker is a bit of a key to the season; if he can't provide even a bit of a scoring threat inside that defenses have to honor, then defenders will be able to over-play UCLA's perimeter players and close down shooting space far more easily. If he can't rebound, UCLA's transition will be more limited.

In fact, a worry that was emphasized in the Northwestern game was rebounding. UCLA had 29 to Northwestern's 26 and that limited result was, really, what limited UCLA's transition scoring. Travis Wear and David Wear combined for just 5 rebounds in a total of 43 minutes. It's lucky that UCLA's point guard can rebound, but it's another element in which Bail can perhaps provide some help.

Like we said in the Nevada review, this UCLA team might be better than it initially appeared to be, since in the context of the rest of college basketball it looks pretty good. We watched the Arizona/Duke game, and even though we've only seen UCLA in a poor mid-major context, we feel UCLA projects to being able to play with either. Even though UCLA doesn't play good defense, there isn't a significant amount of good defense being played anywhere in college basketball. So, whether UCLA can improve defensively this season is probably the biggest determining factor in just how far this team can go.

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