It was an encouraging performance for the Bruins. The game was primarily won in the last 8 minutes or so, with the Bruins surging and looking hungry to get the win, compared to UCSB, which looked gassed. At the 8:21 mark, the game was tied 65-65 and it literally could have gone either way. But the Bruins finished the game on a 24-11 run, getting a number of strong defensive stops and then, offensively, putting the ball in the hands of Kyle Anderson, and those two developments sealed the game.
The worry about this team so far this season – and for the first 32 minutes of this game – is defense. UCLA's D has looked soft, slow and complacent in UCLA's first 7 games, and it looked the same in the first half against UCSB. Head Coach Steve Alford used both a zone and a man to try to light a defensive spark, but it just wasn't catching fire. He was so desperate at times he even employed a zone against the hot-shooting Gauchos. UCSB, though, cut up UCLA's zone and man, finding good open looks from the outside, while also using ball movement and spacing to create lanes as a result of UCLA's slow rotations. UCLA was collapsing so much on UCSB's center, Alan Williams, that the rest of the floor was seemingly wide open. It wasn't necessarily a bad tactic, since Williams just went off for 37 points in a recent game, and even with open looks there was no way to anticipate that UCSB would shoot 9 of 14 from three in the first half. By the second half, however, it was clear that UCLA had to make some adjustments to cool down UCSB's hot three-point shooting. Alford, then, in both zone and man, extended his perimeter defense a bit. They weren't over-playing, but took up defensive position just a few feet further out than they had been in the first half. It was a risk, because you were then opening up more operating space for Williams, but it clearly worked. Williams did get 17 of his 23 points in the second half, but they weren't devastating, and UCSB only made 4 threes in the second half.
The defense, because of its extended perimeter, was looking slightly better to start the second half, but then found some energy when, with about 6 minutes remaining, Alford went to his 3/4s trap. It had a couple of different effects: 1) It took the last gasp of energy out of UCSB, with the Gauchos making some sloppy, fatigued-induced mistakes and turnovers and 2) it gave UCLA's defense, particularly its half-court defense, a shot in the arm. When Alford uses the 3/4s or fullcourt pressure he then has the defense fall into a zone in the halfcourt, and the zone, suddenly at about that 6-minute mark, was the most energetic it had been all night. The 3/4s combo with the zone immediately induced two steals and forced a couple of UCSB halfcourt possessions in which the Gauchos didn't get a good look before the shot clock expired. This defensive spurt of intensity by UCLA was clearly the difference in the game, and it was really all it needed. That gave it a 6-12 point cushion for the remainder of the game and UCSB was far too fatigued to mount a comeback.
On the other side of the court, finally, Anderson took command. He had been quiet in the first half, and wasn't asserting himself. We don't know if it was Alford's tactical move or Anderson's (since the offense is pretty loose it's difficult to determine who's responsible for adjustments at times), but Anderson finally started posting up his man, a 6-0 guard, Zalmico Harmon, and Harmon was no match against Anderson, who has him by at least 8 inches and 50 pounds. Anderson got a few points by posting up Harmon, but most importantly it injected some energy into his overall offensive game. Anderson started dominating the game with his ability to not only create for himself but for others. His drive and no-look, wrap-around dish to Tony Parker to make it 70-65 was emotionally crushing for UCSB. Anderson was practically asleep in the first half, with just 4 points and 2 rebounds, and it wasn't seemingly anything UCSB was doing defensively against him. He then awakened in the second half, and finished with 21 points, 6 rebounds and 9 assists, against just 1 turnover. It seems, at times, that UCLA forgets what Anderson's uniqueness is – that being a 6-8 point guard he is a mismatch just about no one can match up against defensively. It needs to always be aware of it and constantly try to exploit it, like on every possession.
A big determining factor that has emerged in UCLA's first 8 games, that will be a big influence on the course of the season, is Anderson's consistency of effort and focus on the offensive end. He has gone into lulls so far this season, but we chalked it up to a lack of competitive interest in playing against cupcakes when your team is up by 22 points.
UCLA collectively as a team is going to have to find a more consistent defensive competitiveness – like it did in the last 8 minutes or so against UCSB – if it hopes to really reach its potential this season. Playing only 8 minutes worth of decent defense is not going to get it done. For one thing, the defense was better, but still not suffocating. It was good enough to clamp down a tired, athletically-average UCSB team. The defense it played against UCSB isn't going to be good enough against Missouri, Duke, Arizona, Oregon or even Arizona State.
One of the best takeaways from the UCSB game was the play of Tony Parker, UCLA's sophomore center. He started the game with two quick fouls in trying to limit Williams, and then sat for most of the first half. When he came back in the second half, well, first, he was well-rested, which was an advantage, but he was also seemingly inspired. Even though Williams had a good second half, you'd have to say that Parker had a number of good moments against him. UCLA, and Parker, clearly need to learn how to defend a standard pick-and-roll, but Parker had a few good defensive possessions in which he showed good, strong post defense. He was left many times one-on-one with Williams after UCLA adjusted its perimeter D, and while Williams exploited it a couple of times, Parker stopped him enough to make Wiliams not a big influence on the game's outcome. Parker also showed a flash on the offensive end, particularly in working hard for offensive rebounds (he had four in the game, all in the second half). The fact that Parker showed up for his biggest challenge of the year so far is very encouraging. He clearly has a ways to go and is still so raw in so many aspects of the game, but his performance against UCSB – against a real opponent with a potential pro as a center – was impressive.
It could be critical, too, that Parker finds the way to play the way he did against UCSB every night out, since there is very little else in the way of post presence for UCLA. David Wear and Travis Wear wilted in the post against UCSB; getting a combined 0 points and 6 rebounds. The fact that the Wears, combined, played for 34 minutes, might be a sign that Alford sees that he'll need to live or die with Parker, or even a more raw Wanaah Bail, since they give him more potential upside than the Wears. What is going to hurt the Bruins, regardless of who's in the post, is a real lack of post offense. Good defenses – and UCSB's wasn't great – are going to extend their defenders and take away UCLA's open outside looks. Many good teams will have a big, athletic defender that will be able to slow down Anderson. Without a go-to option inside it's going to be tough to beat good defensive teams. It might be UCLA needs to keep going inside to Parker, regardless, to force teams to have to compensate.
Bryce Alford played within himself again and definitely contributed. His three-pointer to put UCLA up 68-65 was a dagger. He needs to be hidden defensively, which is why UCLA plays zone when he's in the game, but he's contributing solidly on the offensive end and impacting the game.
We have two criticisms of Zach LaVine: 1) He sometimes has poor shot selection and 2) he's not playing enough. Even playing 29 minutes, LaVine isn't playing enough. He looked like a pro in the first half, scoring 13 points with that lightning-quick shot release, and being able to do so effectively on just catch-and-shoot or one bounce. He is shooting a blazing 57% from three, and many of those shots are from NBA range. If there's anything about this team that is stunning so far this season it's, really, how good LaVine is, and how good he could be. So when UCLA starts the second half and LaVine is sitting on the bench for the first six minutes and UCLA is struggling, down 53-55, it's pretty clear that LaVine needs to be on the floor more, and at critical times. After he had such a great first half, it was a bit suspect to cool him down by sitting him for so long to start the second half.
Perhaps we're now taking for granted another excellent performance by Jordan Adams. He is the quintessential manufacturer of points, going 1 for 5 from three, but still getting 22 points, which led the team.
Norman Powell had a good game, increasingly looking more and more comfortable, in making the decision to go to the basket and in his jump shot, finishing with 13 points and 5 rebounds.
Wanaah Bail shows some potential, and not just because he looks like an athlete, but because he's showing some serious effort and energy on defense. He was working hard to front Williams, and then got burned on an easy ball fake, but the energy and athleticism he brings to post defense is refreshing. He might not get there this year, or even next year, since he's so raw, but the tools are there for him to be an impact player.
Overall, it was an encouraging win, with UCLA showing itself that, with just 8 minutes of decent defense, it can actually be a good team. It's clear that the offense will probably be consistently good this season; it could have a few hiccups against good, athletic defenses, of course, but it's going to be good most of the time with the offensive weapons it has. But how far this team goes this season is going to be up to how good it can get defensively. Perhaps this game is a defensive epiphany for this team, and we'll see more of the defense we saw in the last 8 minutes of the game Tuesday for the rest of the season.