While maybe not quite as satisfying as the football win six weeks ago ("it's just SC," as a noted Bruin hoops philosopher once said), it still felt pretty damn good to watch the Bruins run the Trojans off the court in the Pac-12 opener.
This was a victory that came relatively easy for the Bruins. Their offense was firing on all cylinders and the Trojans aided the UCLA cause by taking some quick shots and committing a bunch of turnovers early. As they showed in several of their early season wins, this Bruin team will really make you pay if you don't match up well in transition. Kyle Anderson, Bryce Alford, Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine are all capable of knocking down open perimeter shots and there were plenty available against the Trojans. Alford had his best game of the season, finishing with 20 points, while Adams went 5-8 from beyond the three-point line to end up with 21 points.
Anderson, though, was clearly the player of the game, as USC had nobody with any chance of defending him. Anderson finished with a game-high 23 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. Anderson was able to get to pretty much any spot on the court that he wanted and he made it look easy in the first half. It's become clear that UCLA's half court offense is very reliant on Anderson and his ability to make plays, both for himself and creating for his teammates. The Bruins don't have any other playmaker that can consistently make a play off the dribble. Norman Powell can occasionally get to the basket, as can Adams, but they typically rely on Anderson setting them up for opportunities. So when the opponent doesn't match up well with Anderson, the UCLA offense is going to operate at a much higher, and more efficient, level. Anderson has had some games this season where his decision-making hasn't been great and he's had some careless turnovers. But he was outstanding against USC, finishing the game with only one turnover in 30 minutes and knocking down 10-14 shots.
In addition to having no answer for Anderson, the Trojans also lacked the kind of frontcourt athleticism that has given UCLA problems this season. Freshman Nikola Jovanovic is a fairly good athlete and senior Omar Oraby is massive but not very athletic. Oraby turned an ankle early in the game and then got in foul trouble when he came back. Whatever chance USC had coming into the game depended on Oraby having a good game and he only played 14 ineffective minutes.
Without an effective low-post threat Oraby, the Trojan offense became very limited. Senior guard Pe'Shon Howard was a complete non-factor, registering zero points in 28 minutes. Senior guard J.T. Terrell, the definition of a "shoot you in, shoot you out" guy came off the bench to miss 11 out of 16 shots. The only Trojan to do much damage at all was junior forward Byron Wesley, as he finished with 21 points and nine rebounds.
While USC is definitely a better team than the cupcakes that UCLA beat up on early in the season, this game followed the pattern of those previous easy wins. The Bruins took advantage of their opponent's miscues – unforced turnovers and bad shot selection – to get out in transition, or semi-transition, for quality opportunities at the other end. At this point, it's become clear that UCLA feeds off its offense and not its defense. When they're in a rhythm, Anderson is doing his thing and everyone is getting open jumpers, the Bruin offense is extremely potent. They're very good front runners. If the opponent doesn't respond well when UCLA makes a run, the Bruins are very good at delivering the knockout punch with that high-powered offense. USC wilted under the UCLA offensive assault, the Bruins built a 56-34 halftime lead and made sure the Trojans never got back in the game.
In terms of making progress in their problem areas – defense and rebounding – this game was a mixed bag for UCLA. They did out-rebound the Trojans 41-35, but that should be expected with Oraby getting hurt and only playing 14 minutes. USC did hurt the Bruins a bit on the offensive glass in the first half when the game was still competitive. The UCLA defense overall looked about the same as it has for most of the season. There were several times in the first half where the Bruins did a really bad job of matching up in transition and the zone defense wasn't really very active. Jordan Adams, in particular, had a couple plays where he was jogging back in transition defense. On another play, USC was taking the ball out of bounds in a dead ball situation – where there had even been a substitution – and the Bruins failed to match up and gave up an uncontested dunk.
So while it was great to see the Bruins build a 22-point lead at halftime, it would have been more encouraging if it had been the result of really good UCLA defense and not just Trojan ineptitude. We're still waiting for the Bruins to play a really inspired stretch of defense, where they're really active with their hands and feet, they're talking, rotating quickly and imposing their will at the defensive end. They impose their will at the offensive end quite well. But on defense, it's more a case of standing in a somewhat loose zone and hoping the other team misses jump shots or makes a mistake. That's worked quite successfully against out-manned opponents this season, but it's not going to work against the quality teams remaining on the schedule.
Speaking of quality teams, the Bruins will face a good one Thursday night in Arizona. The Wildcats have the kind of athletic frontcourt that has given UCLA problems this season and Arizona also plays very good defense. It's great to beat USC in anything, but Arizona is UCLA's rival in basketball and the game Thursday will be a huge test for the Bruins.