After suffering the disappointing loss at Oregon State, it was somewhat surprising to see the Bruins come out with such a poor effort to start the game. Perhaps it was due to over confidence as the first win came so easily but, whatever the reason, the Bruins were flat-footed on defense and slow to get back in transition. Kyle Anderson, in particular, had a difficult time staying with Byron Wesley. Anderson has obviously been UCLA's MVP this season, but his effort on defense is very inconsistent. Anderson has become the clear leader of the team and the Bruins need him to step up defensively if they're going to do anything meaningful this year.
Jordan Adams is another key guy for the Bruins and his defensive effort also leaves a lot to be desired. There is a noticeable difference between the energy Adams exerts going for offensive rebounds and the effort he puts into running back in transition defense or defending his man in half court defense. As the old adage goes, it looks like he's running downhill on offense and uphill on defense. That too has to change if the Bruins want to compete for the conference title.
After playing mostly zone defense at Oregon State, the Bruins came out in a sagging man to man defense against the Trojans. USC doesn't typically shoot the ball well from the perimeter, but the Bruins were giving up a lot of uncontested shots and the Trojans eventually started making some of them. The first half was similar to the Oregon State game in that the Trojans, like the Beavers, would get good looks most of the time unless they turned the ball over. There was no ball pressure from the Bruins and USC was able to run their offense unimpeded for most of the half. Once they knocked down a few shots, the Trojans started playing with a lot more energy, diving for loose balls and getting out in transition.
The Bruins lost their poise for a stretch late in the half and USC managed to extend the lead to 34-24. The Bruins were taking rushed shots and settling for too many jump shots. UCLA obviously doesn't have much of an inside game this year and that lack of a low-post presence is a problem when the three-pointers aren't dropping. Trojan center Omar Oraby was contesting all the Bruin shots inside and UCLA trailed 41-35 at the break. The Bruins were actually fortunate to only be down six as they had allowed the Trojans to shoot 59% from the field. But USC committed eight turnovers in the half – mostly unforced – and made only 4-10 free throw attempts.
The second half, though, was a different story. The Bruins started the game flat, but now it was the Trojans' turn to play with little energy. Given the embarrassing loss they suffered at Pauley, and a rare home crowd that was actually into the game, you might have thought USC would be playing hard for 40 minutes. But their effort was noticeably down from the first half when Travis Wear and David Wear got free for a couple wide open three-pointers to start the half. The Bruin defense was a little more active and after Norman Powell got a dunk and a three-pointer the Bruins led 54-46. With a little more than five minutes of sustained effort, the Bruins took control of the game. We weren't kidding when we noted that the Trojans only have a couple players capable of playing in the Pac-12. While the Bruins played with better energy in parts of the second half, it wasn't exactly forty minutes of hell. The Trojans' ineptitude played a big part in UCLA's comeback. Poor decisions, bad turnovers and quick shots from USC made it relatively easy for the Bruins once they gave just a little effort.
The key player in this game for UCLA was Norman Powell. His defensive energy got the Bruins going and he even managed to knock down a couple three-pointers. His outside shooting is still a work in progress and he's typically much more effective when he's attacking the basket. Powell's game has really matured this season, as he looks much more comfortable and he's making better decisions with the ball. And while he hasn't yet become a lockdown defender on the level of Arron Afflalo or Malcolm Lee, Powell has made strides as a defender this season. He's often the only Bruin consistently in a defensive stance and he has the quickness and strength to defend a number of positions. He's struggled from the three-point line this season, but hopefully this game will give him more confidence going forward. If he becomes just a decent threat from the perimeter, the Bruin offense becomes much more difficult to defend.
Both David and Travis Wear had relatively solid games. Their struggles as rebounders and interior defenders have been well documented, but they knocked down some key shots in this game and did a good job of defending Omar Oraby. Neither twin has much of a low-post game, but it does open up the Bruin offense quite a bit when they can draw the opposing big man out to the three-point line. The key for both twins is recognizing good shots from bad shots. Both of the Wears are much better jump shooters early in the game when they are fresh. Late in the game, when they are a bit fatigued, they become much less effective shooting jump shots.
Zach LaVine didn't have a particularly great game for the Bruins, going 2-6 from the field in only 17 minutes. But one positive development was that he didn't settle for quite as many jump shots and instead tried to get to the basket. LaVine seemed to fall in love with his jump shot early in the season, but he's capable of making plays off the bounce – both for himself and teammates – and it was good to see him attacking the basket a few times. The Bruin offense can become stagnant when Anderson has a rare off game and it would be nice to see LaVine take a more aggressive role.
His fellow freshman Bryce Alford had another forgettable game, going 0-4 from the field and struggling badly again on defense. Coach Alford limited Bryce to 16 minutes in this game, but it might be time to cut that number down even further. We've said it for a while now, but it's clear that Bryce Alford is not at the same level as Powell or LaVine, yet he often plays the same number of minutes as one or both of them. It didn't cost the Bruins in this game, as the Trojans are a woefully bad team. But in games against quality teams, the Bruins need to have their best players on the court for as many minutes as possible. In a game where Kyle Anderson played 38 minutes, it doesn't make a lot of sense for Alford, the backup point guard, to play 16 minutes. Especially when it limits LaVine, the player with the most upside on the team, to only 17 minutes. Powell and LaVine are NBA-level athletes with enormous potential. Powell's game has come on recently and it's intriguing to think about how good this team might be if LaVine can make a similar jump by March. But that jump is unlikely to happen if he's limited to 17 minutes against the worst team in the conference.
While it was somewhat disappointing to see the Bruins start out the game with poor energy, it was still a road win and those are hard to come by in conference play. After three consecutive road games, the Bruins return home this week to take on Colorado and Utah. UCLA will be a fairly substantial favorite in both games and they will hopefully be able to build some momentum before a key trip to the Bay Area.