The Bruins have struggled all season in the second game of road trips and, while this wasn't actually a road game, there was understandably some concern about their ability to be focused and ready twenty four hours after their impressive win over Oregon. Any such concerns, however, were quickly dispelled in the opening minutes of this game. The Bruins picked up right where they left off in the Oregon game. Their ball movement and spacing in the offense was a thing of beauty, as Kyle Anderson did a masterful job of getting shots for his teammates as well as creating his own offense.
While it's true that this Bruin offense functions much more smoothly and efficiently than in previous seasons, it's should be noted that it's due primarily to the unique talent and skill-set of Anderson. Simply put, he's a match-up nightmare at the college level. The first thing any opposing coach has to do when facing the Bruins is figure out how to slow down Anderson. And the choices that the opposition makes – go big, go small, double him, try to deny him the ball, etc. – determine how Anderson reacts. And Anderson's decision-making lately in countering the defense has been outstanding. When Anderson found himself defended by Anthony Brown, Anderson took him into the low-post and over-powered the weaker Brown for an easy lay-up. When Anderson would utilize a ball screen, and the Cardinal defense would double him, he consistently found teammates for either easy looks or he would put the Stanford defense in a rotation mode that would ultimately lead to a Bruin basket. Anderson's ability to put the defense into undesirable situations is the primary reason that the Bruin offense has been so efficient lately.
In addition to Anderson, Powell and Travis Wear were particularly effective in this game. Wear had a season-high 16 points on a ridiculous 8-8 from the field and he scored in a variety of ways. He had his usual pick-and-pop plays where he knocked down a few jumpers, but he also hustled down the court a couple times, beating the Stanford transition defense for lay-ups. Wear obviously has his limitations as a player, but he was very active at both ends of the court and he consistently made good decisions in the half-court offense. Powell, meanwhile, continued his stellar play at both ends of the court. He was active defensively, getting a few deflections and steals, and he shot a very efficient 7-10 from the field and 8-9 from the foul line to finish with 22 points. Along with Anderson, Powell has been the player that has most obviously benefited this season from the Bruin motion offense. He's clearly so much more relaxed on the court this year and his decision-making on when to shoot the jumper, and when to attack the basket, is much improved from a year ago.
The offensive efficiency of the five starters was the main reason for the blowout win over Oregon, but the defense also contributed in the win over Stanford. The Bruins were active with both their hands and feet, forcing Stanford into turnovers or contested shots early in the game. It wasn't exactly defense like we saw in the 2006-2008 years, but it was certainly much improved from what we've seen most of this season. As we've said all season, it mainly comes down to effort and focus. The Bruins were locked in from the beginning of the game, helping each other on drives, getting a hand up on closeouts and doing all the little things to force Stanford into 39% shooting for the game. The Bruins also out-rebounded the Cardinal 35-22, but that was more a function of UCLA shooting an astonishing 65% than any great effort on the boards.
With the Bruins up 15 points at the half, we were curious to see how the second half would play out. UCLA has rarely put together two good halves this season and there was some concern that they would relax with a big lead. Those concerns, though, were quickly put to rest in the opening minutes of the second half. The Bruin starters came out and did exactly what they had done in the first half. They ran great offense and got a number of easy looks at the basket. On defense, they weren't exactly smothering Stanford, but they stayed in front of their men and forced the Cardinal into contested shots. Stanford looked dead tired after playing its third game in three days and the Cardinal appeared to give into fatigue. They took some bad shots early in the shot clock and committed turnovers that led to some easy transition points for the Bruins. There was no question that UCLA had taken their will away and the lead grew to 56-31 by the time the first Bruin subs entered in the second half. At that point the game was over, as Stanford didn't have close to enough fire power, or energy, to make any kind of a run.
With the five Bruin starters playing so well together, it will be interesting to see if Coach Alford makes any adjustments to the playing time in the remaining games this season. While Zach LaVine, Tony Parker and Bryce Alford didn't play poorly Friday night, they also didn't play nearly as well as the starting unit. The Bruins were out-scored by two points when the starters weren't on the court. In the second half, it was obviously understandable that the starters would never get back on the court after their opening stint together. The game was a blowout and it made sense to rest the starters in preparation for the game against Arizona. In the first half, though, it was a much more debatable decision. There were no Bruins in serious foul trouble (no, I don't consider two fouls to be foul trouble) and Stanford was hanging around against the Bruin subs. Given the dominating play of the Bruin starters, it was surprising that they only played five minutes together in the first half. One might argue that Coach Alford was trying to give them extra rest in a three-day tournament format, except that this has been the pattern the entire season.
The championship game of the Pac-12 tournament gives the Bruins an opportunity to avenge their earlier loss to Arizona. It's a very intriguing match-up, given how well the UCLA offense has been functioning. Arizona has one of the best defenses in the country and it's unlikely that the Bruins will score as easily on the Wildcats as they did against Oregon and Stanford. It's possible that a win against Arizona will improve the seeding in the NCAA tournament for UCLA to some degree. Maybe they move up one seed with a win over the Wildcats. The bigger issues in this game are the fact that Arizona has become the clear power in the west and UCLA's chief rival in recruiting. Additionally, the Bruins could head into the NCAA tournament with some real momentum if they can knock off one of the elite teams in the country.
Win or lose, though, the main thing we want to see from UCLA is forty minutes of sustained effort, focus and purpose. We haven't seen that very often this year, but the last two games have shown us what the Bruins are capable of when they're locked in and ready to play. If the Bruins play with that kind of attitude against Arizona, we'll be satisfied whatever the outcome.