Bruins Play Best Game of the Year

Jan. 30 -- UCLA plays well and gets its biggest win of the season in beating #11 Utes...

UCLA got its biggest win of the season Thursday against #11-ranked Utah, 69-59.

It was UCLA’s first win against a ranked opponent this year, and it definitely was a case of a few things coming together to make it happen.

The Bruins clearly played their best game, playing with energy on both ends of the court. You wouldn’t say that Utah is a great offensive team, but UCLA’s defense was the best it had been all season against the Utes, a great percentage of the time making them have to take difficult shots. UCLA’s defense wasn’t great, by any means, but the best we’ve seen it this season. Utah, from the end of the first half until deep into the third, for a stretch of about 9 minutes, didn’t make a basket and that was equal parts Utah’s offense and UCLA’s defense.

UCLA’s offense wasn’t nearly dominated as much by bad shots. There were still a fair share, but there were more passing, players looking for teammates and feeding the post than we have come to know from this team. The Bruins finished with 15 assists.

There were a minimal amount of forced errors, with UCLA committing only 6 turnovers, compared to Utah’s 14. At one point in the second half, UCLA led that stat 10-1.

Utah was very flat. UCLA happened to catch the Utes on a bad night. It also could have been a psychological thing, too, for both teams. After Utah blew out the Bruins in Salt Lake City, and so easily, it’s human nature to let down when you play UCLA a second time. And for UCLA, it’s natural for any team to get up for the opponent that beat you so soundly when you have them on your own floor.

There are so many things this UCLA team does that we’re just fundamentally against – that go against fundamental basketball -- like driving to nowhere, jumping to pass, lazy passes, no hands up on defense, no help defense, bad shot selection, etc. We think that, in the long run, a team – and a program – can’t win consistently with these kinds of fundamentals. This win against Utah we take as a prime example of why – because when this UCLA team just does a few things fundamentally right you can see the result. Against the Utes, Bryce Alford looked to pass to his teammates just a little bit more. He fed the post a few times, he made the extra pass a few times and he didn’t take as many bad shots. UCLA attempted just 13 three-pointers, which is a low total for this squad. The team collectively boosted their energy on defense just a bit – not drastically, but just a bit.

But even while they’re doing this – making a small little improvement in some areas – there is overwhelming indications that there isn’t an acknowledgment that this is the reason the team played better. Because there are still numerous drives to nowhere, still at least as many bad shots as good ones, still huge breakdowns defensively and little or no help defense. Remember, under Ben Howland, when we used to debate whether UCLA should double the post against a certain team, or when it should hedge, and what type of help defense it should employ? Those concepts aren’t even in this program’s universe. It would probably go a really long way if Coach Steve Alford just stopped Bryce from driving to nowhere and jumping to pass. But see, it hasn’t been shut down by the coach because that’s an acceptable tactic.

So, the point is: It’s difficult to give the team credit for improvement when it doesn’t seem like the improvement in some fundamental factors was really intended. It seemed more random that there were some UCLA post players left unguarded so the guards had to pass to them, and not an acknowledged difference in approach. It was probably a matter of circumstance – and psychology – that UCLA was up for playing against Utah in Pauley, moreso than it was a newfound dedication to playing with intensity. There were some tactical tweaks, like Kevon Looney being installed at the top of UCLA’s halfcourt zone defense, but that’s just a tweak and not a real sea change in approach that we think this team and program needs.

And a great deal of UCLA’s offensive success was the fact that Utah didn’t have anyone who could stay in front of Norman Powell and then absolutely no help defense of their own. Powell seemingly could drive at will throughout the game, through pretty wide-open lanes and convert with easy, uncontested lay-ups. UCLA sometimes got a weaker defender switched out on Powell and that made a huge difference. Powell finished with 23 points, while he didn’t make a three pointer (0 for 3) and only made three other jump shots.

Utah is a good team, sure, and good in the context of today’s college basketball – in the context of college basketball as it is in 2015. But the 2014-2015 Utes really aren’t that good. They’re well-coached – at least the team we saw in Salt Lake City was – but they’re not greatly talented.

The Pac-12, too, is so bad that when a team is pretty much without just one key player it renders that team substantially worse. Not even its star but just a key starter. Jakob Poetl, Utah’s 7-footer, didn’t play much and wasn’t much of a factor when he did, due to some injury (which we don’t get the details about when Bill Walton is rambling on about the 405 Freeway). Poetl is Utah’s main intimidator in the paint and shot blocker so when Powell beat his first defender there was very little in the way of a secondary defender between him and an easy lay-up.

All in all, it was a very good win for the Bruins. We saw some improvement in this game, and we really want to give them credit for it, and not just chalk it up to random factors, particularly just being at home in Pauley. We’re just wary of it. We can’t forget the road version of this team that we saw as recently as last weekend in Oregon.

Perhaps the best news for the UCLA program right now is that six of its remaining 10 games are at Pauley.

If UCLA can go to the Bay Area next weekend and look anything like it did against Utah Thursday then that will be the biggest indication the team is truly improving. And that’s setting the bar pretty low because Stanford is just decent and Cal at this point in the season is pretty darn bad.

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