If UCLA had lost, yes, there would have been talk about the echoes of the Steve Lavin era.
And rightly so. Because new Head Coach Ben Howland is doing what he can with the cupboard that was left pretty bare as a result of the decimation the Lavin era wrought.
UCLA, against Vermont, started a walk-on caliber player at power forward in Josiah Johnson (no personal animosity toward Johnson, just stating opinion), and 3 of the first 7 players on the team are walk-on caliber – Johnson, Ryan Walcott, and Janou Rubin. At one point in the first half you had to rub your eyes a bit when you see a team on the court that consists of Johnson, Walcott, Rubin, Brian Morrison and Ryan Hollins.
Let's put this in a UCLA football perspective, since there is so much discussion about talent level in the UCLA football program and whether the football cupboard was left bare after Bob Toledo's firing. It would be the equivalent of the football team coming off a 2-10 season last year, which would have been the worst in 50 years of the UCLA football program. Then, it would be as if 20 of the top 50 players on the football team's two-deep that actually played were walk-ons. The Vermont game would be the equivalent of that football team, playing all those walk-ons, facing a football team the caliber of, say North Texas (which is 9-4 this year and in first place in the Sun Belt conference) in its first game under the new head coach, and eking out a win by a field goal.
Football fans, in a football perspective, would probably consider that a solid step in a positive direction.
Which is, in fact, what it should be considered.
And they would mostly come to this conclusion if that UCLA football team looked improved from the year before in their eked-out win against North Texas, which is exactly how this basketball team looked.
Yes, the first half was dismal. But even among the dismay, it's easy to see that the team is different than it was a year ago, for some very basic reasons: They actually run an offense, they play tough defense, and they're actually coached.
In the first half, it's a tough match-up when you're forced to play someone who should really be your fourth-string power forward (behind Andre Patterson, T.J. Cummings and Trevor Ariza) in Johnson on the opposing team's best player in Taylor Coppenrath. Howland had to make some adjustments and did primarily in the second half when he played Ryan Hollins out of position to guard Coppenrath (an adjustment that might be similar to moving Matt Ware over to guard Mike Williams, perhaps?).
But just consider this game with some different elements to it. Consider it with just Trevor Ariza, UCLA's potential star freshman who will have to sit out two weeks due to what is essentially a collapsed lung, playing. Even if you concede that Ariza might not have been better defensively than Johnson/Hollins, which is a big concession since he's quite a bit quicker, Ariza led the team in scoring and rebounding in its two exhibition games. Throw in 15 points from Ariza in this game and there's your decent victory margin. And that's not even discussing if you had Cummings.
Howland, after the game, said that they found out about Ariza's condition at 4:00 p.m. Friday. Hollins, obviously, was a bit disoriented playing the four spot, commonly forgetting to take the ball out after baskets, to the dismay of point guard Cedric Bozeman.
Probably one of the biggest improvements you could see in this game was the coaching adjustments made throughout the game. In the first half, the team was satisfied with taking outside jumpers. In the second, after an adjustment from Howland, they got the ball inside. Michael Fey scored 18 of his team-high 20 points in the second half as a result, which was really the difference in UCLA's victory. Howland, on UCLA's second-to-last possession of the game, called for a clear-out for Cedric Bozeman, which he effectively used to kick out to a wide-open Brian Morrison for a three-pointer.
Cedric Bozeman had perhaps one of his best games – if not his best – as a Bruin. He finished with 12 points, nine assists and only one turnover. He took the ball to the basket with authority and physically was too much to take for Vermont's guards. Howland kept running a play that used a high ball screen for Bozeman, in which he could then come off it and create, which was consistently effective. He, defensively, shut down Vermont's star point guard, T.J. Sorrentine, holding him to 4 points, 1-for-8 shooting, and 1 assist against 2 turnovers. Bozeman did make a blunder of a decision, attempting a lob pass with about two minutes left and UCLA up only by a point. But as Howland said afterward, "He'll learn."
Another improvement was the team's defense. Except for a few lapses late in the first half that allowed Vermont to lead at the break, 34-23, their biggest lead of the game, the Bruins played very sound defense. Vermont is an experienced, sound and smart team that rarely turns the ball over, but UCLA generally forced them into tough shots off bad looks. Every shot was contested, and really the only good looks Vermont got all night were those of Coppenrath. Vermont shot 41.5% for the game and 39% in the second half when UCLA played its top five players. Remove Coppenrath from the equation, who shot 13 of 27 and 4 of five from three (including a bank shot), and Vermont shot 33% from the field and 30% from three (And by the way, going into the game, Coppenrath was 1 for 6 from three. It's just another example of a player playing at that magical level and having a career-type game when he comes to Pauley Pavilion).
The offense struggled, particularly in the first half, which was really the reason for the deficit at the half. But with Bozeman and Fey turning it on in the second half, and the Bruins taking advantage of the size differential down low with Fey and Hollins, UCLA made a solid run to catch the Catamounts by about the 10:00 minute mark of the second half, 41-41. They did it for a pretty good stretch with Rubin playing in place of Morrison. The second half generally consisted of smart, solid defense and an effective plan offensively, which resulted in UCLA scoring 45-second half points. Rubin hit an important jumper in the second half. Morrison came in to hit a big three at about the 6-minute mark to put UCLA up 57-53. He also took a huge charge on Vermont's second-to-last possession with 1:15 left in the game, and then hit his big three-pointer on the other side of the court to give UCLA a 67-64 lead. Coppenrath, though, uncannily hit a three to answer, which tied the score at 67. Howland said, "We had no answer for Coppenrath. We had a poor matchup with him all night."
Bozeman, then, on the play that has him come off a high ball screen, fed Hollins underneath the basket. Hollins was fouled and made one of his free throws. With about 4 seconds remaining, Sorrentine brought the ball up to take a desperation 30-footer at the buzzer that wasn't close. And the Bruin faithful had a collective sigh of relief.
"It was never in doubt, right?" Howland asked the press after the game.
Dijon Thompson's offense was one of the few bright spots of the first half and what kept the Bruins hanging on in the first 20 minutes. He finished with 18 points and nine rebounds. "What I liked the most about Thompson's performance was those nine rebounds," Howland said.
"I was very proud of our team. They never quit, never stopped believing we were going to win," Howland said.
Trevor Ariza's status is unclear at this point. The freshman forward suffered what is called spontaneous pneumothorax, which was described as a partially collapsed lung due to air bubbles in the pleural cavity of the lungs. The UCLA doctors gave him the standard two weeks to recover, but it's unclear just how long he could be out. He'll undergo some more exploratory tests, mostly a CT scan, early this week. The doctors have indicated that, if nothing else is found, he'll be able to start light workouts within a week. There is no medication or treatment for the condition.
The usual contingent of UCLA committed recruits attended the game – Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo, Lorenzo Mata and Josh Shipp, along with committed Santa Ana Mater Dei freshman, Taylor King. Gabe Pruitt, the 6-3 Westchester senior shooting guard committed to USC, attended the game, accompanying his best friend, Afflalo.