If you weren't holding your breath for those first two games against Vermont and UC Riverside, then you should have been.
Really, those could have been the two games that UCLA really needed to win the most in the first half of the season. Really. Because everything is about expectation and capability. UCLA is always expected to beat a Vermont or a UC Riverside, but it didn't necessarily have the capability of doing it without the services of both Trevor Ariza and T.J. Cummings.
But now we're looking ahead to a schedule where expectations and capability more than likely look rosy. UCLA will have to play Kentucky on Saturday without either Ariza and Cummings, and it will be a tough game. But the Bruins would be expected not to beat Kentucky, even with Cummings and Ariza, so if the Bruins play hard and make a decent showing, with how their roster is depleted, it's all good. If they actually beat Kentucky, well, they'll far exceed expectation, especially given their present capability.
But then it's expected they'll get Cummings back for the Loyola Marymount game December 13th. Then, hopefully we'll see the return of Trevor Ariza for UC Santa Barbara Dec. 17th. LMU isn't particularly good, and UCLA could probably beat them without Cummings, so his return gives them more of an edge. UCSB is easily the toughest of the lesser-named opponents in UCLA's non-conference schedule, so it's very timely that UCLA could have both Cummings and Ariza back for that game. Then, they'll have that one game against UCSB under their belt as a full squad before they face Michigan State Dec. 20th.
So, looking at the season overall, and the prediction we made for this team's record, it was imperative that UCLA beat both Vermont and UC Riverside, and very satisfying that they did it with a depleted roster.
Isn't it nice to have a team that plays to expectation and capability?
Wednesday night's win over UC Riverside, 84-70, was just about exactly what you could have expected. It might have been a little too much to expect that junior shooting guard Brian Morrison would go off for 28 points, hitting 6 of 8 threes, but actually we had recognized before that that was completely within his realm of capability.
The Bruins played a decent game against the Highlanders, showing improvement from their game against Vermont. They executed much better offensively, and rebounded much better.
They again struggled in the first half, mostly due to having no one who could match up with Riverside's two inside players, Vili Morton and Nate Carter. The UCLA coaches made the choice not to double them down low for most of the game, choosing to keep their guards extended on Riverside's outside shooters to prevent the three-pointer, which they did for most of the game. So, really, Morton collecting 22 points and Carter 16 were really conceded by UCLA, with the coaches knowing that they'd get those kinds of points. While it was frustrating at times to see Morton easily setting up in the block or coming across the lane without any disruption from a perimeter guard, the philosophy was effective in that it limited UCLA's fouls, conceded Morton and Carter their points and didn't allow Riverside to really hurt UCLA with threes. Riverside shot just 26% from behind the three-point arc and just 42% for the game.
UCLA's defense, overall, was just okay. The game plan to not double Riverside's post players was probably based partially on the theory that UCLA would be able to provide decent post defense, which it didn't. Ryan Hollins, while a great athlete with potential, had played decent defense in the exhibition games and against Vermont, but didn't against Riverside. He wasn't strong enough many times to stay with either Morton and Carter, and didn't move his feet well enough to beat them for position. Fey fared better defensively, with more bulk and technique. Josiah Johnson also couldn't match up with Riverside inside, with Carter stepping around him easily.
If there was anything about this game that sent a red flag to UCLA's coaches about the state of one aspect of this team, it would be post defense. Morton is a Pac-10 level player, and the Bruins will face only a few others of his caliber this season, but Carter is an undersized and not particularly quick offensive player, and it is worrisome that UCLA couldn't defend him better.
The Bruins didn't overall have the intensity on defense they did against Vermont. While they played pretty good perimeter defense, there were some breakdowns in losing some of Riverside's players in switches, mostly due to lack of intensity. It's interesting to see, though, that when this team starts to lag defensively, Head Coach Ben Howland is very in tune with it and immediately tries to fire them up again. Howland said that an issue after the Vermont game was blocking out, and the Bruins did do that quite a bit better, which led to UCLA's 39 rebounds to Riverside's 24. Riverside, though, as we said in our preview, is a very poor rebounding team, generally lacking size, so while it was good to see so many Bruin bodies creating nice rebounding box outs, doing it well against Riverside might not give us any kind of real indication how good UCLA is at blocking out and rebounding.
Offensively, UCLA executed much better, looking a degree more comfortable in the offense than it did against Vermont. The Bruins shot 60% overall, and 65% from three (because of Morrison's hot hand). It did, once again, take them nearly a half before they got Fey a look at the basket, which he converted with just about 2 minutes left in the first half. He then was critical to the second half, similar to Vermont but not to the same degree, scoring eight second-half points to finish with 10. UCLA got the ball inside to him more and he was more effective in finishing with a series of little jump hooks. Fey, also, with his size, showed that he's able to close out on position down low and, with a good pass, can convert that into easy lay-ups. He did this mostly against Morton, who is 6-8 but a well-built 6-8, which is a good sign.
Dijon Thompson was steady on offense, showing his nice touch, finishing with 18 points. Thompson has a habit to get in trouble in the paint when he sometimes over-penetrates and doesn't have the explosiveness to challenge inside defenders, and it showed a couple of times in this game. When Thompson gets room for a mid-range pull-up is when he's most effective off the dribble.
Cedric Bozeman had another solid game, finishing with 17 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds. He again looked too big and strong for the opposing guards to defend him, and UCLA didn't seem to even exploit his size advantage enough. They are trying to get him posted up down low, and it was effective in enabling Bozeman to convert a couple of times. His outside shooting is also still a mystery; he shot an air ball from three that must have missed by two feet, but then confidently stepped up in the second half and buried a three-pointer when Riverside sagged off him. Bozeman did have five turnovers, mostly from trying to force poor passes, but for two games his assist-to-turnover total is 16-6, which is still a good margin. If Bozeman can continue to average 8 assists a game it would be key for UCLA's offense. Bozeman did have the shoulder that was operated on bandaged for this game, having gotten hit in practice. He said afterward that the shoulder felt fine in the game. His ankle still continues to get sore, according to Howland.
Ryan Hollins hit a nice face-up jumper from the top of the key. He also, in probably his best move, hit a turnaround from about 12 feet, in which he looked under control and confident. On the contrary, he did attempt a couple of out-of-control moves to the basket. Still an offensive work in progress, Hollins is improving, getting better in his back-to-the-basket game. He had 6 points and 7 rebounds.
The star of the game, obviously, was Brian Morrison. We've been reporting how much his game has improved. Always being a good shooter and having some explosive hops, Morrison is continuing to get his game under control. Making good decisions and taking good open shots can really reap benefits, as it did against Riverside. Howland said, "He had it going, but he also had wide open looks, and was getting good feeds off the picks his teammates were running for him." Morrison also showed that he's learning how to remain in control driving to the basket. He, in one series, did lapse into sloppiness trying to take the ball to the basket, but it was excusable in contrast to how many times he went to the hoop under control. Morrison also had a game-leading nine rebounds, being active on the defensive boards and benefiting from the blockouts from the big men. Howland cited how Morrison never tires, that he has great stamina, which enables him to keep his shooting touch late in the game, sustain tough defense and rebounding effort.
While this definitely was Morrison's break-out game, and great to see that UCLA has another offensive weapon, expecting him to do the same every game is a bit beyond reasonable expectation. He's a good shooter, but can be streaky, like all good shooters, and was definitely "in the zone" Wednesday. And in the process of getting more under control, Morrison will also almost certainly have more lapses this season in decision-making. But again, it was great to see him break out like he did against Riverside.
Free-throw shooting was again a problem, with the Bruins shooting just 50% from the line. In the first half they made just one of five three throws, and missed a couple of very critical front ends.
Howland, after the game, cited that the team still is not very good at understanding different situations in the game. "They, at times, weren't good at time and score," Howland said. But they did show improvement from the Vermont game in this area, not throwing any lob passes when up by just one point with 2 minutes left in the game.
Overall, though, you have to like that UCLA escaped from Vermont and Riverside with two wins. Given their personnel, "escaped" is an appropriate word. They did so with an incredibly depleted roster, without the services of two starter-caliber players in Cummings and Ariza. They did it by having to play walk-on caliber players for a combined 35 minutes in the Riverside game. They did so by playing Bozeman 38 minutes, and all five starters more than 30 minutes each.
It's all about expectation and capability. So far, given the capability UCLA has had with its diminished personnel, it's played up to expectation.