UCLA is 6-3 overall and 2-0 in the conference, and right on the pre-season predicted course. They're just about as good as you could have anticipated with the level of talent and new infusion of good coaching.
And in regards to coaching, you can't reiterate enough how refreshing – and almost shockingly refreshing – it is to see a UCLA team be coached well. Ben Howland's effect and influence on the team was probably not more apparent yet this year than it was in the Oregon game. He orchestrated the game well, conceived of a good plan both offensively and defensively against the Ducks, and displayed some great game coaching. Oregon Head Coach Ernie Kent said UCLA was the more disciplined team. When's the last time you've heard that UCLA was the more disciplined team? Kent was right; for a majority of the game it was Oregon that reverted to a one-on-one offense and bad breakdowns on defense, something that hopefully will never be associated with a Bruin uniform again.
It would be nice if UCLA could play against Oregon's defense every game. In our preview for the game, it stated how Oregon's defense could be the antidote for UCLA's struggling offense, and it certainly was Sunday. The Ducks play some of the worst defense in the Pac-10, if not the worst. Oregon defenders have no energy or strength coming off screens. There were some back screens set by UCLA in this game that it looked like Oregon had never seen before and wasn't aware that basketball teams were actually allowed to do.
What we miscalculated in the game preview was how good UCLA's defense would be. There is still a bit of a lingering mindset about players in UCLA uniforms playing defense from the last several years that makes it difficult to believe that UCLA can sustain such good defense. You have to throw out those old assumptions. It's the same players in those uniforms, but it's a different coaching staff on the bench and a different emphasis on defense.
UCLA kept hot-shooting Oregon to 40% shooting for the game, particularly playing strong defense in a stretch to end the first half and start the second that won the game for the Bruins. UCLA, keyed by its defense, went on a 22-2 run. For that stretch of probably 15 minutes, UCLA played with great defensive intensity, with UCLA defenders pushing through screens, switching quickly, and flying at Oregon shooters. While Oregon had some pretty open shots before and after this stretch that they didn't make, during this stretch they didn't get too many good looks at the basket. And while the defensive intensity was turned up, so followed the rebounding intensity. UCLA out-rebounded the pretty good-rebounding Ducks 25-12 in the first half. T.J. Cummings and Dijon Thompson rebounded perhaps better in that first half then they have ever in their UCLA careers, with Cummings pulling down nine and Thompson five. Thompson was flying all over the court, on one playing quickly moving across half the court to track down a rebound and pull it away from flat-footed Ducks. This defense and rebounding was the catalyst to UCLA's offensive spurt, with the energy on defense spilling over to the other side of the court.
UCLA had it rolling there until about the 14 minute mark of the second half. They stretched their lead to 22 at one point, doing it with great defensive and rebounding intensity and fundamentals (some great blocking out), and good execution on the offensive end.
At that point, though, Oregon started to press, trap and zone. Howland responded with a four-corners type offense that is designed to break presses and traps, and also run down the shot clock on every possession, making it far more difficult for a team to come back from a 20+ deficit. The problem, though, as it always is when a team tries to use the clock, is then the team gets tentative and doesn't execute or take care of the ball, which was the case for the Bruins. UCLA struggled with the press, but also particularly with the zone trap in the halfcourt, and turned the ball over enough to give Oregon some life. UCLA, because of the confidence lost on the offensive end, then lost its intensity on the defensive end, leading to quite easier baskets for the Ducks. Howland admitted that after the game he had not had the team work on the four-corners, press-and-trap-beating offense much (probably because practicing an offense that you use when up by 20+ points wasn't necessarily high on the priority list compared to so many other aspects of the game).
When Oregon widdled it down to just 67-61 with four minutes remaining, which is completely doable for the Ducks at that point with UCLA on its heels, it was then a good test for this UCLA team to see what they were made of in sealing the win. UCLA found some poise, executed well enough, and made its free throws, particularly Cedric Bozeman who hit four of four down the stretch, to not allow Oregon to get any closer.
From a players' perspective, perhaps the best thing about the game was the play of Dijon Thompson. He played a great all-around game, scoring 13 points, pulling down eight rebounds and giving out 4 assists. Beyond the stats, he played with some newfound intensity on defense and in rebounding. Interestingly, that defensive intensity definitely seemed to keep him more focused on the offensive end, with crisper cuts and passing. Just speculating, but you have to think that possibly the emergence of both Brian Morrison and Janou Rubin might be contributing to Thompson's renewed motivation.
Cedric Bozeman also played a good, complete game, appearing to get more and more comfortable with the offense and executing it better. He finished with 12 points and 4 assists. T.J. Cummings had 12 points and finished with 9 rebounds (curiously, didn't get any in the second half). He played well, under control, with only one turnover, and showed a renewed commitment to scoring out of the post. Janou Rubin followed up his break-out performance against Oregon State with one that cemented his increased role on the team, finishing with 13 clutch points, including 2 of 3 from three, as well as some key assists and great defense, in just 24 minutes. The most signficant development out of this weekend is the emergence of Rubin, who now, bolstered by his success, is playing with some considerable confidence. It's especially timely given the loss of Brian Morrison, and makes it even more encouraging that Howland now has confidence in another option at the two-guard spot when Morrison returns.
The two centers, Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins, also combined for decent productivity. Hollins' defense is really starting to make an impact in every game, and his minutes are increasing because of it. Hollins was instrumental in shutting down Oregon's 6-11 Ian Crosswhite, holding him to 4 points. Fey struggled a bit at times. After fumbling two catchable passes that would have led to easy lay-ups, and then getting pulled by Howland, Fey's play improved. He caught the next interior pass and converted. He's going up strong to the basket more and more. He, though, is perhaps the slowest at being able to block out for rebounds, which was evident in this game, only getting one board for the night. Between Fey and Hollins, they only got 5 rebounds, in a combined 40 minutes, which is not enough to get out of your center position. UCLA is out-rebounding its opponents because of its team rebounding efforts, but Fey and Hollins need to improve if they're going to compete on the boards with the likes of Stanford.
Josiah Johnson made some key contributions, pulling down a couple of rebounds and hitting four crucial free throws in crunch time. Backup point guard Ryan Walcott struggled, particularly when he was asked to help break the press, turning the ball over or making poor decisions. He did, though, provide some good defense against the Ducks' great shooting guard, James Davis, helping to keep him to just 8 points.
A friend pointed out after the game that it was good UCLA had the second-half lapse and had to really focus to preserve the win against Oregon. He thought that this team might have a tendency to get complacent, and needs to remember that it has a long way to go this season. The second half of the Oregon game could very well have helped UCLA as much as any, snapping them back to reality and reminding them that they're not that good – yet, anyway.