Two elderly Bruin alumni couples were shuffling their way to the exits. You know the type -- decked out in their UCLA gear, all four of them with shocked-white hair, and walking at a snail's pace. As they were leaving, they stopped at the railing and looked down on the court, both couples holding hands. I noticed them, since it was so curious that these four people were just standing there, looking down at the court, silent.
After a moment of pensively looking out at Pauley, one of the gentlemen said, "It's now fun again."
The other gentleman said, "They're a pleasure to watch."
After another long pause, the four started to walk to the exit with satisfied smiles on their faces, and one of the women said, "Like the old days."
While it's entirely premature to ring in a new era of UCLA basketball greatness, it isn't too early to bask in, as these folks did, the new, well-coached, fundamentally-sound UCLA basketball team.
And you have to take a moment to appreciate that UCLA currently has sole possession of first place in the Pac-10 with a 5-0 record. When was the last time UCLA held a 2 ½ game lead over Arizona in the Pac-10?
This team has now proven this year that their solid play and defense is not a fluke. Holding Arizona State to 35% shooting, the Bruins soundly beat the Sun Devils, 66-58.
UCLA limited ASU's All-American forward, Ike Diogu, to 15 points, well below his Pac-10 leading 23-per-game average, and the Sun Devils were held to their lowest point total of the season. In the first half, ASU shot just 29%, with Diogu going 1 for 9, commonly getting bracketed by two or three UCLA defenders. He finished the game 3 for 14 from the field, and fouled out with five minutes left in the game.
This game was definitely another step forward for the Bruins. They continued to play their great defense, but then also made some strides offensively. UCLA built a 13-point lead in the second half by executing their offense well, particularly getting some added points in semi-transition. Each game UCLA has gotten better at not necessarily breaking, but getting open looks and converting in semi-transition, and this was perhaps their best game of the season in regards to it. It helped that Dijon Thompson found his shooting touch again, going 7 for 12 from the field and 3 for 4 from three, scoring 19 points. Eight of those points came in semi-transition, with Thompson getting a good look before ASU's defense could set up. He's very good at trailing the break and finding an open spot, and Cedric Bozeman is very good, with his vision, at finding him and other open shooters. In fact, it's where T.J. Cummings could make a living, with his soft shooting touch, getting open 10-12 footers, which he did Thursday. Cummings is playing stellar ball and on his way to an All-Pac-10 first-team season. He continued last night to let the game come to him, making good decisions and taking smart shots, scoring a game-high 21 points and aggressively ripping down 12 rebounds. He had his best half of the season in the first 20 minutes, getting 15 points and 6 boards, and every point and board coming at very critical sequences in the game.
Cummings has helped UCLA's ability to get points in the paint, but alone, he still isn't enough to get the kind of point productivity UCLA could really use from inside. The two offensive issues are primarily transition points, which it's improving upon, and low-post scoring, which it hasn't. Centers Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins were good for just three points between them in 38 minutes.
It was good to see UCLA's reserves play solidly. In both halves, head coach Ben Howland used mostly reserves for up to five minutes in an effort to get his starters a breather, and the back-ups held their own, not relinquishing UCLA's lead. Much had been made of backup point guard Ryan Walcott's performance against Washington, but he responded against Arizona State with a very dependable performance, playing seven much-needed minutes without making a turnover or a mistake – and not trying to do too much.
This is critical – that UCLA get solid minutes from its bench – to give its starters a breather. If there is an Achilles Heel that this team has shown so far this season it's their fatigue at the end of the game, which leads to opposing teams pressing and trapping and cutting into UCLA's lead. Bozeman, who played a good all-around game, getting six assists to three turnovers, gets tired in the last 10 minutes of games. It showed against Arizona State, particularly in his defense against ASU's quick point guard Jason Braxton, who basically was running around Bozeman and the Bruins for easy layups in the last seven minutes to bring the Sun Devils close. It's imperative that UCLA can get productive minutes from its bench to give its starters a rest so they can be fresher for the last 7 minutes of crunch time.
UCLA handled the pressing and trapping pressure better in this game than in the last several. It committed only five turnovers in the second half, and only one down the stretch when the Sun Devils went to their pressure defense. Bozeman is a deceptively good ballhandler – not flashy like smaller point guards, but with his body and strength it's very difficult for a defender to pick him off the dribble. But once UCLA gets through the backcourt pressure and into the frontcourt during crunch time, its halfcourt offense is still struggling against that trapping zone, which every team since Oregon State has done against the Bruins. UCLA went a long period in the second half without getting a field goal, still not confident enough to aggressively attack the extended, trapping defense. Much of it has to do with the fact that UCLA doesn't have perimeter players that can break down defenders or can burn traps with their ballhandling. But it's also a matter of its guards confidently drawing traps and then finding their open teammates to make defenses pay for extending and double-teaming.
Offensively, besides Cummings and Thompson having good games, freshman Trevor Ariza had 16 points, and is creating offense with his play-making ability. It is now becoming routine for Ariza to athletically convert on a drive where it seemed near impossible he'd be able to get near the hoop. Those plays have become sparks for this offense, which fuel mini-runs. In Howland's offense, Ariza is commonly catching the ball out at 20 feet facing the basket and is able to create, and there isn't an offensive situation in UCLA's repertoire that is more potentially exciting, given his quick first step, passing ability and ability to make it to the rim.
Mike Fey was in foul trouble for a majority of the game, playing only 10 minutes. Back-up Ryan Hollins played 28 minutes and while he only scored three points and had three rebounds, he was instrumental in defending Diogu and keeping ASU's burly 6-7 forwards off the boards. One of the most critical plays of the game was in the second half at about the 9:30 mark. With UCLA up by 11 and with a feeling that ASU was about to mount a run, Hollins took a charge on Diogu, which was his fourth personal foul. It led to Diogu fouling out, which, obviously, took him off the floor in the last five critical minutes of the game when ASU had drawn to within three points.
If UCLA doesn't, in fact, improve its ability to attack the half-court trap, odds are sooner or later UCLA will lose one of these games where it systematically built a good lead with great defense and solid offensive execution. The return of Brian Morrison (which is thought to be next week) should help UCLA's efforts against the late-in-the-game pressure defense it's been seeing. Morrison will lend more ballhandling and ability to break a defense, but also, with his stamina, not get tired.
Overall, it was another good defensive performance and another improving offensive performance, with the team showing marked improvement while it continues to play fundamentally sound.
Like the old days...