The UCLA Bruins opened the 2001-2002 basketball season with a 11-point win over Houston last night in the opening round of the Maui Classic.
Unlike some of the earlier games in the tourney, which apparently were decided as much by the debilitating effects of the hothouse-like gymnasium as they were by the talent on the floor and on the bench, the UCLA-Houston game pretty much went according to plan, except that it was more of a defensive-oriented slugfest than what one might expect at this point in the season. Ultimately, Houston's lack of a quality perimeter attack combined with UCLA's superior size and depth all around to ultimately doom Houston's upset efforts.
The first half resembled the Bruins' first two exhibition games, sans Dan Gadzuric, who committed two fouls in the first four minutes and sat out the last sixteen. Denuded of their top rebounder, the Bruins were robbed of both their transition game and their most credible inside threat. Combine that with a lot of unforced turnovers (11 in the first half), and the Bruin offense appeared stagnant. Houston did a good job of denying Jason Kapono and Billy Knight the ball, and without a strong 3-point game the Bruins had a hard time scoring in the absence of their senior big man. Fortunately, Houston was unable to hit anything from the outside, and apart from some solid paint play by George Williams, Louis Truscott and Patrick Okafor, was unable to go on any sustained scoring runs.
In the second half, Ced Bozeman and his teammates stopped turning the ball over and started getting it to Jason Kapono, and that pretty much ended the game, as Jason fired in a trio of 3s in the second half, two in the first 5 minutes. By the end of those first 5 minutes, the Bruins were up by 13 and from there on out it was only a question of UCLA's victory margin. This, despite the fact that Gadzuric twisted his ankle and wound up playing only 16 minutes the entire night. It's unclear at this time if Dan will be able to play tonight against Ball State.
Throughout the second half, UCLA continued to do a good job of harassing Houston's guards, though it still isn't clear if those guys can shoot even if left wide open. But quick Dominic Smith didn't hurt the Bruins with penetration, and Houston's star, George Williams, was fairly well collared in the second half by Matt Barnes in a very strong individual defensive effort which was one of the highlights of the Bruins' performance. Matt also got 13 points and 12 rebounds and made only one turnover in 30 minutes.
Jason Kapono wound up 4-7 from 3 and finished with a game-high 16 points, to go with 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 turnovers. Jason has had a problem with turnovers early on, especially when he's trying to create against a very quick guard-like defender (Marcus Oliver, in this case). Ced Bozeman's debut was marked by 13 points, 4 assists and 4 turnovers (I actually had Ced down for 15 points and only 3 turnovers, and I think I'm right, but who am I to question authority?), but only one turnover came in the second half (the Bruins only made 4 turnovers as a team in the second half, which might be some kind of modern-day record for UCLA). Ced also played very good defense against the 5-10 Smith.
The Bruins got good offensive production from TJ Cummings, who smoked a 3 from inside the arc (oh, those refs) en route to 9 points, but TJ's post defense was mediocre and his rebounding even worse. After Gadzuric was gone, Okafor and Truscott got too many easy, uncontested baskets inside. Matt Barnes can only guard one guy at a time, dudes. The Bruins' "other" freshmen, Dijon Thompson and Andre Patterson, both played very solid games. Dijon dropped both of his 3s (UCLA was 8-16 from behind the arc despite an off-night by Billy Knight) and finished with 6 points and 2 rebounds. Andre snaked inside for 5 points and 2 rebounds, but helped the Bruins most on defense, using his quickness to intercept an entry pass and strip Houston's post players twice on double-teams. He also got a steal off the press, but again the official stats must overrule my eyes and so we will say that Andre only had 3 steals. If Dan can't go against Ball State tonight, this could be Andre's coming out party. He's UCLA's best low post player, plain and simple.
Billy Knight rarely got the ball in position to score and only had 6 shots (and 4 points), and the Bruins will have to change that if they want to win tonight, let alone beat Duke on Wednesday. Billy did play pretty good defense, especially on the press (4 steals, officially), and generally played with the 5th year senior-like poise he's been showing in the exhibition games. Prediction: Billy is going to have a strong season this year. Rico Hines worked hard on defense, got 3 rebounds, and stayed out of the way on offense without too many mistakes for 18 minutes. In a 1-4 high system, with players like Kapono, Bozeman, Thompson and Knight, staying away on offense is a cardinal virtue. The coaches call it "spacing."
Under the circumstances, when most of the teams were watching their players drop to the floor from leg cramps or exhaustion in that cramped, fetid excuse for a basketball arena (Lavin, in his press conference, noted the atmospheric challenges presented by the Maui Classic), the Bruins turned in a creditable first performance. One would be hard-pressed to make any wild-eyed statements based on a game like this. Ced Bozeman made some mistakes early on, then made some dazzling drives and solid passes later. Led by usual suspect Jason Kapono, the Bruins were able to present a strong offense from behind the arc even without Billy Knight. The Bruins outrebounded a tall, strong, athletic team even without Gadzuric for most of the night (5 points, 2 rebounds, 1 block in 16 minutes for Dan). Dijon Thompson and Andre Patterson played well, and with poise. On the downside, the Bruins' press didn't produce many turnovers or wear the Cougars down, though the halfcourt defense caused a lot of turnovers in the paint and a lot of bad outside shots.
Ball State is a pretty good team, better than Houston, so UCLA won't have time to worry about not playing Kansas or looking ahead to playing Duke. This should be a tough battle tonight, especially as Gadzuric should be considered doubtful, and even if he plays he certainly won't be 100%.