Freshmen Start Out Slowly, 64-53

UCLA opened up the 2004-2005 basketball season with a win over visiting Chicago State, 64-53. While the freshmen struggled, there were other lingering worries about the team that actually looked improved Saturday...

You can bet that the UCLA freshmen believe they played pretty poorly in their UCLA debut Saturday, in beating Chicago State, 64-53.

And they'd be right. Even if you didn't see the game, it wasn't hard to surmise from the box score. Jordan Farmar had 8 turnovers, Arron Afflalo shot two-for-eleven, Josh Shipp scored two points and Lorenzo Mata didn't play due to a sprained ankle.

But any fan out there who has never seen these freshmen play before that is being presumptuous enough to judge them on their performance against Chicago State should turn in their brain right now since they're not using it anyway.

I'm going to go out on an extreme limb here. And I want everyone to save this next prediction and hold me to it over the next four years: Farmar, Afflalo, Shipp and Mata are going to be quite a bit better in the future than they were against Chicago State.

I understand how it is for many UCLA fans. For years, the program has struggled, and a frustrating aspect of that struggle has been the inability to blow out far inferior teams like Chicago State.

And while it wasn't exactly a huge splash of a debut for the 2004-2005 Bruins, and there still is quite a bit to worry about, there were generally more positive take-aways from this game than you might expect. And the negatives were things that you could easily see being resolved.

After the two exhibition games, the primary concern for this team looked to be rebounding and interior defense. And even though it was just Chicago State, UCLA did well in both categories Saturday. They out-rebounded the Cougars 41-21. They had a couple of letdowns blocking out, but rebounded generally pretty well as a team. The rebounding performances of both big men, Ryan Hollins and Michael Fey, were acceptable, getting seven boards a piece and generally being around the ball inside. And the interior defense, actually, could have been the best aspect of the team's performance against CSU. Fey and Hollins both did very well in defending the post, staying disciplined and in position, while completely frustrating CSU's 7-0 center, Deji Akindele, who fouled out with no points and 1 rebound. CSU's other center, 6-10 Marin Mulic, who actually started for the Cougars to try to offset UCLA's height advantage with Fey and Hollins, had five points and 1 rebound. This is not to say that UCLA now will be able to shut down Ike Diogu and Jeff McMillan, but it does provide some promise in two aspects of this year's team that looked to be particularly worrisome.

It was promising, too, that the defense allowed just 53 points, and CSU to shoot just 41% from the field. Especially given that the effort on defense could have been better. The team went in and out of good defensive intensity, struggled in its on-the-ball defense, and had some lapses in switches and getting around screens. Dijon Thompson, in fact, could have been the best and most consistent defender in this game, showing consistent intensity guarding the ball and making an effort on help defense.

Thompson, in fact, had a very solid game, leading the team in both scoring and rebounds, with 17 and 8, respectively. He could have shot the ball better from the perimeter, but made up for it with effort around the basket, rebounding and finishing well in the paint. It was a little amusing a few times when he was on the receiving end of excellent passes from Farmar and Afflalo that led to easy buckets. Thompson looked almost surprised by the unselfishness surrounding him.

Hollins also had a solid game, rebounding and playing defense well, which is exactly what you want from him. He finished with 11 points, scored mostly on dunks from good feeds. But he really looked like he is learning to use his length and athleticism as an advantage in rebounding. And his hustle in getting back on a CSU breakaway to block a lay-up was probably the highlight of the game. A big worry was whether Hollins had been set back too far from his inactivity over the summer after his knee surgery. But now, after a few years, it might just be a realization that Hollins possibly doesn't practice well, but once the games start, he responds.

Many would argue that Fey struggled in this game, since he missed a couple of dunks and a couple of other easy gimme baskets. It is a worry, whether Fey will be able to finish inside. In the exhibition games he generally went up weakly to the basket. In this game, he went up stronger but couldn't complete the dunks. But Fey showed an improved resolve to rebound and played very good interior defense. You can see he's taken the lessons of Head Coach Ben Howland about taking charges to heart, flopping a couple of times and getting a charging call on one of them. He also was under control in terms of fouling, getting three fouls in 32 minutes of playing time. He had a couple of lapses when he got a bit sloppy, particularly in hedging on screens, but generally he had a good game defensively.

As a result of this game, though, the worry on defense went from the team's interior D back to that old familiar friend – on-the-ball defense. CSU's smaller, quicker guards generally exploited their flex offense, which essentially spreads the court to garner space for dribble penetration. Farmar struggled keeping his smaller, quicker man in front of him, and the team really struggled in help defense. As we've said for the last year about UCLA's new freshmen: While they're very talented, collectively they don't bring a great deal of defensive quickness to the team. Last year it was a problem for UCLA, and it looks like it could be again, especially since UCLA looks to face many quicker guards on its schedule. It's particularly worrisome since UCLA did lose its best on-the-ball defender in Cedric Bozeman. You can probably expect many of UCLA's opponents attempting to give its guards some room to take their man off the dribble and penetrate to create offense, like CSU smartly did in this game.

While the worries on defense are some that UCLA might not be able to fix and only be able to mask, like with defensive quickness, the issues you saw on offense against CSU look to all be fixable. The primary problem with the team offensively against CSU was poor shooting and turnovers. UCLA shot 44% for the game, and 7 for 20 from threes. They missed dunks, they missed lay-ups, they missed five-footers and shot an airball from three. And many of them were uncontested, open looks. It's something that you can easily attest to random luck, opening night jitters, etc. But it's not a big stretch to predict that this collection of good shooters is going to have better days shooting the ball this season.

While the turnovers are a bit more worrisome, you can also probably chalk those up to those same opening-night jitters and freshmen mistakes. Farmar forced the ball a few times, in passing and penetration, especially during a damaging stretch toward the end of the first half when UCLA turned the ball over four times in a row to allow CSU back in the game. The turnovers came in bunches against CSU's zone, with the Bruins trying to force too many ill-advised passes. It is probably a very good move that Afflalo is getting the back-up point guard minutes instead of Brian Morrison. Afflalo did well passing the ball Saturday, with three nice assists, and Morrison is far more comfortable passing the ball from a shooting-guard, scorer's mentality than from a point guard's. Morrison had a couple of nice dishes off penetration. Farmar, though, also struggled late in the game when CSU again made a smart, strategic move extending their defense and pressuring the ball. It flustered Farmar some and led to UCLA taking bad shots and, again, CSU getting back into the game, cutting the lead to 7 with about 3 minutes left.

So, really, overall, you could say that some of the issues that lingered from last year about the returning players looked to be improved. Thompson played good defense and rebounded well; the interior D with Hollins and Fey looked improved; and Hollins appears to be coming back from his injury better than expected. The concern from this game was generally the performance of the freshmen, which is understandable. It's not as if Howland is bringing the freshmen along slowly, because he has no choice. Farmar played 35 minutes and Afflalo played 34. It could be that with Thompson, Fey, Hollins and Morrison more or less constants for the year, how goes this team could be determined by how go the freshmen. They are bound to be inconsistent this season, with so much responsibility so early. But Farmar and Afflalo are excellent players and it's not too much to expect that they'll continue to improve and get more consistent as the season goes on. With the expectations of UCLA fans so low for so long, it might be time to raise expectations a bit. But baby steps here. Let's just say we can expect this team to show some considerable improvement as the freshmen get more comforable by the end of the season.

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