If someone would have told you that Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins would play solid games and Dijon Thompson would get 16 rebounds, would you have thought that UCLA would struggle to put away Western Illinois?
The Bruins did all that, and beat the Leathernecks, 75-60, but they struggled extensively on both offense and defense for long spurts in the game.
First, though, WIU is not near as bad as many have made them out to be. They have some new players, like Eulis Baez, their 6-8 power forward, who are decent players, and they won't be near as bad as many project in the Mid-Continent Conference. They looked comparable and, in many ways, better than the Bruins' other opponent from the Mid-Con Conference, Chicago State.
But still, WIU is a team UCLA shouldn't struggle to beat.
This game highlighted two of the main concerns for this UCLA team - defensive intensity and offensive sloppiness.
On defense, UCLA was running ragged against WIU's well-executed offense. The Leathernecks used motion, and the 1-4, and utilized a lot of screens, which got them a lot of open looks. They just weren't talented enough to actually knock down those open looks.
Again, UCLA's interior defense was solid, with Fey and Hollins doing a good job against WIU's bigs. They limited Baez to 13 points and four rebounds, and their other inside scorer, Eliz Cepeda, had just 1 point and 2 rebounds. A good night's defensive work for Fey and Hollins.
UCLA played poor defense on the perimeter and in transition. WIU went small for the game, actually making Fey have to guard some wings, until UCLA Head Coach Ben Howland went small himself in the second half, which kept Fey out of the game. But it's something UCLA might see quite a bit of this year; With their interior defense looking good and their perimeter defense somewhat slack and struggling to stay in front of the ball, opponents could go small against UCLA to take advantage of what, so far, has been poor perimeter defense. The Leathernecks also got open lanes and a few too many open looks in transition, with UCLA's guards and wings not finding their man quickly enough when getting back. And if you think this might be an issue against a team like WIU, it will be chilling against teams like Arizona, Washington, USC and Oregon.
UCLA also got into foul trouble quickly, collecting an astounding 14 fouls in the first half. While some of them were questionable calls, many of them came from UCLA reaching too much and not getting in front of their opponent.
We know it's almost a dirty word to Howland, but it could be that a zone might lend itself better to this team. Last night UCLA's bigs - Fey, Hollins and Matt McKinney -- all got two fouls each in the first half. Howland had to play Josiah Johnson for a stint and, while he played with effort, it's a big blow not to have the first three at your disposal. Zoning would protect the bigs from foul trouble better. Then, it would also assist in perimeter defense, enabling the defense to stay in front of dribble penetration better and masking UCLA's lack of defensive, man-to-man quickness.
Just a thought.
UCLA's offense also had its struggles last night. It went through some very long droughts during the game, at one point not scoring for almost nine minutes between the end of the first half and the beginning of the second. It looked like the UCLA scoreboard was having technical difficulties, with the UCLA score frozen on 39.
Most of the scoring droughts stemmed from too many turnovers, with 22 total for the game. The turnovers look to be a combination of a few things. They're probably mostly due to having an all-freshmen starting backcourt and they're making some errors. But veterans contributed last night, and in the game against Chicago State. Dijon Thompson had 5 turnovers against WIU, and he and Brian Morrison have to be more disciplined with the ball, and not force dribbles into traffic. And generally, the team is chalking up too many turnovers a game as a result of collective stupidity - illegal picks, foolish traveling, charges, three-second calls, etc. Hopefully this will calm down as the season goes on and this team matures and settles down. But the turnovers were easily the main culprit in limiting UCLA's offense. In one stretch toward the end of the second half, with the score stuck on 39, UCLA had four consecutive turnovers.
Probably what limited the offense also in this game is its inability to feed the post - or unwillingness. Fey didn't get a touch on the ball until six minutes into the game, which he converted with a lay-in. He didn't get his second touch until close to 9 minutes into the game. Fey was consistently open posting up, but a UCLA wing or guard would look down at him and not feed him the ball. Whether it's a matter of not having confidence in Fey, since he does have a history of fumbling feeds, is something the team is going to have to remedy. The Bruins are quickly becoming a far too perimeter-oriented team. In the first half, with Fey barely touching the ball, UCLA took 36 shots, and 12 of those were threes. For the non-math majors out there, that's one third of the team's shots were three-point attempts. UCLA made five of them, thankfully, but what happens when they hit a cold shooting night, or, more likely, a team with better perimeter defense than WIU?
We always thought that basketball was played inside-outside, and Howland definitely emphasizes that. After a first half of Fey not touching the ball much, UCLA came out in the second half looking into the post, and Fey caught three straight passes in the paint. But then the team started to get away from the inside-outside approach as the second half wore on, seemingly with the perimeter players too enamored of the penetration-kick type of offense that sets up three-point attempts.
The brightest spot for the game was the team's rebounding. It out-rebounded Western Illinois 49-24. Thompson, who is making a great effort on defense and the boards, had a career-high 16 rebounds. Matt McKinney had 9 rebounds in just 13 minutes, including a big one where he ripped it out of the hands of Leathernecks all over him, preserving the possession when UCLA was only up by 11 points with about 5 minutes left. Hollins was only attributed 3 rebounds for the game, but seemed like he had more, and played generaly pretty well throughout, looking more like the player he was toward the end of last season. He still is a bit of a man without a position, not able to play the four the way Howland intends it, and not really possessing a back-to-the-basket game to make him a center. But he's improving, getting more active, and, most importantly, making a real effort to rebound.
It appears like the real challenge for this team is going to be taking better
care of the ball. The turnovers took away so many UCLA possessions, and limited
their ability to put away WIU. Jordan Farmar is a very good point guard
prospect, and he's bound to have some ebb and flow as he matures. If he
can get more disciplined with the ball, it will settle down Thompson and
Morrison and the rest of the team, and give UCLA more chances at putting the
ball in the basket. We fully expect Farmar to accomplish this as the
season goes on.