For the 3rd year in a row, UCLA played, and defeated, a top-ranked team (of course, UCLA lost to a top-ranked team in the Sweet 16 last year, too). This time around, the opponent was Kansas, the game was Saturday afternoon at Pauley Pavilion, and the final score was 87-77.
I spent about 2 hours this week with UCLA Assistant Coach Jim Saia, watching tape of Kansas. Jim broke down the Jayhawks' game and explained to me in painstaking detail why and how UCLA was going to beat Roy Williams' team. Partly because I didn't believe him, and partly because I couldn't abuse the confidence and use anything he said on the Internet, I picked Kansas to win. But as I sat in the stands at Pauley, I was fascinated by how closely the game followed the script that Jim laid out in his office over a 2-day period (of course, all of the coaches worked on the game preparation). The Bruins came out with a great plan for beating the Jayhawks, and the players executed it extremely well as UCLA played its best game of the season.
UCLA's first, and biggest, task was disrupting Kansas' "speed game." Kansas prefers to rush the ball up the floor, pushing it into one corner to space the floor, with 4 players above the 3-point line and the 5 man under the hoop. The next two plays are crucial: A ball reversal to the 4 above the FT line, then, preferably, an entry pass into the 5. This often sets up an easy score underneath, a kick out to a wing for a spot up 3, or a kick out back to the 4 to initiate Kansas' motion offense. If Kansas doesn't score in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, that's a bad possession for them.
The Bruins came out using a 1-2-2 zone press to force Kansas to have to work to get the ball inbounds, rather than just racing it up the floor with 2 quick passes. KU's players also had to make more impromptu decisions once they'd broken the press, a facet of the game at which KU players traditionally do not excel. While the Jayhawks normally make a lot of turnovers in their "speed game," they made way too many turnovers against the Bruins, partly because they were forced to think way too much by the press. Their guards and Drew Gooden just made a lot of poor passing and ballhandling decisions, not only against the press but after they broke the press. Jim told me it would work. I should've listened.
The Bruins also moved Matt Barnes to the "top" tier of the 2s in the 1-2-2 matchup zone during the "speed game" sequences. With his long arms and court savvy, Matt was able to harass the "4" man and picked off a couple of passes, or he stepped outside with Billy Knight, Ced Bozeman or Rico Hines to double-team the guard pushing the ball to the wing, often frustrating the Jayhawks' efforts to initiate that reversal to the top of the key. After Kansas switched to its motion, Matt and Jason would exchange places in the zone and Matt became the weakside help for Dan Gadzuric underneath.
UCLA used big Dan to front the 5 man. Andre Patterson also did an excellent job of fronting the post when he was in the game, and Matt sometimes switched onto the 5 man as well (as did Rico for about 2 minutes). By denying the ball to the 5 man for almost the entire night, the Bruins added one more element to disrupting KU's "speed game" and forced them to run their motion offense much more than usual. Against a tight matchup zone, the best a motion can produce is some good looks from 3. However, it usually doesn't generate many looks inside, and often doesn't draw enough fouls from the defense, either. And teams that live by the 3 usually die by it, sooner or later.
Finally, UCLA decided to send only 1 man to the offensive glass on most sequences. The Bruins worked a lot on getting back on defense against Kansas in practice after the USC game Thursday night. They did a good job in this game of keeping 2 guys above the FT line on almost every offensive sequence and the Jayhawks were unable to generate any fast breaks off of defensive rebounds. Well, maybe they got 1 the entire game. The Bruins also hoped to both minimize their turnovers and prevent Kansas from converting those turnovers into easy baskets in transition. Although UCLA made 18 turnovers, Kansas only got 10 points in transition. So, Kansas was unable to go on any of the big runs that characterize almost all of their games.
On offense, UCLA stuck to its 1-4, trying to stretch out KU's defense and make them work for 25-35 seconds per possession. KU does a great job of double-teaming the ball, and they overplayed the entry pass into the "1" at the elbow of the key which initiates most of UCLA's offensive sets. As a result, KU was able to get some steals, but it also left the Jayhawks very susceptible to dribble penetration from the post. In addition, Kansas' man d often left the team's post players isolated one on one inside, and UCLA made KU pay by feeding Dan and having Matt and TJ score some easy baskets on simple quick cuts to the basket. In addition, Lavin gave Billy Knight, Jason Kapono, Ced Bozeman and Dijon Thompson the green light to try and take the shorter Jayhawks off the dribble for short Js or drives to the basket, as UCLA again was able to isolate the Kansas players one on one a lot, especially late into the shot clock, when KU's double-teams were less frequent.
In addition, the UCLA coaches resolved to play all of the FR, including redshirt FR Ryan Walcott. The coaches made the call to play Ced Bozeman at least 20 minutes. Both decisions were major factors in this game, because UCLA's offense and defense looked noticeably quicker when the FR were on the floor, and quickness has always been a factor in every tough game Kansas has played this season.
The game started out as a seesaw battle and stayed that way for the first 11 minutes. KU was hitting enough Js to keep pace with the Bruins. Their efforts to press the Bruins early didn't seem to pay off nearly as well as UCLA's efforts to press them (Kansas was using a fullcourt man press). With the score 25-24 UCLA, it was the Bruins who made the first run. Matt fired in a long-range 3 as Drew Gooden sagged off of him, trying to keep a foot in the lane. Then Ryan fed Dijon with a beautiful pass for a beautiful midrange J. Matt followed up that shot with another long 3 as the Bruins forced Kansas to make some mistakes at the other end of the floor. The 8-0 sequence gave UCLA a 33-24 lead they never relinquished for the rest of the game.
Indeed, UCLA continued to pile it on after a KU FT as Jason nailed a 3 and then Matt, playing high against the KU "speed game," picked off the reversal to the 4 man at the top of the key and took it down for a windup tomahawk jam that made the Bruins' run 13-1 and the lead 38-25. Kansas called a timeout and the Pauley crowd was relatively enthusiastic. KU regrouped after the timeout and went on its own 8-0 run as TJ coughed the ball up a couple of times and forced a bad shot. Rico Hines returned to the game and UCLA settled down. Matt made a quick cut to the basket, leaving Drew in the dust as Rico fed him for the easy backdoor score (Collison really didn't do much this game, especially when it came to helping his teammates underneath on d).
Rico then hit Matt on a subsequent isolation play, drawing a Kansas foul. Billy came back in for Rico and drew a foul of his own driving to the bucket, and then Matt faked the handoff at the elbow and just turned into the lane and went all the way to the rack for the layup with 25 seconds to go as the Bruins made an 8-2 dash of their own in the final 3 minutes to lead 46-35 at the half. Matt was on fire, finishing the first 20 minutes with 18 points.
Roy Williams doesn't have a career record of 368-91 (that's a winning percentage of 80.2%) for nothing. Kansas came out in the second half and really amped up its defensive intensity. At first, it didn't seem to matter. Gadzuric got some easy buckets inside, overpowering the smaller Collison. Ced came back into the game for Rico at the 17:09 mark and fed Matt for a lob dunk off his quick, clever fake and cut. Then Matt hit Jason for a pretty backdoor pass and Jason scored and drew the foul for a 3-point play, giving UCLA its biggest lead of the game, 55-40, at the 15:32 mark.
Williams pulled Collison and inserted tough FR Wayne Simien and Keith Langford into the game. KU's defense seemed to jump up still another notch, and the Jayhawks finally started to score some transition buckets. In addition, with Langford driving and dishing and Simien setting some nice picks, KU got its motion going a little better. Gooden now began scoring inside for the first time in the game, instead of settling for Js. Drew hit an especially pretty hook right in TJ's face, and Kansas outscored UCLA 11-7 over a 4-minute span to bring the Bruin lead back into single digits, 62-53.
UCLA's scores came off a nice drive by Ced as he turned the corner on Jeff Boschee and a short J by Billy off a nice pass from Matt after Matt drew the defense by driving into the lane. With Drew now chastised, skittish and totally set up, Matt got the ball 24 feet from the basket, stared Drew down, watched Drew back up in anticipation of another drive, and then Matt just drilled the NBA-range 3. Dang. There were about a dozen NBA scouts in the house and Matt is now on everyone's list as a player to watch this year.
But let us return to the game: The Bruins were starting to tire a little, and Kansas was starting to run their motion with more efficiency. Hinrich started in bombing some 3s of his own as the Jayhawks closed the gap to 65-61 at the 8-minute mark. Lavin called timeout and inserted Rico and Billy for Ryan and Dijon. UCLA stepped up as Matt got an offensive rebound and Jason, isolated against the 6-0 Aaron Miles on a switch, scored an easy short J.
UCLA was now up 69-61 at the 7-minute mark, and the clock was definitely becoming a factor, as the 1-4 offense really chews up time. After another KU turnover, Billy drew a foul, but missed the 1 and 1. However, KU lost another 30 seconds. With the "speed game" ineffective, Kansas now faced the prospect of trying to come back in a grinding sort of game, which is very hard to do for anyone. It was now a question of whether KU could force enough UCLA turnovers to make up for its lost ability to generate quick scores off the set offense.
Lavin now made a key substitution. He inserted Ced back into the game for Rico, greatly bolstering the Bruins' ballhandling and versatility. Although Ced did make a turnover in those final 6:30, he also made another drive by taking Boschee one on one, and he and Matt pretty much negated the Kansas press in those final minutes. Drew Gooden and Langford were able to penetrate the lane and draw some fouls, and then Boschee and Collison made some tough shots with guys in their jerseys. Drew knocked down a tough 3 with Dan's hand right in his face, and KU was able to close the gap to 78-72 with 2:27 to go. Then Drew stole that telegraphed pass from Ced and jammed it home to cut the lead to 4.
KU called timeout to plan their pressure. Lavin countered by calling on TJ and Jason to break for the basket while Matt hurled the long pass for the TD. I think Kansas was covering for 1 guy to go long; 2 guys threw them off, and Jason drew the foul and hit both FTs. KU came back and got Drew the ball deep inside for one of the few times in the game and he made the power basket and fouled Dan out of the game at the same time. Drew sank the clutch FT to make it 80-77 with 1:42 to go, the closest margin since the 9-minute mark of the first half.
Now Lavin called the timeout. The Bruins were told to spread the floor out for isolation plays for Billy, Matt, Jason and Ced, and run their offense deep into the count. KU obliged by letting them do it before Drew fouled Billy on a dribble drive with just 2 seconds remaining on the shot clock. Billy calmly sank both FTs. Suddenly, KU went from almost catching the Bruins to being down by 5 with only a minute left. The Jayhawks seemed to panic, and threw up a couple of wild shots. The Bruins got the ball to Billy as much as possible. He popped 6 straight FTs in that final minute, Matt added 2 of his own, and UCLA scored the last 7 points of the game to finish with the double-digit margin of victory, 87-77.
Matt was again sensational, hitting 10-14 shots, 4-6 from 3, en route to 27 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal in 34 minutes. He was very effective at generating easy scores in a variety of ways. He'd fake the handoff to the guard coming over the top and just spin into the lane for a quick drive to the basket. Or he'd make the handoff and then just backdoor his man off a quick cut. Or he'd get a dunk lob off the same play. Or, he'd step out and drill the 3 in the face of KU's All-American 4 man, Drew Gooden.
Dan also enjoyed the single coverage while he was in the game. Though some typical Pac-10 officiating limited Dan to 17 minutes, he made 6-9 shots and was 1-2 from the FT line as he scored 13 points and grabbed 4 rebounds. Dan's fronting of Collison and Gooden whenever they went into the low post was excellent, and he also blocked 3 shots, 1 on the strong side of the ball and 2 coming over from the weak side to help out his teammates. Dan's points came on a variety of offensive rebounds, power drives into the lane and nice turnaround bank shots. The 6-9 Nick Collison, albeit an excellent player, was simply unable to hinder Dan one on one, and UCLA's 1-4 stretched out KU's man d so much Collison never got any help the whole game under the basket.
Billy was cold from the outside, as was Jason. Each was only 1-4 from 3, and those 3s were often wide-open shots. Nonetheless, both played very effectively. Billy was 11-13 from the FT line and Jason was 3-3, and it's nice to know you can count on these 2 SRs at the end of close games. Jason also toughened up on the boards at both ends. He did a good job of snagging the long bounces that came when KU missed on 3s, and he used his height advantage to grab 3 offensive rebounds over the 6-3 Kirk Hinrich, who fouled out trying to keep Jason in check. Actually, Hinrich was holding Jason's jersey for a lot of the game, but only got called for holding twice. Jason had 7 total boards for the game. Billy hit some nice shots off the dribble in isolation against the smaller Jayhawks and wound up with 20 points. Jason finished with 10.
Ced Bozeman played 27 minutes and got 4 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 turnovers. Not a really good game, but a very solid one. His ballhandling against the KU pressure was a key to UCLA's victory. 4 turnovers in 27 minutes against a team that is among the top in the country in steals and causing turnovers is not bad for a FR coming off knee surgery. Ced's d was solid, and he made some sweet passes along with those 2 nice drives into the lane. I expect Ced to return to the starting lineup shortly, probably at home against Stanford and Cal, rather than against the Arizona schools in the desert.
TJ and Dijon continue to force too many plays and make turnovers, but they're still young and they bring a lot to the table. TJ seemed to relax as the game went on and hit 3-5 shots and both FTs to finish with 8 points. He again was a non-factor on the glass, with just 1 rebound in 19 minutes. His d was also mediocre, but when Dan is on the bench with foul trouble Lavin doesn't have much choice but to play TJ. Hopefully, the young man will pick up his intensity on d while taking his shots within the rhythm of the offense. When Dijon shoots the ball without thinking too much, good things happen. He nailed a 3 and a short J to get 5 points. He also dished out 2 very nice assists and got 2 steals manning the passing lanes with his long arms, and his defense is definitely improving. I expect Dijon to see increased minutes from here on out.
Andre Patterson and Ryan Walcott also made big contributions to the Bruin victory. Andre snared 5 rebounds, 2 of them offensive, in 10 minutes, and, as I noted above, he did an excellent job of fronting the post against big bodies. He was a lot better at it than TJ, and he might start taking TJ's minutes. Ryan did his PG thang with 2 assists in 4 minutes. He looks very quick out there, and his passing and ballhandling skills are pretty evident. He plays good d when he's on the floor, and I think he's earned some additional PT as well.
Lavin definitely has a problem, trying to manage the playing time between the vets and rookies, but he handled that problem quite well in this game and it's a better problem than not having a bench. I've been told that the FR are supposed to get more PT from here on out. The first guy to suffer as a result will be Rico, who only saw 11 minutes (he got 2 rebounds and 2 assists). Rico's time will probably drop from the 23 mpg he's been paying to about the 10-minute mark, or even less, with Ced, Dijon and Ryan sharing out the time. The vets will likely get more rest as well, unless the FR are having a bad run. Ced is going to be on the court a lot in the immediate future and for the rest of the season.
Drew Gooden, who finished with 22 points (16 in the second half) and 10 rebounds, led Kansas. However, Drew was only 7-17 from the field and 1-6 from 3, which is a credit to the UCLA defense. Drew shoots less than 30% from behind the arc, and the UCLA matchup zone forced him to settle for too many long Js in this game. Hinrich was excellent, hitting 5-6 from behind the arc as he got 17 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 4 turnovers in 34 minutes. He expended a lot of energy (it's hard work to keep hold of someone's jersey) guarding Jason.
Boschee was only 3-11 from 3 as Billy, Rico and Ced did a good collective job of hounding him and Aaron Miles at the 1 spot up top. Boschee had 14 points and 5 assists; Aaron had a bad day with 3 points, 3 assists and 5 turnovers. Hey, he's a FR. So is Simien, but he was nasty off the bench with 9 points and 7 rebounds. I'd like him on the Bruins. Langford was also very good off the bench with 6 points, 3 rebounds and 4 assists. His drives helped break down the Bruin zone on several occasions, but he was the only KU player able to penetrate consistently.
Collison was held to 6 points and 1 rebound in 23 minutes, and Dan and Andre (with some help from the zone) made him pretty much a non-factor for the game, which is quite a feat for the Bruin post players.
UCLA shot 52.6% for the game, compared to KU's 41%. Kansas was 11-28 from 3, a 39.3% mark, but they shot too many Js to win this game. UCLA was 6-16 (37.5%). UCLA hit 77.8% of their FTs, the Jayhawks made 80%. Holding the #2 FG shooting team in the country (51%) to 41% is pretty good. UCLA also outrebounded one of the nation's best rebounding teams by a 34-32 margin. UCLA made 18 turnovers, Kansas made 21.
Early in the second half, some idiot… um, er, some fan behind me exclaimed, "I can't believe it! How can we be ahead of Kansas and lose to a team like USC!? Lavin is terrible!" I held my tongue and spared him a verbal lashing. Kansas and USC present totally different matchups for the Bruins. And UCLA was playing USC before 16,000 fans, most of them Trojan fans. A conference game on the road against a really quick USC team that should be ranked in the top 25? Heck, we should've beaten them by 20 with all the talent we displayed today against Kansas! I guess Lavin can only get his teams up for the "big" games…
Right. As I said, it's the matchups. Matchups will be the key to the rest of the schedule. And now I think that puts UCLA in the driver's seat for the Pac-10 championship. After watching USC, Stanford, Oregon and Cal this week, and Arizona over the last 2 weeks, I like UCLA's matchup with every team in the conference except USC, and I think we will beat the Trojans at Pauley on sheer emotion and willpower, if nothing else. I don't think a team can beat UCLA with a man d. That puts Stanford, Oregon and Cal into a bad position of not being able to either defend UCLA or control the tempo of the game. If Oregon loses control of the tempo of a game, they can be beaten pretty handily. Stanford and Cal are a little more controlled and able to roll with the punches, playing slow or fast, but they both like to break and they can't do that if they're back on their heels on d for 30 seconds a possession. And they definitely will struggle to get the ball inside against a matchup zone. You can't beat a team just by shooting 3s. KU tried and it didn't work. Stanford and Cal will probably try the same thing. It still won't work.
Arizona presents UCLA's toughest matchup after USC. But the Wildcats lack the quick wings to supplement their guards for dribble penetration. The Wildcats are geared for a fast tempo, lots of 3s, and Luke Walton's interior passing. But if UCLA can break their pressure, apply some of its own and use Ced, Billy and Matt to disrupt the passing lanes, the Bruins can take the Cats. Arizona has a lot of young players and they were confused by Michigan State's 1-4 and I think they'll have trouble with UCLA's offense as well.
I might be making too much of this game (and the USC game). Maybe this is just a case of Lavin's team getting up for national TV. But I don't think so. Ced is going to play a lot of minutes from here on out. Dijon, Andre and Ryan are going to contribute. With Jason in a slump, Matt and Billy have stepped up big time and the Bruins are very dangerous. Jason is going to bust out one of these days and then I don't know how anyone guards us. Dan is definitely playing way above where he was just 3 weeks ago. TJ has had some great scoring games, and once grabbed 11 rebounds, so it's likely he will continue to contribute and have some more big offensive games for the Bruins. If he can step up his rebounding and defense and pass the ball once in awhile, he becomes one of the best subs in the conference, if not the best.
I think the Kansas game was the coming out party for this team. They are ready to take their game to a new level.
Coming up: The desert…