If you looked around Pauley Pavilion Saturday afternoon, all the banners and the mediocre crowd looked familiar, but more and more the team on the court is looking less and less like the UCLA teams we've known over the past decade or so.
On Saturday, you saw a skilled point guard – a freshman no less – take over the game at the end and win it. Not since, well, Tyus Edney, have we've seen anything truly like that. It was a team that shot 87% from the free-throw line and hit big critical free throws in the last minutes of the game. There was some definite coaching going on from the UCLA bench, with the use of personnel and defenses. The team actually looked like they had taken to heart a basketball fundamental that had been emphasized the week before in practice (blocking out). After getting out-rebounded in their last three games, they out-rebounded a good rebounding opponent, 41-23.
They actually over-achieved.
There is really no argument against the assertion that they over-achieved in beating Pepperdine, 85-83. Pepperdine is a senior-laden team with talent that will probably make the NCAA tournament. UCLA, on the other hand, started three freshmen, one in his first start ever, and would have to continue to vastly over-achieve to reach the NCAA tournament.
So, this is our collective vision. For this team to continue to look less and less like UCLA's most recent teams to the point where, eventually, they look more like NCAA teams, then Sweet 16 teams, and then Final four teams, in a Pauley Pavilion that doesn't look like itself because it's packed (and renovated).
Saturday we got our best glimpse of that vision since Ben Howland has taken over the UCLA program.
One big focus of that vision centered on freshman point guard Jordan Farmar. He ended the game with a game-high 25 points, shooting 2 of 2 from three, and 7 of 7 from the free-throw line. He hit two critical free throws with nine seconds left to tie the game, and then off the dribble scored on a runner in the lane with 4 seconds left to win it.
And this is a kid who just turned 18 years old a week and a half ago.
His poise, intelligence and skill were truly uncanny Saturday. His shooting was so "on" that the only shots he missed were a couple of difficult floaters, one in which he was fouled on, and an end-of-the-shot-clock desperation heave. Every other shot he took, from within 19 feet, from behind the arc, or from the free-throw line, hit nothing but net. The way he was shooting you knew that with a minute left in the game, when he had the ball at the top of the key with UCLA down by five, when he was starting to step up for that long three-point attempt, it was going in.
There were the other freshmen, too. Josh Shipp started for the first time and was remarkable, really. He has shown so far in his young career a steely, unflappable quality that allows him to make clutch plays. He hit huge shots under pressure (as he did in this game, a three-pointer and a little jump hook in the last couple of minutes), and he makes huge plays due to a great feel for the game (stepping in to a passing lane under the basket for a huge steal in the last minute). Without great athleticism, he is also a great natural rebounder, getting a game-high 12 rebounds and finishing with a double-double, adding 15 points.
Lorenzo Mata, the 6-9 freshman post, collected a game-high 11 rebounds, bringing rebounding production to the five position. Because of his ability to rebound he got more minutes (22) than junior center Michael Fey (18). The center position, between Fey and Mata, combined for 20 points and 17 rebounds, against a team with good inside play. This is almost indistinguishable from what we're accustomed to from the UCLA center position.
Freshman Arron Afflalo didn't have his best game, but he has already proven his worth in his young UCLA career, carrying the team in two of their victories so far this season.
The four freshmen bring an almost indistinguishable new look to the Bruins. Because they're so young and just learning, it's a little difficult to recognize exactly what it is. But projecting some experience onto them, and some more development, it's not that difficult to see what it is. It's the demeanor of a champion.
The way Farmar took over that game has champion written all over it. The way Shipp steps up at key moments with ice in his veins. The toughness and relentlessness of Afflalo.
That glimmer of the champion character is what made them over-achieve in this game. It's what they utilized when they needed it. It's something we truly haven't seen much of since 1995. Maybe the only instance of it since the championship season was the personification of Earl Watson, but there hasn't been much beyond that.
And it was good they had it because there were many aspects of their performance that show they still have a long ways to go in terms of basketball. Of course, getting more talent around them in the next couple of years will make the biggest difference.
But until then, what you saw on Saturday is probably the best we have to hope for. Fey played probably his best game, posting up well underneath and scoring proficiently. His right-hand jump hook along the baseline in the first half was a big-time move. He was so effective Pepperdine actually went to double-teaming him in the second half (which he obviously needs work with). With Fey in the game, the offense flowed well, going inside/outside. With him out of the game, it went cold, without any real inside scoring option. It was the one real curiosity about the game – that with Fey being his most effective inside ever, he was on the bench for very long portions of the game. Even though Howland denied it, his limited minutes could have been attributed to a banged-up knee that Fey suffered before the Boston College game. It also might have been that Howland simply wanted to get the rebounding from the five position by having Mata in the game. If Mata, by season's end, can develop enough to score consistently in the low post...well, let's not get too carried away, but you understand.
The offense, overall, seemed to flow better. It might have been because Fey was effective in posting up so the ball went through him. It might have been that without Dijon Thompson the offense is executed better. It also might have been that Pepperdine plays very little defense. Or a combination of all of them.
But if this game is evidence, Howland has another personnel dilemma on his hands. Does he opt for the only inside scoring option by playing Fey the majority of the center minutes, or does he opt for the rebounding element with Mata?
UCLA also unveiled a zone defense for the first time, after Howland had coyly said earlier this season that they wouldn't use it and they weren't practicing it (That guy). The zone wasn't a great one, but it was at least effective in getting Pepperdine out of rhythm early, giving UCLA's offense, behind Fey, the chance to gain a double digit lead in the first half. Pepperdine, with some talented players like Alex Acker, quickly had the zone sussed out. Howland, then, went back to the man-to-man. Overall, though, UCLA played pretty poor defense the entire game. The zone wasn't very active and had some considerable soft spots in it. To the team's defense, they truly haven't practiced it much and weren't obviously very good at it. One of the drawbacks of the zone, though, is that it can lull defenders into being less active than in a man, and it looked like that had happened, even when UCLA went back to the man. But, while Howland attributed the big rebounding edge to work in blocking out in practice last week, the zone also obviously helped in team rebounding (in a two-three zone it stations three players on the back line in front of the basket).
Brian Morrison had one of the poorest games of his career at UCLA, going one for five from three and committing three careless turnovers. His minutes will continue to diminish if he doesn't play with more care, and doesn't make his outside shots. His shot selection is also still poor. He has a green light, but it looks like he's interpreted that too readily as shooting the ball whenever he catches it, even if he's off-balance or 28 feet from the basket. He needs to stick with shooting when he gets the ball in rhythm, in the flow of the offense, and when he's squared to the basket. Getting improved production from Morrison would significantly impact the season. Right now, like on Saturday, they did it without him.
Ryan Hollins collected five rebound and six points in 28 minutes. While that's not exactly overwhelming, there were a few instances in the game where Hollins actually moved to a rebound and made a play. On one key free throw that was missed, Hollins moved to the ball and kept it alive and UCLA got the rebound. It might not be much, since there were times when Hollins didn't move (like when Acker had a lane to the basket and Hollins was late getting over to contest it in the last couple of minutes), but it's something.
With Hollins struggling some to be productive, and with him showing that he's better as a center than a power forward, lacking the ball-handling and passing skills required in Howland's offense to play the four, it will be interesting to see if Howland ever plays Mata at the four to get him and Fey on the court at the same time. It would essentially solve his center personnel dilemma: it would get Fey's scoring and Mata's rebounding on the floor simultaneously. You'd have to think that Mata is no worse at handling or passing the ball than Hollins. Hollins could also go back to playing predominantly at the five, where he is easily more suited. But it seems like this is one of those things that Howland wont' do (unlike the zone). Just speculating, but it could be that Howland is looking more toward the future than the present; he sees Mata as his future five after Fey leaves and wants to get him as much experience at that position as possible, which will probably pay off down the road.
And this win was all about looking down the road. It was like a Twilight Zone, where you're able to take a quick, fleeting glimpse at the future. The UCLA of the last ten years will be a vague memory, and the likes of Farmar, Afflalo, Shipp, Mata, Ryan Wright, Darren Collison, James Keefe and more will be what forms your opinion of what is UCLA basketball.
And like we glimpsed on Saturday, it's the demeanor of a champion.