The senior had his best game as a Bruin, as Head Coach Ben Howland said, Saturday against Michigan, in leading UCLA to a come-from-behind victory, 81-79.
Thompson not only had a career-high 29 points and a game-leading 10 rebounds, which is enough alone to make it his best game ever, it was the way he played that truly gave it that tag.
Thompson played under control, took shots that came to him, didn't over-penetrate and didn't turn over the ball. Even though the shot that made all the television news shows last night was the three-pointer at the end of the game to give UCLA its final scoring advantage, a couple of other shots during the game were more impressive. Thompson has always been able to hit the three, but he hasn't always been able to know when to pull up in the lane and not over-penetrate, which he displayed Saturday a couple of times for nice 12-foot jumpers.
And probably the single-best play of the game for Thompson was a great offensive rebound, swooping in to take it away from three Wolverines and scoring on a put-back, during a critical period in the second half.
It could be that Thompson, having been off for a game, relished being back on the court. It also could have been that, in playing the four on offense he has bigger, slower defenders on him, which enables him to take them off the dribble easier and find space to get off a shot.
But there are always trade-offs. As UCLA's offense benefited from Thompson at the four, creating tough match-ups for Michigan defensively, UCLA suffered on its own defensive side. It played poor defense for most of the game, giving up easy baskets in the paint all day. It probably just wasn't because Thompson was playing the four, but because Michael Fey played only 16 minutes, after getting his left shoulder bruised in the first half.
It was a testament to how well the offense was scoring in the first half that UCLA went into halftime leading, 42-40. Not only was UCLA giving up easy baskets inside, they were getting torched from the outside by Michigan's good-shooting guard, Dion Harris, who was three of five from three and had 11 points in the first 20 minutes. It wasn't until the second half when Arron Afflalo was appointed the task primarily of guarding Harris that he cooled off, getting just six points in the second half and missing both of his three-point attempts. But UCLA had no answer inside against Michigan's two big men, Chris Hunter and Courtney Sims, who had 21 and 17.
It's pretty easy to determine what makes both UCLA's offense and defense effective, now, being 7 games into the season.
-- On offense, the Bruins need two things:
1) To be able to have a post scoring threat. Without it, the offense is limited to finding a perimeter shot. Lorenzo Mata had a nice turn-around jump hook in this game, which was a very good sign, but it still remains that UCLA's only consistent inside scoring threat is Fey. Without him, the offense stagnates.
2) To get penetration from its perimeter players. When Jordan Farmar, Afflalo, Josh Shipp and Thompson all get past their man is when UCLA's offense is easily its best, mainly because those perimeter players are each such good passers and, in drawing the defense with penetration, find open teammates with good passes for easy baskets. Getting Shipp on the floor more (he had 32 minutes Saturday) helps in this, since he tends to look more to penetrate than the others, and it then seems to become infectious. There was a stretch in the Michigan game where UCLA's perimeter players, mostly through executing the offense, were able to shake their defenders and then pass to a teammate under the basket repeatedly.
Inside, finishing those passes is another story, of course. But at least many times in this game, while Fey and Ryan Hollins didn't finish, they did draw fouls and mostly make their free throws.
Hollins, now with Thompson playing the four for maybe 15-20 minutes a game, will hopefully be more effective playing mostly back-up center minutes. On the official stat sheet Hollins was credited with four turnovers, but that is just his traveling and errant passes. He also consistently turns the ball over with foolish fouls (it must be hard for him to learn how to set a proper screen). In his first two touches in the first half he got called for traveling both times, and actually traveled three times in those two plays. In fact, on the key play in the second half where, on the break, he dunked and was fouled, it looked like he traveled. With Hollins just not having a great natural feel for the game, having him handle the ball so much at the four and setting ball screens is just not his best situation. As a friend of mine continues to argue, having Hollins play the four is just not putting him in his best situation to succeed. It will, then, be interesting if Hollins plays more minutes at the five whether he'll be more comfortable and start to build on the advances he made toward the end of last season at center.
And speaking of traveling, didn't it appear that Michigan was traveling the entire game and the refs didn't call it?
-- On defense, it's all about solid interior defense and playing with intensity on the perimeter. With Thompson going to play more at the four, UCLA very well could struggle some in its interior defense, having to bring over another defender to double Thompson's man, which will obviously make another opposing player open. It is, though, easier, to teach and emphasize to the team how to compensate defensively with Thompson as your four than it is to try to make Hollins a four offensively.
Jordan Farmar, UCLA's freshman point guard, had a solid game, with a season-high 9 assists against just two turnovers, while also scoring 11 points. In UCLA's mini-comeback-run at the end of the game, his composure was critical, as it was against Pepperdine, in handling the ball and making free throws. Perhaps the only thing that Farmar could have done better in this game was defensively go after Michigan walk-on guard John Andrews, who couldn't handle the ball very well, more often.
It still is a shame that Matt McKinney can't play more minutes because of his health issue. The offense – and the defense, for that matter – seem to run better with him in the game. Against Michigan he had three rebounds in just 6 minutes, had a nice assist and a nice drive and lay-in when he had the ball at the top of the key and an open lane. He also plays smart, solid post defense.
In the last four minutes of the game, when UCLA came back from 7 points down and won the game, the electrifying atmosphere at Pauley Pavilion was just like it was against Pepperdine the week before. It was plainly obvious that the standing, cheering Pauley crowd contributed to UCLA stopping Michigan in four straight possessions, whether it finally got UCLA's defense to play for the first time during the game or it rattled Michigan, or both.
Some fans on the BRO message boards were trying to throw a wet blanket on the Michigan win, saying it was nothing to get excited about – that it was a victory over a depleted team that will finish in the middle of its mediocre conference. That's coming from an inappropriate assumption about UCLA itself and its own conference. Make no mistake here – UCLA is not a big player in the college basketball world just yet itself. It is also a team depleted in talent because of the previous coach and playing in a mediocre conference. So, if you can assume that proper, more realistic mindset, you can put the Michigan win in perspective – as something UCLA fans should relish, because you're not getting much else until Howland can sufficiently stock his roster with more talent in the next couple of years. Yes, this team can continue to improve over the remainder of the season. The freshmen will get better. Howland can tweak the defense some more, and improve UCLA's zone defense. But UCLA fans should recognize that, so far this season Howland is doing a very good coaching job, getting the most out of the talent he has. In other words, if you're looking for over-achievement, UCLA fans, this is it.