UCLA Plays Best Game of Year

The Bruins beat then-9-1 Oregon in Eugene with a very good defensive performance, 70-62. Is this a sign there are some elements beginning to come together for the Bruins?

The Bruins pulled off an upset Sunday in what was probably the best victory of the so-far short Ben Howland era at UCLA, beating Oregon in Eugene, 70-62.

Beating a team projected to be among the top three in the conference, on the road, is a considerable accomplishment for the program at this time.

While many fans still are under the delusion that any guys with UCLA on their jerseys should just inherit road wins like this and 20-win seasons, those who recognize reality know that this was a big win. No matter what people want to believe, this is a team with average talent and not very much experience. So, for them to beat Oregon, who had previously only lost to the #1 team in the country, on their home floor, which is traditionally a tough place to play, is a considerable accomplishment.

The Bruins won primarily because of good coaching, and some players who are working hard to implement the coaching they're receiving. If you look at everything that went right against Oregon Sunday, it's a matter of good coaching starting to take hold on.

The two biggest factors in the win were defense and the re-emergence of Brian Morrison as an offensive threat.

The defensive effort was spearheaded by UCLA's freshman point guard, Jordan Farmar. Oregon's point guard, Aaron Brooks, is probably the best point guard in the conference, and easily the quickest and the hardest to contain. He was coming off a 34-point performance against USC in which he broke down USC's athletic defenders and shot the lights out. But you could say that Farmar, not primarily known for his defense out of high school or so far in college, shut down Brooks, who finished with a quiet 14 points and one assist. Farmar showed great energy and effort in keeping Brooks from taking him off the dribble, and even picked him one time as he attempted it. Brooks also couldn't generally get a good look from three due to Farmar. Even though Farmar had a 25-point performance with a game-winning basket against Pepperdine, you could make an argument that this was the best game of his young career, merely because of the defensive performance against Brooks.

Mike Fey on his decisive dunk.
And despite what Oregon's Head Coach, Ernie Kent, said after the game, it was easy to recognize that UCLA's defensive performance overall was a big difference in the game. Oregon was averaging close to 80 points per game and had just scored 90 against USC, and UCLA held them to 62. The Ducks are averaging 7 three-pointers a game, and were shooting 45% from three, but made only three three-pointers against the Bruins and shot 25% from behind the arc for the game. And while Oregon did miss a couple of open looks in the first half, there just weren't that many available during the course of the game, due to UCLA's perimeter players doing an excellent job of closing out on Oregon's shooters.

Brian Morrison had his best game of the season, scoring a team-high 15 points and making five of six from three, including an absolutely huge one from about 25 feet with 2:30 left in the game, UCLA up by only two, and the offense struggling against Oregon's zone. Evident by Morrison's last couple of games, it looks like he's back in a shooting groove, something he lacked over the last few weeks. And it appears that he's taking to heart the coaches' emphasis on better shot selection, penetration and passing. For UCLA to have a successful season, Morrison is probably a big key – and his ability to not only shoot like this but play under control is essential.

It's also obvious that the emphasis by the coaches to get the ball inside to Michael Fey is also starting to pay off. Fey had 13 points against Oregon, after scoring 23 against Oregon State. He also had some key baskets, particularly one big dunk, and a few nice face-up jumpers from about 15 feet that were big baskets at key moments in the game. While UCLA's perimeter players have, at times, hesitated to give Fey the ball in the post, doubting his ability to catch and convert, it appears they are realizing they must, as stressed by Howland. Fey will continue to get better as he gets more touches. In fact, in this game, he bungled his first three feeds of the game, but UCLA's perimeter players kept going to him and it paid off in the latter half of the game when Fey converted some key baskets. With Fey, you have to concede that he will probably fumble a feed or blow an easy lay-up or two, but it's still worth giving him the ball in the post given his recent production.

UCLA continues to rebound well as a team, out-rebounding the Ducks, 35-33. Not only is UCLA continuing to block out better in its last couple of games, freshman post Lorenzo Mata has really helped UCLA's production on the boards. Against Oregon he had seven rebounds in 20 minutes after having 7 in 10 minutes against Oregon State.

The Bruins also only turned the ball over only 11 times, which tied a season-low.

UCLA, actually, playing such good defense and not turning the ball over, could have actually beaten Oregon quite a bit easier than it did. There were a number of easy lay-ins that the Bruins missed, mostly because of an overall lack of athleticism and ability to finish inside. And probably the biggest limitation on this being an easier win was UCLA's struggling against Oregon's zone defense. When the Ducks went to it in the first half, UCLA's offense shut down. In the second half, Oregon went zone at about the 10-minute mark with UCLA up by 13, and rode it until the 5-minute mark when they had cut the score to 54-52. Oregon extended its zone, getting out on UCLA's perimeter players, taking away their ability to shoot, and UCLA struggled to get the ball inside during that 3-18 run. It wasn't until near the end of the game, when UCLA really needed some baskets on critical possessions, did UCLA exploit how far Oregon had extended their zone, passing to the low block from the high post for some easy baskets (including Fey's dunk). Overall, the Bruins definitely need to improve their zone offense, obviously, by passing out of the high post and getting some controlled penetration.

While senior Dijon Thompson scored only 13 points and had just 11 shots, he played overall a very good game. He did miss a few open looks that you'd really want your senior player to knock down, but he had four assists, passed the ball well, played strong defense and rebounded well, finishing with 7 boards.

But make no mistake, this is a team that lacks a great amount of talent, and what talent it does have is mostly inexperienced. When it has to play a volleyball player with a stamina problem nine minutes and an injured walk-on 16 minutes it's not a reflection of an overly deep and talented team.

But this team, since most of its players that are talented are so young, does have a chance to make this a successful season. When you have such inexperienced players that are talented and competitive, you can't under-estimate what they'll be like by the end of their freshman seasons, especially when three freshmen are getting 25-35 minutes per game. You also can't under-estimate what happens when a team like this begins to completely buy into a proven successful coaching approach, which it appears is happening.

A successful season is also within reach mostly because, other than Arizona and Washington, there aren't any other teams that are clealy more talented than the rest in the Pac-10. If, in fact, UCLA's youth can continue to improve as the season goes on, just about every team in the Pac-10 is beatable, even on the road.

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