Things usually change from era to the next with a series of transitional moments.
UCLA beating Notre Dame in South Bend Sunday, 75-65, was definitely one of them.
It wasn't just because the win almost certainly puts UCLA in the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years (they'd have to lose probably two games from among the two remaining on the schedule and the first in the Pac-10 tourney to be back on the bubble).
It was because the basketball that was played on the court was another significant step away from the type of play you saw during the Steve Lavin era, and one more step closer to what the Ben Howland era will look like.
This team has come a long way since the beginning of the season. They have continued to buy into Howland's concepts, and you saw it translated on the court yesterday as the Bruins played great defense, crashed the boards, and were smart and efficient on offense.
They out-muscled and out-hustled one of the vaunted tough physical Big East teams.
And Notre Damw was out-coached during the game. Howland made a few moves that kept Notre Dame more or less reacting and adapting, and they actually never completely reacted or adapted.
Again, the primary force in this game was defense. UCLA played it excellently, as a result of a few elements: 1) Coaching. Howland's decision to in fact to double the post paid off. And you can see how the team has improved its execution over the season by Howland's emphasis of certain defensive aspects. They hedge screens better, they stand up screens better, and they double the post better, among many things. 2) Effort. UCLA easily wanted it more than Notre Dame. UCLA out-rebounded the Irish, 42-34. They hustled to loose balls, they kept rebounds alive. They played very actively on D, staying glued to Notre Dame's shooters throughout the game. 3) They played intelligently. No more will you watch a UCLA game and wonder, "Why are they doing that?" There are less and less stupid fouls and less blown assignments.
UCLA limited Notre Dame to 39% shooting from the field for the game. They shot 31% from three, and that was only after they hit a few threes in the last five minutes. Chris Thomas, who was averaging 14 points per game, had 10, on 4-17 shooting, mostly because of UCLA's defense. Arron Afflalo got the primary assignment of guarding him and shut him down. But when Jordan Farmar got the assignment to guard him, he did a very good job on Thomas, too.
As we've said before, it is so much about matchups in college basketball. Because of the personnel on both squads, UCLA was able to assign Afflalo to guard Thomas. Notre Dame plays a second point guard, Chris Quinn, at the off-guard position, enabling Farmar to guard him and Affalo to guard Thomas.
The choice to double the post by Howland was one we weren't sure about before the game. Notre Dame's post players aren't great inside scorers and going in you thought that they wouldn't necessarily need to be doubled, especially with how well Notre Dame shoots the ball from the outside. But doubling proved to be very effective, not just because it didn't allow Notre Dame to score inside, but it disrupted the flow of their offense. Every time the ball was thrown into the post and UCLA would double it, the post would struggle to pass out of it. Sometimes it caused a turnover, but most of the time it got Notre Dame's offense out of sync enough to disrupt their possession.
All three of UCLA's frontcourt players played great post defense. Michael Fey has now learned very well how to use his big body to offset his lack of quickness in defending the post. Dijon Thompson was instrumental in his quick doubling, and his ability to find his man after the double.
After UCLA limited the Irish to just 26 points in the first half, you were worried if UCLA would come out with the same intensity on defense that they had in the first half. It's a great position to now be in as a fan – worried if your team can maintain the comfortable lead it built, rather than worried whether they can come back from 18 points down (remember those days? They seem kind of long ago, don't they?). But UCLA came out with the same defensive intensity in the second half. You thought that Notre Dame would have to play better offensively in the second half and UCLA could lose its defensive edge. But it never really happened.
The transformation of UCLA's offense took another step against Notre Dame. It's been a gradual improvement throughout the season, with these players getting more and more comfortable with what Howland wants them to do. Against Notre Dame it was the most apparent all season that the team is now getting it. They know when they should run and try to get points in transition. They understand when to take a quick shot, if it's a good look, and when to run the clock. They are now moving and cutting so much more assuredly in the offense, and passers know where the cuts are, creating better opportunities for easy baskets. They are getting the ball inside to the post far more effectively, and Fey is getting more and more confident – and effective. They are being patient to find a good outside shot, and they haven't been scared about taking that shot, even given that there are three freshmen out there who easily could have folded up and gotten tentative.
In fact, Arron Affalo's fearlessness has probably fueled UCLA's improved offensive output in recent weeks more than any other aspect. Afflalo, in high school, was a good shooter, but not a great one. He had lapses sometimes when his shot would go into a funk. There is, then, always a transition for high school players to their college freshmen year, and sometimes some players lose their shooting touch in that transition. Merely because the game is played faster and against better athletes, and the nerves of being a freshman. Afflalo started the season shooting fairly well, then went into a bit of a slump halfway through. We thought this could be the time when Afflalo is finally hit by the freshman transition jitters, starts missing shots and then starts losing the confidence to take them. But it didn't happen. Afflalo shot his way out of his slump and has been on fire in recent games. He has shot 50% from three in his last five games, including going 3 for 3 from three against Notre Dame, while averaging 14 points per game. Afflalo's emergence has given UCLA another viable offensive threat that can beat you after Dijon Thompson and Jordan Farmar. In a couple of UCLA's recent games, Afflalo has certainly timed his emergence well, when Thompson and Farmar in fact weren't scoring, which has definitely pulled UCLA through offensively at times. He led the team in scoring against Notre Dame with 17.
The balanced scoring of the team is a great indication of how well the offense has evolved. Five Bruins were in double figures. Afflalo had 17, Thompson had 16, Farmar and Brian Morrison had 12 each, and Fey had 10.
Morrison also has evolved some. In recent games, he's been far more under control, and he was exceptional against Notre Dame in generally knowing his role and doing it effectively. Morrison has to limit how much he puts the ball on the floor, because as soon as he does he tends to get out of control. In this game, he was more of a catch-and-shooter, and he was the guy who really hurt the Irish, with UCLA getting 12 points off the bench from him and four threes.
Josh Shipp, playing with a sprained ankle suffered against USC, also owned a dagger against Notre Dame. He hit a couple of big shots to quell an Irish rebellion in the second half.
Fey had one of his best offensive games, looking far more confident in the post and converting easy looks more readily.
Overall, you don't get the frustration you used to get when watching UCLA offensively, even earlier in the season. Now, when UCLA misses a shot it was most of the time a good look, and a smart shot selection.
Probably a great deal of that reduced frustration stems from the maturation of Farmar. Over the last several games he has really grown up in his running of the offense. He has pushed the ball when he should, and he has slowed it down when he definitely should.
There was one worry that did arise – and that's UCLA's ability to beat full-court pressure. We've wondered why more opponents wouldn't do it more often against the Bruins, since they generally don't have great team ball-handling and lack great quickness. Notre Dame got back into the game in the second half, coming back from a 20-point deficit to pull within 9 points with a minute left, mostly as a result of the fullcourt pressure it instituted.
The game, though, was one of the best performances by a UCLA team in recent years, the kind that UCLA fans have been missing for sometime. With some of the national college basketball experts hanging unnecessary NCAA implications on the game, almost as if they were trying to create a reason to ban UCLA from the NCAA tourney if they lost, it blew up in their face. There was some great satisfaction by imagining Digger Phelps, the former Notre Dame coach and leading anti-Bruin east coast commentator, watching that game in his home and throwing a lamp at the television. You know he's cursing Ben Howland for bringing good coaching back to dreaded UCLA and the dreaded Pac-10. It was a good, welcomed, old feeling.
The game, though, really was a great step toward the NCAA tournament. UCLA is now 16-9, with two regular season games remaining and the Pac-10 tournament. Of course, UCLA needs to take care of business against Oregon State and Oregon next weekend, or the win over Notre Dame would be reduced in terms of significance. But in terms of where UCLA sits, it's got a far better vantage point on the NCAA tournament than it did previously.
And UCLA fans can see an ever-improving outlook on this program. You can see how the players are buying into Howland's philosophies, and how they're improving individually and as a team within them. While it's exciting for the first time in three years to think about the NCAA tournament, and the fact that UCLA is probably now playing for a better seed, it's only a small, little preview -- another little step – in where this program is going beyond this season.