Bruins Get By Lowly Coppin State

It was ugly in the first 20 minutes, as the Coppin State Eagles went into halftime up by five points on the Bruins. But a couple of UCLA players got a clue in the second half and pulled it out. Is this really a top 25 team?

16th-ranked UCLA had to come back from a 5-point halftime deficit to defeat Coppin State (0-6) 69-57 and to run its record to 6-1 Sunday afternoon at Pauley Pavilion.

Let's put that in perspective. Xavier beat Coppin State by 25. Clemson beat them by 31. Coppin State did give Alabama State and Lehigh tough games, however.

The first half of the game was somewhat surreal. After the Bruins started out by taking a 7-2 lead, the Eagles quickly came back to take an 11-9 lead. They built on that to go up by 9, 33-24, with about 3 minutes left in the half. Half-empty Pauley started emptying out even more at that point. I even heard some people chanting "Bring back Lavin."

That was also the point when the Bruins started to penetrate against the Eagles' version of a zone, finally coming to the realization that Coppin State goes 6-7, 6-4 and 6-2 along its backline and had zero chance of defending any kind of penetration when it came. The Bruins outscored the Eagles 6-2 in the last couple of minutes to trail 35-30 at the half.

Coppin State shot 60% in the first half. I don't think the Bruins were playing defense that badly, it was just that Tywain McKee, the 6-2 junior who transferred in from a JC this year, went insane, scoring 15 points in the first half. He would either come off a high screen which took Arron Afflalo out of the play or he'd just go one-on-one with Arron and hit a very difficult shot right in Arron's face. Although the Eagles are notable for being a poor shooting team from 3, McKee, Darryl Roberts and Augustine Woodlin all hit 3s as the Eagles used their quickness to get a lot of wide open looks against the slower Bruins.

On the other end of the floor, the Bruins were often turning it over against the Coppin State defense. Because of their great quickness, the Eagles were able to play a zone and yet quickly trap UCLA players in the corners on frequent double-teams. Once again the Bruins often over-dribbled the ball and eschewed the pass, playing right into the Eagles' hands. Once again, UCLA was happy to just pass or dribble the ball around the perimeter instead of trying to penetrate or send Arron and Cedric Bozeman inside to overmatch the shorter Coppin State players. Yes, we can all say it now: UCLA's offense is mediocre and boring.

Part of that, of course, stems from a lack of any kind of post threat at all unless Luc Richard Mbah A Moute goes inside. UCLA was playing without Lorenzo Mata and Mike Fey, and neither Ryan Wright (who started the game), Ryan Hollins nor Alfred Aboya scored against this truly tiny team. Ryan H did get a free throw in the second half, the only point for UCLA's centers in the entire game.

In the second half, Ben Howland apparently convinced Jordan Farmar (recovered from his ankle injury in record time), Ced and Darren Collison to take their men one-on-one and penetrate to the basket. With the Bruin big men moving their feet for a change and Arron and Ced cutting into the lane rather than through it, it looked at times as if UCLA was actually using elements of a motion offense. It obviously worked. The Bruins came back quickly to tie the game, then take a narrow lead, and then stretch the lead out to 12 points. They outscored Coppin State by 17 points and hit 68% of their field goals in the second half.

Part of the Bruins' high field-goal percentage in the second half resulted from some fast break baskets, a weapon little seen in UCLA's arsenal of late. Some of those came from strong defensive rebounds; the Bruins dominated the glass. Luc Richard almost out-rebounded the entire Coppin State team (10 rebounds for Luc in the game versus 11 rebounds for the Eagles) all by himself. UCLA also got some turnovers in the second half by simply playing more intense pressure defense. Afflalo, Farmar and Bozeman refused to be shaken by screens, and Luc (4 blocks), Alfred Aboya and even Hollins presented solid obstacles inside when Coppin State tried to penetrate. The Eagles shot only 44% in the second half. Partly, McKee cooled down. But partly, he didn't see the ball as much, as Arron stuck to him like glue and overplayed the pass.

Arron led the Bruins with 20 points, going 3-6 from 3. Jordan Farmar scored 16 points, but hit only one outside jumper. He handed out 10 assists with some very pretty passes, though he also committed 5 turnovers. Ced Bozeman committed 4 of the UCLA turnovers himself, but he scored 15 points and grabbed 6 rebounds. Luc Richard had 11 points and, as noted above, 10 rebounds and 4 blocks, and even hit a 3.

Darren Collison had his moments, both good and bad. He scored 6 points, including a 3. He made some good, aggressive penetration moves and handed out 2 assists. But he also made 3 turnovers and got picked off a lot on defense. Mike Roll made one nice pass, but lacked the quickness for this game and played only 6 minutes.

Ryan Wright started the game and collected a rebound in limited minutes, but he showed he has the best hands of all the Bruin big men. Ryan Hollins had 1 point and 2 rebounds in considerably more minutes. Alfred Aboya had 2 rebounds in 16 minutes. He also took 2 charging fouls and was a factor on defense, but looked lost and out of rhythm on the offensive end of the court. In a month, Aboya will likely be the Bruins' starting center unless Mike Fey makes a miraculous comeback from a series of injuries (groin, shoulder, ankle) and his natural deficits, slow feet, slow reactions and mediocre hands.

For the Eagles, McKee wound up with 21 points, Woodlin scored 12 and Roberts had 10. Coppin State star Darryl Proctor was limited to 8 points, mainly by Luc Richard, who was probably the MVP of this game.

It's difficult to analyze this game and avoid sarcasm. Obviously, the coaching staff has trouble motivating the team against the weak competition which makes up the bulk of the Bruins' preseason schedule. The Bruin offense, against a man defense or a zone, seems sluggish, predictable and easily defended, but once again the Bruins were very good from 3-point range (7-16) and something is generating those open shots. The UCLA offense sure looked a lot better when it added some elements of a motion game and more penetration from the point guards. Perhaps that has been Howland's plan all along. Many coaches install a simple, basic offense at the start of the season and then add complications as the year goes along. Or maybe it just took the coaching staff an entire half to recognize what the coaches at Xavier and Clemson knew going into their games with the Eagles. It's also important to remember that UCLA is getting virtually zero offensive contribution from its big men. That will likely change over the next 4 weeks as Aboya rounds into shape. He isn't going to be hitting any Js, but he will get some offensive rebounds and hopefully be able to score off some power moves inside.

On defense, the Bruins just need to work harder on a more consistent basis. They have inherent limitations at this end of the floor as well. The post men don't present a consistent inside presence. And the perimeter players, with the exception of Collison, simply lack the explosive quickness which seems to characterize the top guards on most of the really good teams around the country (Duke being a notable and interesting exception, although their starting guards might be the most skilled combo in the nation). The Bruins lack the athletes to be a really good defensive team. They lack the big men to out rebound the taller or more athletic teams. The return of Josh Shipp won't change that. Josh is a 6-5 wing who plays better inside than most wings, but he's not a post player and he's not going to average 8 rebounds per game or block any shots. Maybe Alfred Aboya and Ryan Wright will improve a lot over the coming weeks. Maybe not.

I think the Bruins are going to struggle to beat a lot of teams all season long. They're overrated and unless they improve considerably they will probably lose to Nevada, Michigan and West Virginia. The Pac-10 is down, but Arizona and Washington will likely both wind up as top 25 teams. They have the talent and the athletes and players at every position. UCLA is probably going to be in a fight for 3rd place with Cal (and maybe Stanford) and will limp into the NCAA Tournament on the way to an early exit.

Of course, I could be wrong. Jordan and Arron may not be great athletes, but they are very good basketball players. Ced Bozeman is a good player, and Luc Richard Mbah A Moute is clearly a spectacular find for the Bruins and might have the NBA in his future (with a real emphasis on the word "future"). Hopefully, Josh Shipp will be back on the floor not too deep into the Pac-10 schedule and be ready to make a big contribution down the back 9 of conference play. Maybe Alfred Aboya and Ryan Wright will improve a lot. They better, because expectations for Fey, Hollins and Mata have to be low at this point.

Tune in next Saturday to see how badly Nevada will spank the Bruins. That team goes 6-7, 6-11 and 7-0 on the backline and the 6-11 guy, Nick Fazekas, might be an NBA lottery pick. The Wolfpack have two tall, athletic, talented guards. They are a legit top 20 team. UCLA is not. As Edward R. Murrow used to say, "Good night and good luck."

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