UCLA Downs Nevada

Playing what was its most consistent game of the year so far, UCLA beat Nevada in the Wooden Classic Saturday, showing some new offensive dimensions...

16th-ranked UCLA (7-1) defeated 17th-ranked Nevada (6-1) Saturday at the Anaheim Pond in the John Wooden Classic, handing the Wolf Pack their first loss of the season while playing what was likely the Bruins' most consistently effective game of the year, especially on the offensive end.

 

The game featured two vital streaks for the Bruins.  The first 10 minutes of the game started out very slowly, with both teams feeling each other out, missing some wide open shots and turning the ball over.  With his team trailing 12-11 with a little less than 10 minutes to go in the first half, Ben Howland inserted freshman guard Darren Collison and the Bruin offense exploded.  UCLA either got baskets off transition or Collison drives to the bucket or Collison passes after Collison drove to the bucket.  UCLA went on an 11-0 run in less than 2 minutes and rode that to a 33-24 halftime lead.  Collison scored 10 points, handed out 3 assists and made only 1 turnover in the half.

 

In fact, this game featured even more of the new offensive sets we saw UCLA first employ in the second half of the Coppin State.  Howland clearly took advantage of a full week of practice and preparation to continue to tinker with the offense and take advantage of the Bruins' strengths at certain positions.  Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo, Ced Bozeman and Collison obviously have the green light to go one on one more and create their own shot.  But the Bruins are also setting more weak side down screens and curling or cutting players off those screens, enabling their guards and wings to get into the lane with the ball for lay ups and high percentage shots.  Although Bozeman didn't finish well today, Arron made some plays inside and it's the thought that counts.  The more diverse the Bruin offense becomes, the harder it will be to guard.

 

The Bruin transition game also made a timely reappearance in this game.  Nevada has a lot of talent, and they're big, but they just don't get back well in transition.  The coaching staff obviously watched the game tape and they had their team push the ball at every opportunity.  Usually, it was Afflalo finishing up the play.

 

On defense, the Bruins decided to double-team Nick Fazekas whenever he was in the lane.  They practically left the other Nevada big man, Chad Bell, unguarded, and Bell managed 1 entire point in the first half.  Both Marceles Kemp and Mo Charles, Nevada's other big guns, played horribly for the entire game.  I'm not sure if it was the Bruin defense or whether these guys just went temporarily insane, as I've rarely seen two players take so many truly bad shots in a single game.  They were a combined 6-24 from the field for the game and their dismal play was a key factor in dooming the Wolf Pack.

 

In the second half, Nevada seemed to have made some successful adjustments.  They stopped posting Fazekas up and kept him on the move for quick passes off cuts to the basket.  But he still got no help from his teammates and one guy can't win a game all by himself, even Adam Morrison.  The Bruins, who made 11 turnovers in the first half, continued to turn the ball over in the second half, not so much from any great defense by Nevada but more of the usual suspects, some giveaways in transition which shouldn't be unexpected, some passes fumbled away by the post players, some forced passes from Jordan, Ced and Darren, who each wound up with 4 turnovers apiece.  Darren practically disappeared in the second half after his superb first half performance.

 

Behind Fazekas, Nevada chipped away at the Bruin lead until they got it down to 1 point, 46-45 with 8:39 to play.  At that point, the Bruins went on their second big run of the game, one that stretched over a nearly 5 minute span which saw the Bruins outscore Nevada 16-2.  The run was a team effort of course, on both ends, but Farmar was the key factor in the Bruins' run, bombing in 3s (perhaps his absent jump shot has resurfaced) and penetrating into the lane for soft floaters and hard drives for lay ups.  Jordan was definitely looking to score during this stretch, not pass, and he had 12 points in the final 8 minutes of the game.  Luc Richard Mbah A Moute also scored 7 points in the final 8 minutes, scoring his baskets inside with weak side cuts and getting to the free throw line (Luc had 8 points and 9 rebounds for the game).

 

So, what does this game tell us?  It tells us that when the Bruins can get strong scoring games from both Farmar (24 points on 10-13 shooting) and Afflalo (18 points on 6-13 shooting, plus 8 rebounds and 3 assists) at the same time, they can compete with and beat quality teams.  Collison's first half outburst was also crucial to the Bruin win, and the Bruins need Collison to step up his play and become a more productive player as the Pac-10 season approaches.  Great guard play will almost always defeat great frontcourt play in today's world of college basketball, and with Farmar at 100% and hitting his Js the Bruins will have an advantage in the backcourt against most of the teams in the country.  Oddly enough, Arron missed all 5 of his 3-point attempts (he was under intense pressure on 4 of those shots and Nevada had obviously scouted the old UCLA offense well), but he and the Bruins more than made up for it with several transition baskets.

 

That's the second thing this game tells us:  The Bruins need to run and get easy baskets to be at the top of their game.  In the Pac-10, Washington will let the Bruins run and Stanford may not have a choice.  It might be harder for UCLA against Arizona and Cal.  But the more Ben Howland is able to instill a mindset of running at every opportunity into the heads of his guards and forwards, the better off the Bruins will be.

 

A third lesson to come out of this game:  Despite the Bruins' continuing lack of post production, one outstanding big man can't beat the Bruins all by himself.  Fazekas scored 24 points, but the rest of his team played poorly and the Bruin defense was at least partly responsible for that.  And the Bruin post play wasn't terrible.  Ryan Wright (3 points, 3 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block in 33 minutes), Ryan Hollins (2 points, 1 rebound in 16 minutes, Alfred Aboya, 1 rebound in 5 minutes) didn't produce much in the way of stats, but they limited Fazekas to 18 shot attempts without fouling him too much and got in the way of Charlo and Kemp when they drove to the basket and presented effective obstacles to good looks inside.  Fazekas only got 3 shots during that crucial 16-2 Bruin run in the second half.  Ryan even caught a tough pass and hit a short jump shot.

 

It's possible that Wright and Aboya will improve a lot over the coming weeks and give the Bruins more effective post play than they've seen so far.  Both players are good athletes with decent size and strength (Ryan even won the opening tap for the second time in a row).  But I still think the Bruins' best bet would be the return of a healthy Mike Fey.  Mike did average 8.6 ppg and 4.8 rpg in just 23 mpg last season, and he scored 13 points against a very good Memphis team in his only really healthy game of the season so far.

 

A final lesson from this game:  Despite the 19 turnovers, the Bruins played perhaps their most focused and intense game of the year over a 40-minute span (I think both teams spent the first 10 minutes of the game getting used to the dimensions of the Pond).  The Bruins failed to show such effort against a host of mediocre teams at Pauley and it caused them some embarrassment and me a lot of doubts.  Obviously, playing in the Wooden Classic against a ranked team is great motivation for anyone, but hopefully this game is a sign that the Bruins are absorbing more of the coaches' philosophies and are ready to open Pac-10 play in a little more than 2 weeks.  Washington State, Oregon State, Arizona State, USC and Oregon aren't very good, and Stanford is struggling, but if the Bruins don't come out and play hard every night they may lose some games they shouldn't.

 

This win was certainly a promising game to build on.  The Bruins are making a more versatile half court offense work.  Jordan Farmar may have regained his shooting touch.  Darren Collison showed he can contribute at this level if he plays with aggression, poise and confidence.  Ced Bozeman played a poor game on offense (just 2 points on 1-4 shooting), but based on the whole season to date he is likely to be much more productive in future games.  Luc Richard Mbah A Moute and Arron Afflalo continue to turn in very consistent, outstanding performances.  Ryan Wright may be ready to become a stronger presence inside; he is certainly a far better athlete than any of the other Bruin post players and actually has good hands.  Alfred Aboya may be a month away from making a big contribution, but that month will pass by quickly.

 

On defense, the Bruins were able to stop Fazekas from dominating without letting his teammates take over in his place.  As I noted, a lot of that came from the shot selection of Charlo and Kemp, but the Bruins played hard on defense and even got Nevada caught up in the transition game and the Wolf Pack turned it over every time they tried to force the ball up the floor quickly.

 

This game has put me in a much more optimistic mood regarding the Bruins' chances in the Pac-10 and NCAA Tournament this year.  I realize Nevada didn't have any quality wins going into the game, but they are still a pretty good team and the Bruins put them away with 4 minutes left in the game.  The Bruins have shown a habit of closing strongly, which I attribute both to the poise of key players and the conditioning of the entire team.  Now, if Josh Shipp can just get on the court by January 10 and start making a real contribution by February 10, and if Mike Fey can finally overcome his odd rash of injuries, the Bruins might very well challenge for the Pac-10 title down the stretch drive of the conference race.  They will have to play hard and focus to avoid some bad losses early.  This game shows what they can do when they set their minds to it.

 

Next up:  Undefeated Michigan at their place, Ann Arbor.  This should be another important test for the Bruins, their first game against a quality team in the enemy's gym.  

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