While many UCLA fans are bemoaning that UCLA barely edged out the Seakhawks, 74-72, at Pauley Pavilion Wednesday night, they shouldn't.
Bemoan away about New Mexico State, Delaware State, Coppin State, every state, because you can certainly put them all in the creampuff pie that UCLA baked up for its 2005-2006 non-conference schedule.
But Wagner, despite its zero name recognition, isn't one of the ingredients.
Wagner was easily the best no-name non-conference opponent UCLA has faced so far this season that is very well-coached. You could even make the argument that this Wagner squad was legitimately a tougher out than either of UCLA's last two, bigger-named opponents, Michigan and Nevada.
And it wasn't that UCLA just didn't play well. Many fans, or casual observers, thinking that, will look at UCLA squeaking one out over Wagner and put it in the under-achieving column.
They'd be wrong. Because UCLA actually played pretty well.
You can take that as either a good sign or bad. It's a good sign that they actually played well for another game, and put away a tough opponent. Or you could look at it that it took a fairly good game from them to beat Wagner.
But there again, you might be discounting no-name Wagner. I'll go out on a limb and predict that Wagner will win the Northeast Conference and go to the NCAA tournament.
UCLA did, in fact, play pretty decently. They were horrendous shooting free-throws, made only one of 13 three-point attempts, had lapses defensively and couldn't finish easy shots a number of times. But all in all, that was probably the best UCLA's offense has executed yet this season. And again, it wasn't against any defensive slouch; Wagner was holding opponents to 40% shooting going into the UCLA game. The Bruins shot 52.5% for the game.
Because of that alone you'd have to say UCLA played pretty well. This game continued to show the improvement on offense that we saw in the Nevada and Michigan games. UCLA is expanding its sets and plays, and doing so with good execution. In the first half, Wagner was befuddled often by UCLA's screens, leaving Bruins wide open for lay-ups and easy mid-rangers (the problem was that those Bruins missed many of them). It was what propelled UCLA to a 35-33 lead at halftime. Wagner, though, made a run to start the second half, and went up 57-49 about halfway through the second half. It did so not only by its offense shooting at a magical level, but by playing better defensively for those 10-odd minutes and discovering ways to get around UCLA's extensive screening. But the point here is that UCLA's offense bounced back over the last half of the second half, able to score just about on every offensive possession for the last seven minutes of the game.
Hey, any game where UCLA commits only nine turnovers you'd have to consider a good game for the Bruins. The lack of turnovers came purely from good offensive execution, both in transition and in the half-court. This offense is definitely getting better.
Perhaps what limited UCLA the most offensively was probably a misjudgment on the part of the UCLA brain trust, and an understandable one. Going into this game it's easy to understand how the UCLA coaches thought their advantage was down low. Wagner doesn't have a big over 6-7. No matter how poor UCLA's bigs have been so far this year, they still, you would presume, have an advantage over Wagner's. And this was true, too, to a certain extent. Wagner's bigs, if you can call them that, combined for 24 points and 12 rebounds, while UCLA's had 26 and 14 combined. Throughout the game it was readily apparent that UCLA could exploit the size difference on the baseline and it was clear that was the gameplan. UCLA, which is usually so perimeter oriented, since it has to be, was looking to dump it down low and did it early and often. Starting center, freshman Ryan Wright, caught the ball, was fouled but missed his first four free throws. In fact, UCLA's bigs missed their first 7 free throws. Now, since this front-court-dominated kind of thing is all new to us Bruin fans, we might not realize that it's critical for your bigs to make their free throws if you're going to throw them the ball on the block. And not only did they brick their free throws, they bricked some easy gimme baskets also, early and often. Lorenzo Mata came in for Wright and played fairly well, especially given he had the stomach flu Tuesday and had two teeth knocked out Saturday. He finished with a career-high 11 points, and five rebounds, in just 15 minutes. He showed a nice turnaround jump hook from about 8 feet and had a huge alley-oop dunk off a Farmar pass. But Mata also missed some easy lay-ins, opportunities that resulted from some very good half-court execution by UCLA's perimeter players.
So, the UCLA brain trust, going in, thinks UCLA has an advantage down low, and while it did, the Bruin bigs just weren't converting enough to fully take advantage. But where UCLA truly had a mismatch, which it didn't foresee, was with its back-up point guard, Darren Collison. Collison took over the game with about seven minutes to go, able to do just about anything at will, and Wagner's talented guards actually couldn't stop him. While UCLA thought it had a mismatch upfront, it really had the mismatch with Collison. That five minute stretch that brought UCLA back from a 59-55 deficit to take a 68-66 lead was one of the best individual stretches of the season, and in recent memory.
On successive plays, Collison:
Off UCLA's signature ball screen, takes his man with ease, gets in the lane and makes a floater.
Rebounds, dribbles through traffic, brings the ball up and dishes beautifully to Arron Afflalo on the wing for a dunk.
Off another ball screen, he breaks down his defender, gets in the lane and scores on a floater.
Off a ball screen, Wagner hedges, pushes Collison out and tries to trap him, but he easily breaks it and dishes to Ryan Hollins for a dunk.
Collison breaks down his man, gets in the lane and finishes with a short jumper.
It was an eye-opening few minutes. We had seen Collison do similar-type things so far this season, but not with so much confidence, ease and no mistakes as this. Collison looked like he started to realize that no one could stop him. He didn't even have to use the whole shake-and-bake repertoire, just a few little head fakes, an explosive step and quick hands were enough. He finished with a career-high 12 points, and had five assists against zero turnovers, and was more than just the "spark," but the catalyst for the win.
This is one of the most fun aspects of UCLA basketball right now – watching Darren Collison develop before your eyes. It's happening so fast it's like one of those time-lapse video shots of a flower blossoming. As he did in this game, he's starting to realize just how good he is. At the beginning of the season, he wasn't near as aggressive taking defenders off the dribble. Now you can almost see him say to himself, "Heck, these college guys aren't that good. I can take this guy."
UCLA's other perimeter players also played good games. Many who just look at a boxscore would say that Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo had down games since they didn't score to their seasonal average, and they'd be wrong. It was one of Farmar's best all-around games of the season, finishing with 12 points and nine assists against just three turnovers. Farmar made less mistakes in this game than he has in any game all season, both offensively and defensively. He again converted some baskets in critical moments, particularly on UCLA's last possession with under 20 seconds to go and the score tied. With an isolation play called for him, Farmar penetrated enough to draw the defense and dished to Luc Richard Mbah a Moute for the game-winning lay-up. Afflalo finished with 13 points, but had his hands full trying to shut down Wagner's magically-shooting guards.
Also a good sign was Cedric Bozeman coming back from two poor games and having a good one against Wagner. He's starting to recognize that he's bigger and stronger than most of the people assigned to defend him and is starting to take it to the basket with strength more often.
UCLA's defense had some lapses in this game, but it wasn't as bad as you might think. Yes, Wagner had some open looks and UCLA didn't close out on shooters sometimes like it is prone to do. But UCLA did then step up its defense and was more active in getting out on Wagner's shooters, but those darn Seahawks kept making their shots with a hand in their face. Wagner's Mark Porter is a talented player, and it seemed like he had a great deal more than just 19 points in this game. Porter was one of just a couple of players in the last two years that Afflalo struggled to guard, with Porter having too much quickness and ballhandling to go along with a very quick release. The problem in defending Wagner was the fact that it just wasn't Porter who was on fire. Porter, DeEarnest McLemore, Matt Vitale and Joey Mundweiler went 8 for 9 from three. As a team they went 10-for-16, a sizzling 62%. They made eight of ten in the second half and, again, most of those were with a Bruin hand in their face. While this is magical, it's not really a huge fluke since, as a team, they were shooting 43% from behind the arc before this game.
Howland, you could see, was doing just about anything he could to try to limit Wagner, trying different defensive combinations throughout the game, hoping to find something that could stop them. At one point Howland resorted to taking Farmar out of the game to move in his three best on-the-ball defenders, Afflalo, Bozeman and Mbah a Moute, on the perimeter, which stemmed the tide for a short time.
What has been good to see about this team this season, especially in the last few games, is their desire to win. There have been critical times in the last few games when you could see Farmar, Afflalo and Co. drawing a line in the sand, and they stepped up to prevail. In the Wagner game, with UCLA down 59-55 with about 8 minutes left, UCLA had one key defensive sequence. They played tough defense deep into the shot clock, but Wagner got a fortuitous call on a rebound that seemed to bounce off a couple of Wagner players. Sometimes when a team plays defense for 30 seconds and then gets a bad call you commonly see them deflate and get scored on immediately. Wagner inbounded the ball, but UCLA kept up the defensive pressure and forced a shot-clock violation. The energy from that stop infected the otherwise quiet Pauley Pavilion, and set the tone for Collison's offensive run over the next few minutes that won the game for the Bruins.
Also playing well in limited minutes was Mike Roll, who just barely missed his two three-point attempts, but played hard, got two rebounds and had a pretty assist. Mbah a Moute played solidly, finishing with 7 rebounds and a couple of nice conversions in the low-block. Ryan Hollins played 14 minutes, had only one rebound, and had his usual illegal pick, a fumble of a ball, and a weak finish inside. It's clear Howland knows that Hollins hurts the team if he plays him for any extended time, especially now that you can see how Mata and Wright can rebound. But Hollins' size in this game down the line was critical in finishing some baskets that UCLA needed. Wright, after he missed those four free throws, saw limited action, just 11 minutes total. Alfred Aboya played two minutes and Michael Fey did not play.
Next up is Sacramento State, who is trying to play itself out of cream puff status.