UCLA Gets Hot in the Desert

UCLA posted probably their biggest road win of the Ben Howland era, knocking off #21 Arizona on their home floor. There were definitely some Bruin heroes in this game...

The Bruins came away with an impressive victory over the Arizona Wildcats in McKale Center Thursday night, 85-79.

It was UCLA's first win at Arizona in eight years and definitively wipes away the sour taste left from Saturday's loss versus Cal. But more importantly the victory showed what this team is capable of, and the areas it still needs to improve.

I took a bit of stick (as they say in Britain), for the Arizona game preview, but before I get into the keys to the Arizona victory, I must say that the score prediction was more wishful thinking on my part. I put it in almost as a joke, with the idea that game predictions usually aren't worth the paper, or in this case, the screen that they're printed on. Let's just say that the final score, 85-79, and the prediction, 80-79, matching as closely as they did was just a bit lucky.

I stated at the end of the preview that it was essential for the Bruins to keep Arizona below 80 points. They held them to 79. Forget that Arizona was 4-0 when scoring more than 80 points this season. Forget that Arizona's winning percentage over the past several seasons when scoring over 80 approaches 90%. The 80-point plateau was more indicative of the tempo that was necessary to win a game such as this. The Bruins really did control the pace of the game. How many times did the Bruins bring the ball out and work the clock while still looking to run at least some of their offense? Especially in the last eight minutes? Sure, there were some turnovers, but forcing Arizona to play defense for 25-30 seconds per possession was key to winning the game. Simply put, Arizona is not disciplined enough on defense to consistently put forth that kind of effort without somebody missing an assignment or someone being too aggressive and getting beat. Think of how many times a Bruin player was able to get into the lane because their defender was overplaying them deep into the shot clock. The end result was some easy buckets and trips to the free throw line.

In terms of personnel, the first key was Josh Shipp. It was stated that this could be a coming out game for Josh. Well, it wasn't, but it sure was close. If he could play like this for the next few weeks while getting his legs back, then the Bruins will do very well. He was often matched up against Chris Rodgers and Rodgers really couldn't beat him. Josh did a nice job of keeping his body in front of Rodgers, and when Josh got beat, he consistently forced his man to the center where help was waiting, (most of the time). On the offensive end, Shipp let the game come to him, taking only one really ill-advised shot, (the 3 deep in the second half, early in the shot clock). But he made his looks count. You could see in his face every time FSN had a close-up shot of him how intensely into this game Shipp was.

The second personnel key was Arron Afflalo's defensive match-up against Hassan Adams. Sure, Adams got his points, but there were long stretches of the game where he simply disappeared as an offensive option, scoring only through turnovers or broken plays. Arron played smart, straight-up defense, again, forcing Adams to the middle where help was waiting. On offense, Afflalo scored 20, but they were pretty quiet except for two sequences. The first was in the first half with the Bruins trailing when he hit the off balance three-pointer. That started a Bruin run. The second was deep in the second half, right when you thought Arizona was going to go on a run to take the lead. Afflalo drove to the right and, partially fading away, kissed a high floater off the glass to help keep a cushion for the Bruins. That's what scorers do. More importantly, that's what leaders do.

The third key was Darren Collison. Yes, he did have some turnovers that made you want to scream "freshman!!!" at the TV, but he really was a difference-maker in this game. He ran the offense for long stretches without a drop-off, and his quickness and ability to get into the lane hurt the Cats. Perhaps more importantly, he really did a number when he was assigned Mustafa Shakur. The Arizona point guard had a poor game and a lot of that is attributable to the defense played by both Collison and Jordan Farmar.

I did write that Ivan Radenovic was not going to be much of a threat. Boy, did he make me look stupid at the beginning of the game and through much of the first half. But as the second half wore on, Radenovic simply disappeared, visibly falling back into the non-aggressive shell that has driven Coach Olson so nuts this year.

The Bruin game plan on defense was well-conceived. It was obvious that the Bruins were going to hedge when necessary, but if they got beat, they were going to funnel their man to the center where help would be waiting. For the most part this strategy worked very well. The key to that kind of defense, though, is not rotation, although the Bruins did get beat badly on some poor rotations, but rather limiting Arizona to one shot per possession, and the Bruins did a very good job of that tonight.

On offense, Coach Howland obviously saw a weakness that Arizona had against ball screens. Time after time, Farmar, Collison, Afflalo and Shipp were able to get to the basket because of ball screens set by the post players. And while the posts did get called for a couple of illegal screens, they did a nice job of losing the guards. This offense led to a lot of easy buckets as Arizona rotated poorly to cover the other post as they gave help.

Props for this win should also be given to Lorenzo Mata who had a really nice game, perhaps his best as a Bruin. Having a big that can hit the 10-foot jumper is a nice way to open up the offense and give the guards more confidence in their big people. Mike Roll, in limited minutes, did a nice job of not getting beat on defense, especially when he was matched on Rodgers, and even hit a big 3.

There are some areas that are still worrisome. The Bruins still seem to be a bit slow on their rotation when help is needed, both in the middle, (how many dunks for Walters?), and on the baseline, which led to offensive rebounds. It seems that when the Bruins give help in the middle that the post players are stepping up too soon to give the help, thus leaving the man driving to the basket enough space and time to dump the ball off for an easy bucket. The free throw shooting was poor tonight. If the Bruins hit even 70% from the line, this game would have been over with about 3-4 minutes left. Shooting like that will come back to haunt them if they don't address it. Finally, the Bruins had entirely too many turnovers. There are bound to be some, but the ones that are the most concerning are those caused by over-dribbling. I counted at least seven of those in this game. Luckily each time they happened the Bruins had a bit of a cushion to absorb the inevitable fastbreak hoop.

Finally, how about Jordan Farmar? He didn't have big numbers, but when it came time to either get the ball to the right player or, more importantly, when it came time for someone to step up and demand the ball in the last minute, there he was. An example of leadership that is nice to have in your point guard. And all that on an ankle he re-injured in the first half.

All in all, a very satisfying win for the Bruins. A big win. Now, they need to keep their focus as they move on to Tempe.

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