A pure game review after yesterday's Bruin victory just seems a bit blasé right now. There really wasn't anything unusual that happened over the course of the game. The UCLA game plan, as it has for the past few weeks, was centered around solid half-court, lane-denial defense that counts on the defense contesting virtually every shot and rebounding so that the opposition is held to one opportunity at the hoop on a given possession. In all honesty, even though the defensive numbers for the USC game were better, you can argue that yesterday's game was a more complete and dominating defensive effort by the Bruins. UCLA was on the road playing a team that provided more match-up headaches for the Bruins than the Trojans could hope to do. The Bruins simply kept the Beavers in front of them and forced them into shots that they weren't comfortable taking. The game plan, as well as some nice individual defense by Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Ryan Hollins and Alfred Aboya, totally shut down OSU's interior play. Nick Dewitz, Kyle Jeffers and Marcel Jones, who have averaged a combined 24+ PPG and more than 12 RPG, were held to a total of 13 points and other than a couple of Dewitz blocks, were essentially non-factors in the game. It was obvious that Coach Howland wanted to have OSU's leading scorer, Chris Stephens, to be blanketed continuously. Stephens was held to 4 points, more than 11 below his average. The Bruins forced some truly ugly shots by OSU and were able to really frustrate the Beavers in their half-court sets.
On the offensive end, the Bruins operated much more efficiently than they did against Oregon on Thursday. The ball was rotated well on most possessions and, perhaps most importantly, the Bruins were pounding the ball inside regularly against a strong interior team and scoring points. Hollins, Mbah a Moute and Aboya were able to combine for 24 points from either interior shots or from getting to the line from an interior play. In fact, Hollins would have had a much better stat line if he could have hit better than 50% on his free throws.
This was one of those games where all of the Bruins who played, except for probably Ryan Wright, knew their respective roles and did generally what was expected of them on the offensive end. Howland seemed to know early on that OSU had no answer for the Bruins when they moved off the ball screen at the top and then, especially when it was Jordan Farmar, have the point pass the ball and then run off a screen to the arc at the foul line extended. The point didn't originally get the ball back, but with the Bruins simultaneously running a shooter (Arron Afflalo or Mike Roll) off a baseline screen to the opposite side, the Beavers bit on keeping the ball out of the shooters' hands by overplaying that side of the floor. When that happened, the Bruins went with a simple ball reversal and the point then got the ball back in essentially a mismatch one-on-one situation where they could get into the lane. The Bruins scored many easy baskets and when they couldn't, often found themselves at the line.
As stated above, many Bruins played their roles and contributed to this victory. Mbah a Moute led the team in scoring and provided a match-up nightmare for OSU on both ends of the floor.
But the most important Bruin on the offensive end was Farmar; sophomore point controlled play throughout the game. He was so valuable offensively that when he was out for a breather, he wasn't out long because the Bruins simply couldn't operate efficiently without him on the floor. It wasn't that Darren Collison played poorly, although he had moments when you could see he was a freshman (a pass that led to a travel call and a travel called on him), but it was simply that Farmar was the leader of the team on this day. There were many things that color commentator Marques Johnson stated during the broadcast that I agreed with. One of them was a comment about Farmar doing an excellent job of deciding when to drive and when to simply let the game come to him. Farmar showed quite a bit of focus on the offensive end, and it looks like he's truly buying into what Howland has been preaching for two seasons, to stay in control and jump stop, which helped create many of Farmar's passing opportunities. He finished with 13 points and 8 assists and just one turnover (which was a questionable five-second call). This very well could have been Farmar's best game of the season.
The most valuable Bruin on the defensive end, and perhaps for the game, was Afflalo. The sophomore showed many watching that you can contribute positively to your team's effort and success by doing more than scoring. Afflalo's shot was still off, as his 4-14 shooting numbers attest, but he finished with 10 rebounds to lead the Bruins, only the second time this season that honor hasn't gone to Mbah a Moute. But most importantly, Afflalo provided suffocating defense on Stephens, which forced OSU to quickly have to adjust their offensive game.
Mbah a Moute was Mbah a Moute. He led the Bruins in scoring and had 7 rebounds and 2 blocks. UCLA was also a much better team when he was on the floor. He even hit a three at a point when the game was still in doubt.
Hollins had another strong game. Sure, he dropped a couple of passes, including a ghastly one that helped OSU close the gap late (which was probably his fault, as opposed to passing the buck onto the passer, Farmar, as some on the BRO message boards have done), and he was called for an early travel. But his energy was excellent for the 6th straight game and he collected some critical and powerful rebounds.
Cedric Bozeman was able to play his typically strong defense and added a couple of baskets. At one point, with Farmar and Collison out, Bozeman even ran the point. One of the things noticeable in this game, though, was Bozeman's presence. From appearances, Farmar is the leader of the team while play is going on, but from a presence standpoint, like during a time out or talking to a teammate, Bozeman seems to be getting deference from the younger Bruins. It is important to have a senior on the floor.
Mike Roll scored 6 points and played solid defense (we can all stop worrying, for the most part, about Roll's defensive liabilities), and he also showed more of his game than many of us have seen. He had perhaps his best rebounding game, both in terms of numbers and positionally, and he was able to get to the basket off pump fakes where he was able to score.
The most important things to take from this game, however, are the aspects of it that pertain to the rest of the season. The Bruins have finished the first half of the PAC-10 schedule at 7-2 and alone in first place. They have won those seven games by doing the things that we saw yesterday: efficient offense, timely shooting, good rebounding and, most critically, excellent defense. It's safe to say that the Bruins are one of the best defensive teams in the nation. Conversely, when the Bruins vary from that plan, especially on the defensive end, they lose. It's important that Bozeman has returned. Hollins is a senior, but it seems that Bozeman's presence was needed more as a leader than Hollins' was. With a senior leader or two, it's less likely that the Bruins will lose focus for long stretches of time in a game and thus be in position to win every game left in the regular season. The return of Hollins has been huge. There are no two ways about it; Hollins is a different player since he has returned from injury than he was for the past 3+ years. His play, which has gotten to the point where it can be expected that he will bring that kind of focus and intensity every game, has made the loss of Lorenzo Mata much less critical than it could have been.
As the Bruins continue to play defense at this level, the loss of Josh Shipp will be felt less. The need for a third scorer is lessened when you are holding teams to less than 60 PPG. And much of his rebounding is being absorbed by the combination of Bozeman, Roll and Afflalo. Finally, Farmar needs to continue to provide gritty and intense leadership for this team. The ankle injury seems to be a thing of the past (knock on wood) so Farmar has no excuse to not go full tilt all the time. For example, as well as he played on the offensive end yesterday, he was still lax sometimes on the defensive end. Farmar ran into many ball screens without going either over or under them. Some of that may be on the lack of communication from the posts that were guarding the screeners, but when Farmar was much more focused in the second half and as a result, OSU was much less able to get into the lane. This team will move to another level when Farmar brings it on both ends of the court for 40 minutes.
Yes, it's all about defense. Even though OSU was only a point down at the half, you never got the sense that the Bruins weren't going to win. OSU hit several crazy, off-balance shots (Fontenot's 3) that you knew weren't going to fall in the second half. If the Bruins bring that methodical, focused effort every night, they will have a chance to win every game from here on out.
There are still some concerns, particularly the Bruins getting beaten for easy baskets when OSU was able to get out and push the tempo. So, the Bruins are susceptible to faster teams, but they have been able to dictate tempo in every game for the past three weeks. Afflalo is still in a shooting slump and if it continues that will catch up with the Bruins.
But all in all, if you had said at this point of the season that the Bruins, even without injuries, would be 17-4 and 7-2, most of us would have said you were nuts. The fact that they've done it with the injuries they've faced is not miraculous -- it's about defense. And defense is about pride and effort. That's what Howland was brought in to establish.