UCLA Looks Like It's Looking Ahead

The Bruins beat ASU Thursday night, 69-60, in an unimpressive win, looking out-of-sorts on both offense and defense. It could be a case where UCLA has its eye on Saturday...

UCLA "plodded" to a 69-60 victory over Arizona State Thursday night, and while the win was nice, the game showed once again some real issues with the Bruins when they don't bring their "A" game. With Arizona invading Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, the Bruins will have to find a way to quickly address those issues.

Yes, it was ugly, but it was a win nonetheless. But as ugly as the game was, and even though the Bruins never led by more than 10, I don't think anyone watching really got the feeling that UCLA would lose the game. Each time that ASU made a mini-run that cut the Bruin lead from 8 or 9 to about 3 or 4, the Bruins responded with a big defensive stop and a mini-run of their own. But make no mistake, the game should never have been that close. There were several reasons that it was, and most of those reason happened in the first half.

It has become very apparent that the Bruins win when they bring intensity and smarts to the defensive end of the floor. Even when their offense isn't working well, they can still hang their collective hats on their defense. When the Bruins don't bring the smarts with the intensity, then they struggle. In the first half last night, the Bruins didn't bring the smarts. While it appeared that the Bruins had the intensity, it seemed that they were a step behind mentally. On many Sun Devil possessions, the ASU guards and wings, even slow-footed Kevin Kruger, were able to drive on their man. While this has happened to individual defenders all year, the Bruins usually do a great job of rotating over and down to give superior help and force a turnover, a bad shot, or they simply force the player to kick the ball back out. Last night the Bruins did one of two things in the first half and defensively that were at extreme ends of the defensive spectrum: The Bruins either over-rotated or they simply didn't help at all. Either way, it led to easy ASU baskets. When the defense was over-rotating, what was happening was that as a Sun Devil drove, especially along the baseline, more than one Bruin rotated down. If you think of the rotation in this situation as simply each player rotating over and down, then two players rotating to the same spot leaves a hole somewhere in the defense. Typically last night, that hole was with the off-side wing coming down the lane, receiving an easy pass for a lay-up or high-percentage shot. ASU shot 50% from the floor in the first half, and a great deal of that came from the shots they got from the over-rotation by the Bruins. If the cutter isn't open, then the ball was quickly reversed, and because two or more Bruins had rotated low, their ability to recover and close out as the ball was swung was impaired. That led to some open 3-pointers for the Sun Devils and they were able to convert one and a couple of mid-range shots. The other extreme was no rotation at all. There were several instances last night, highlighted by the last play of the 1st half, when the Bruins stayed rooted to their individual man, and a penetrating Sun Devil (is that legal?) was able to go uncontested to the basket for a lay-up. As this happened more at the end of the half, my guess is that Coach Howland was using some of his timeout talk to instruct the Bruins that they were over-rotating and the players simply over-compensated. Bottom line: The Bruins only led the worst team in the PAC-10 by 2 at the half.

In the second half things tightened up. The Bruins began funneling baseline drives into double-teams and the Sun Devils, faced with only one passing angle (along the baseline), turned the ball over on passes repeatedly. This would help account for why the Sun Devils were only able to score a single point in the first 6:47 of the 2nd half. Another thing that improved dramatically in the 2nd half was the Bruins' defensive rebounding. In the first half, ASU was able to get 2nd and 3rd looks at the basket through their offensive rebounding. Much of this stemmed from the over-rotation problem that pulled some of the Bruins out of good rebounding position. Also, I noticed that the Bruins were "running" to the basket on ASU shots, rather than boxing out their man. Again, this became a non-issue in the 2nd half.

Offensively, the Bruins just looked out of sorts all game. There were multiple illegal screens, dropped passes, missed lay-ups and balls being dribbled off feet, etc. This really didn't improve in the 2nd half. It was really more force of will that allowed the Bruins to score 69 points. That and the porous ASU defense. UCLA truly looked like a team that was already thinking about Saturday and the Wildcats. And it was apparent right away. The Bruins fumbled and stumbled their way to a 4-0 deficit after the first 2:30 of the game.

Individually, some Bruins had decent games. Jordan Farmar wasn't as sharp as he was on Saturday against Oregon State, but he did take the 1st-half mantle of offensive force for the Bruins and ran with it to the tune of 15 1st-half points. He was a shooter in the 1st half and then resumed his role as distributor in the 2nd half, driving the lane well and either getting to the line or hitting an open shooter (Cedric Bozeman, Mike Roll) who was waiting in the corner. This was, however, an average game for Farmar. Surprisingly it wasn't his defense that was suspect, actually doing a good job of keeping his man out of the lane for much of the game and rotating well, but rather his offense. Farmar had numerous questionable turnovers, including one in the 2nd half that still has me wondering if he dribbled the ball off his foot. It was these turnovers and those as a team that really prevented UCLA from blowing this game open.

Welcome back, hopefully, Arron Afflalo. You were missed. After a continuation of his slump in the 1st half, Afflalo finally broke out of his slump in the 2nd half. But you could see him coming out of it in the 1st half. In fact, there was a specific moment in the 1st half when Afflalo hit a 3 that was discounted because of an ASU foul on Ryan Wright, that you could finally see the Afflalo from the 1st 1/3 of the season. For most of the 1st half Afflalo was passive and passed up open shots he would have taken and made a month ago. In the 2nd half, once he hit his first 3 (and made that off-balance, in-the-air put-back), Afflalo's aggressiveness increased to a level we haven't seen since the Arizona game several weeks ago. Add to this that Afflalo was the one Bruin who played truly stellar defense throughout, holding ASU's leading scorer Kevin Kruger to 8 points, more than 6 below his average.

Cedric Bozeman had a good but not great game. He did score 10 points and hit a big 3 at the end, but his offensive drives throughout the game were very passive and probably cost the Bruins some easy points. He did have some very nice assists and played good, although for him not great, defense, allowing Sylvester Seay, ASU's enigmatic freshman, to get open for a couple of open looks from behind the arc.

Mike Roll was clearly bothered by the sprained thumb, not so much on the long range stuff, but rather on the mid range jumpers. On a10-12 footer, more touch is needed and you could tell that Roll simply didn't have that touch. His defense was adequate, and he is finding ways to utilize his strength and minimize his lack of quickness. Roll needs to hit the boards, though. He finished with no rebounds.

Darren Collison once again had a game where he over-penetrated and, quite frankly, he tried to look for his own shot too much. He was bailed out on two misses, first by Michael Fey and then by Afflalo, but he has got to finish or teams are going to take away his passing lanes because they will feel he can't finish the play. Defensively the larger, heavier ASU guards overmatched him at times physically, and he found it difficult to keep Atuahene in front of him. The Bruins need a steadier performance out of Collison if they expect to win on Saturday.

The real problem area for the Bruins last night was in the post. Ryan Hollins, Ryan Wright and Alfred Aboya combined for 8 points and 6 rebounds, and most of that was due to Hollins. Aboya, in particular, looked out of sorts, missing two easy put-backs and fouling out with over 8 minutes to go in the game. Wright got better as the game went on, but he still needs work defensively. Hollins definitely didn't look like the same player he was for the past month, but he was decent and blocked out well. For the Bruins to win on Saturday they need a much more energetic and "smart" performance from their big men, especially with Radenovic on the Wildcat roster. The Bruins would have/could have blown this game open in the 1st half had they hit their free throws, but they didn't, and ended up 15-25 for the game. The big men missed 5 of them, and that has to improve.

Good teams win with defense, and the Bruins played much better defense in the 2nd half. Good teams also win when they're not at their best, and last night was an example of that. UCLA must surely have been looking ahead to the big showdown on Saturday, but a win is a win. This is a team and a program that hasn't had enough of those in the last few years. As the team and its fans get more used to more victories, then we can start looking for wins with flair. For now, the Bruins are 18-4 and still lead the conference. And that's a very big deal.

Michael Miller's Review:

UCLA played a mediocre ASU team Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion, and allowed the Sun Devils to bring the Bruins down to their level as UCLA won a dull game, 69-60, to raise its overall record to 18-4 and its Pac-10 record to 8-2. Hapless ASU fell to 7-12 overall and just 1-9 in league play.

Although the Bruins won the game in Tempe by taking the ball inside, beating the Sun Devils on the boards and getting to the free-throw line, the Bruins began the game by jacking up 3s on their first three possessions, enabling ASU to take a 6-2 lead. Jordan Farmar then took matters in hand, scoring nine points during a 14-4 Bruin run which seemed to augur well for a possible blowout. Alas, UCLA was only setting its fans up for angst and disappointment, as the Bruins committed a series of, well, dumb plays, combining more bad shots with moving screens, reaching fouls and loose defense, enabling the Sun Devils to close out the first half trailing just 32-30. Farmar accounted for nearly half of UCLA's points by scoring 15 big ones in the opening 20 minutes. For the Sun Devils, surprise starter Sylvester Seay, a 6-9 RS FR SF, led the way with 7 points, while 6-10 true FR Jeff Pendergraph used his pretty step-back J to score 6 points even with the long-limbed Ryan Hollins often right in his face to contest the shot.

ASU hit 50% of its shots in the first half, while UCLA, despite four fastbreak baskets, made only 41.4% of its shots. Basically, UCLA's shot selection was terrible and its defense porous.

The Bruin defense tightened up considerably to start the second half, as it took ASU eight minutes to score its first field goal. And the Bruins started to take the ball inside more often on offense as they started the second half on an 8-1 run (well, a walk was more like it, as it took them almost 8 minutes to do it). But more turnovers and bad fouls caused the Bruins to squander a nine-point lead and enabled ASU to claw back within three with possession at 45-42 at around the 9:30 mark in the game. With Arron Afflalo blanketing ASU's leading scorer, Kevin Kruger, limiting him to just three shots attempts through the first 32 minutes of the game, the Sun Devils relied on Serge Angounou, Bryson Krueger and Antwi Atuahene to outmatch their opposites on isolation plays, turning the Bruins' vaunted hands-on defense against itself (when teams spread the court, the Bruin style of defense prevents UCLA from playing effective help d). Ryan Hollins had committed two offensive fouls in the first half, limiting his time in the second half, and the Bruins were forced to rely too much on Ryan Wright and Alfred Aboya to defend the middle. Both players showed they still have a lot to learn. Indeed, Aboya committed five fouls in just 12 minutes of action (admittedly, the referees were whistle-happy in this contest; neither team was able to really mount any big runs in the second half because the refs would stop the game cold with a whistle every 30 seconds or so).

ASU was still within three points, 47-44, with about 8 minutes to go. Hollins re-entered the game at that point, and ASU suddenly found it much tougher to score inside. Farmar made a sweet dish to Mike Roll for a 3, and after a UCLA stop, Farmar scored on a drive and drew the foul, adding the subsequent free throw as the Bruins regained their nine-point margin. Atuahene made a bucket off a strong drive, but Mike Roll bounced a baseline pass into Hollins for a lay up on the ensuing possession. By then, the Sun Devils were in foul trouble and out of gas with six minutes to go and the only matter still at issue was the final score.

One very promising sign in this otherwise unmemorable game was the re-emergence of Arron Afflalo's jumper. He hit a pair of treys in the final 10 minutes of the game en route to 15 second half points. A resurgent Afflalo would spell certain doom for the teams currently chasing UCLA for the title (Stanford, Cal and Washington are all one game behind the Bruins in the loss column). Afflalo had 17 points and 6 rebounds while holding Kruger to 8 points on 2-7 shooting from the floor. On the negative side, Afflalo made 4 turnovers, most off of over-penetration without clear purpose. Farmar led the Bruins with 18 points overall and added 4 assists. On the other hand, Farmar did little to hinder Atuahene from getting into the lane and he also over dribbled too often and made some careless turnovers of his own. Still, with Ced Bozeman chipping in 10 points and 4 assists and Mike Roll adding 6 points and 3 assists, the Bruin backcourt combo was generally in fine form. As in Tempe, Darren Collison's size and inexperience proved a drawback against the big ASU guards.

Up front, Luc Richard Mbah A Moute turned in another workmanlike effort with 8 points and 9 rebounds. The more experienced and physical Angounou frequently got the better of Prince Luc under the basket on the defensive end of the floor, and Mbah A Moute bricked a trio of attempts from 3-point range. Coach Howland has obviously told Luc to bomb away, but that doesn't stop me from wincing every time he launches one from distance. ASU didn't bother to guard him out there, and it seems likely no one else will either until he starts stroking that shot. Fortunately, UCLA always employs 3 guards at a time and its post players set numerous illegal screens, so having an extra defender in the lane every time Luc stepped out behind the arc didn't help the Sun Devils all that much and may not help anyone else besides Cal and Washington, both of whom can play 2 talented and mobile post players at the same time. It will be interesting to see if Mbah A Moute still has the green light to shoots 3s when the Bruins face those two teams again.

Hollins added 6 points and 4 rebounds, and along with Mbah A Moute and Ryan Wright drew enough fouls on Pendergraph to effectively keep him out of the second half of the game; Bozeman and Afflalo did the same to Seay; neither he nor Pendergraph scored in the second half. On the negative side, Hollins and Wright were a combined 4-9 from the free-throw line. Wright and Aboya managed just 2 rebounds in 24 minutes of action, and UCLA was out-rebounded for the game, 31-29. The Bruins again had a good advantage at the free-throw line, getting eight more attempts than the Sun Devils and that accounted for three of their final margin of nine points. Going 8-20 from 3 accounted for the other six points and was the biggest difference between this game and the match in Tempe.

The Bruins shot 51.1% from the floor in the second half and held ASU to 41.7%. That's the way the Bruins will have to play for the whole game if they want to beat Arizona and impress a couple of kids from Oregon on Saturday…

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