And while, on the surface, most UCLA fans' reaction would be to praise the players and the team after seeing the 2006-2007 edition for the first time, it wasn't an overly impressive performance.
In fact, let's get pretty critical, just to keep everything in balance.
If you were expecting this team to pick up right where it left off at the end of last season, you can drop those expectations right now.
This team looks like it's picking up just about where it started last season. It was very similar to the exhibition game against Carleton a year ago – with UCLA showing good energy on defense, but with still many, many questions.
So, really, if it develops like last season's team, great. But it has a long ways to go.
The Bruins owned this game mostly through its individual defensive effort. With Arron Afflalo, Darren Collison and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute pressuring their man very far from the basket it made it pretty difficult for Pomona to operate offensively. That alone caused enough turnovers by Pomona (19) for UCLA to get enough points in transition to build a 17-point lead at halftime (42-25) and then cruise to a win.
But if you want to talk defensively, it was a mixed bag. As Howland said in his post-game press conference, the Bruins played hard, and were smothering in their individual defensive assignments, but the team defense was lacking. If a Pomona guard got around a Bruin, the help D was slow and uncommunicative, allowing Pomona to get into the lane – not a lot, but probably too much. Larry Gordon, the forward for Pomona with D-1 athleticism, had some degree of success, mostly because one screen would free him up pretty easily.
It wasn't the same type of overwhelming team defense you saw from the Bruins late last season. But again, since it doesn't look like this team will pick up where it left off, it did show an equivalent amount of good defensive energy like it did in the Carleton exhibition a year ago.
Funny, though, if you remember a year ago, Darren Collison started at point guard against Carleton since Jordan Farmar was injured. Now, this year, Collison is really the starting point guard and, honestly, he had a better first game against Carleton a year ago. He had 13 points and 5 assists against Carleton, and 7 and 3 against Pomona. But it wasn't just wasn't a matter of the stat sheet; Collison lacked aggressiveness offensively last night. It was almost as if, in accepting his role as the starting point guard, he believed his role was just to give up the ball to a wing. Collison, first and foremost, is most effective offensively when he's utilizing his quickness to get into the lane. In the halfcourt offense, he didn't do that once last night. Now, could it be that the match-up zone Pomona used intermittently kept Collison from penetrating? Against Pomona's man D he still didn't look to penetrate, and UCLA didn't set a ball screen for him, which has really become the Bruins' staple offensive play under Howland. Maybe it's a matter of Howland wanting Collison to get an exhibition game under his belt playing under control, but for UCLA's offense to be effective against strong D-1 competition, it's going to need Collison to penetrate. He's really the only guy among UCLA's perimeter players that has the capability.
Josh Shipp and Arron Afflalo were okay, with Shipp finishing with 16 points and Afflalo with 17 points, 7 rebounds and six assists. Both showed a great feel for finding space to get off their outside shot, and it's going to add a completely different dimension to the team's offense with Shipp instead of Cedric Bozeman shooting from the outside. This offense will be at its best when 1) Collison penetrates and 2) when there is good ball movement and then it's kicked out to an open Shipp or Afflalo on the wing. You saw some of that last night.
This might be a little paranoia on our part, however, but we get a sense that Shipp and Afflalo could have a bit of an attitude of wanting to get their own. Last year, with Shipp out, Afflalo was the guy on the perimeter. But now, with Shipp hanging out on the opposite wing, it felt like Afflalo and Shipp were competitive over who would get their stats. While it's good to be competitive, it's not good if it leads to selfish play. The one thing both of these guys can't do really well is take the ball to the basket. Neither is very athletic as a slasher, and you hope that neither is thinking they need to show they can bounce the ball for NBA scouts. UCLA needs both Shipp and Afflalo to play unselfishly this year if it's going to be really successful. Both forced drives a number of times, leading to turnovers (Shipp had two and Afflalo had five turnovers). Then, in the second half, Afflalo drove the basket and, after a couple of controlled dribbles, made a nice pass to a UCLA player under the basket for a lay-in. That's the kind of unselfishness Shipp and Afflalo will have to exhibit this season.
You have to hope that Shipp and Afflalo aren't infected by wanting-to-go-to-the-NBA syndrome, especially after the spectacle that was Jordan Farmar last night. The new Laker guard attended the game, and practically held court on the court, standing on the court while UCLA warmed up, hugging fans and taking photos. It was excessive, and it even inspired a reporter at the post-game press conference to facetiously ask Afflalo if he took a picture with Jordan during the evening.
Taking expectations into account, the Bruin who probably had the most impressive game was Alfred Aboya. He played good post defense, is just so quick for his size, and showed what a great interior passer he is. When he catches the ball in the post, he's excellent at finding a cutting teammate for a lay-up, and he did it a number of times last night. He finished with 10 points himself, and just 3 rebounds, even though it seemed more than that. Aboya will be a good option at the five, and at the four when UCLA needs to go bigger. His post work has improved but it's still not a really potent weapon. He didn't show off his improved face-up jumper.
Ryan Wright, the only other option at center with Lorenzo Mata out, was disappointing. We had been told that he had learned to slow down in the post and, perhaps the excitement of the first game sped him up, but he looked hurried when he caught the ball. He doesn't have naturally great hands so it's critical that he concentrate and take things slow when posting up. One great pass to him when he had space in the post about five feet from the basket went right through his hands. And defensively he was undisciplined, getting 3 fouls in just six minutes in the first half.
It's clear that UCLA is going to desperately need Lorenzo Mata. Mbah a Moute was fairly quiet on the night, ending with 5 points and 7 rebounds. What's ironic is that everyone (including ourselves) have said that Mbah a Moute needs a jumpshot, but really he's most effective when he's driving to the basket. When he catches the ball at the high post and then takes his man off the dribble, he's far too athletic for slower 4s to stay with him. He did it a couple of times in this game and his quickness and agility to the basket is impressive. UCLA needs to get him the ball on that spot and clear out for him. He and Aboya, also, have a good feel for each other, passing the ball well in the paint.
Mike Roll has improved his quickness and it was obvious on defense, able to stay in front of his defender better (even though these were D-2 players, so take it for what it's worth). He hit a 23-foot three with effortlessness, and looked particularly good pulling up after two dribbles to hit a nice 12-footer. His release has quickened up, similar to Jason Kapono's quick, going-up release. Roll did, though, force some things, offensively, trying to dribble too much at times.
The freshmen were okay. James Keefe had a good debut, playing hard on both ends and showing off his knack for rebounding, getting 7 boards in 19 minutes. On one, he literally just grabbed it over two Pomona players. He hit a nice three, catching the ball in rhythm.
Russell Westbrook had some good moments, and some freshman ones. He looked good and active on defense, and looked comfortable on the break. In the half-court a couple of times he dribbled himself into a corner and a defensive trap. He had a couple of turnovers as a result of his high dribble and forcing passes.
Nikola Dragovic was really the player that looked overwhelmed. His usually good shot looked broken, probably from the nervousness of his first game in Pauley Pavilion. He also didn't look like he was in the flow of the game, particularly on offense, but did make an effort defensively.
The team committed 24 turnovers and that seemed low, since there were stretches where it appeared they were turning the ball over every few seconds. The team's good on-ball defensive pressure kept Pomona shooting only 32%, and UCLA's height and athletic advantage gave them a 44-21 rebound advantage.
UCLA is trying to push the ball more, with Howland yelling "Push! Push!" every time UCLA gets a rebound. Pomona hit an energy lull early in the second half, and UCLA's defense created three fast breaks in a row that UCLA finished well, with Shipp dunking on a nice feed along the baseline. That started a nice run, and then UCLA's defense took over, keeping Pomona scoreless for 4 straight minutes. Pomona made just three field goals, got off just 7 shots and scored a mere 18 points in the second half.
Yes, this was just Cal Poly Pomona. But actually, this was a far more challenging exhibition than those in the past played against slapped-together former college players. Pomona actually played as a team, operating offensive sets and playing real team defense. So, it was a far better warm-up for UCLA than in year's past.
Hopefully, the team will show a learning curve similar to last season's squad. Perhaps last year's team had more of an upside, since it did have a 7-footer that went from being relatively ineffectual to being the Regional's Most Outstanding Player in the Elite Eight in Oakland. With this year's team, there is still plenty of room for improvement, with Collison needing to be more aggressively offensively, the team defense tightening up and the return of Lorenzo Mata.
Committed high school senior, Chace Stanback, from Los Angeles Fairfax, was also there.