When the Bruins beat BYU Wednesday night, 82-69, it was definitely not your run-of-the-mill non-conference cream-puff type of game. Head Coach Ben Howland kept reiterating that BYU is a NCAA tournament team, and that very well could be true, and even if they're a mere bubble team, it still was a tough test to open the season.
Then, what might worry you in particular is the fact that UCLA's assumed leading scorers for the season, Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp, had off nights, scoring just 9 and 13 points. Afflalo had only scored below double digits a handful of times last season. And if a psychic had told you before the game that UCLA was only going to get 22 points combined from Afflalo and Shipp you would have bet on BYU and thought you were going to make a ton of cash.
But you would have lost.
Mainly because other Bruins stepped up and carried the team. And, if you remember, that was one of the issues we raised in the review of the exhibition game against Humboldt State: Where was UCLA going to get it scoring from besides Afflalo and Shipp?
Well, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute outscored them combined, getting 24 points to go along with his standard 11 rebounds. And to also pick up some slack of his own, Darren Collison chipped in 16, to go along with his 10 assists against just one turnover.
That's two players with double-doubles in the same game. It's difficult to remember the last time that happened, but in this instance it was a great relief, emphasizing that UCLA will be just fine when Afflalo and Shipp aren't.
Taking our cue from Howland, we have to give credit to BYU. They had a clear game plan coming into Pauley Pavilion to stop Afflalo and Shipp. They defended both of them with irritating defenders who shadowed them throughout the night, and neither could get freed up for an open look. It was actually pretty easy to shadow Shipp, since he wasn't working that hard to get freed up anyway, but Afflalo was, in fact, working his butt off, and still couldn't get space for a shot.
This begs one obvious question: Who are the UCLA players that are considered NBA prospects again? Afflalo and Shipp – or Mbah a Moute and Collison?
We don't want to overly diminish the talent level of Afflalo and Shipp, and we're sure they'll have big nights throughout the season. But the fact that neither could shake his defender – non-NBA defenders – throughout the night, has to make the NBA scouts that were in attendance (and there were a few) wonder about their NBA-level capabilities. And as we've said, the most worrisome aspect of Afflalo/Shipp this year is not whether they'll jump to the NBA early, but if they'll play unselfishly, and this game didn't allay those worries. In the limited times the two had the ball with a bit of space, they tried to force play. Shipp forced a couple of drives into traffic; on one he pushed himself through the lane with Afflalo standing at the top of the three-point arc unguarded and looking for a kick-out. Afflalo also got a charging call as he barreled into the lane.
Not to be harsh – but instead of trying to show NBA scouts that they can create and put the ball on the floor, they should probably first show NBA scouts that they can subvert their own goals for those of the team.
Because UCLA isn't going to go far this season unless they do.
In fact, UCLA almost didn't past its first game without a loss, with BYU putting up a heck of a fight. And it wasn't necessarily any weakness of UCLA, per se, but more BYU's lights-out shooting in the first half. They shot an astounding 8-for-9 from three, hitting six in a row halfway through the first 20 minutes to go from trailing 12-8 to leading 29-20. A couple of those were open looks that UCLA didn't defend well, but most of the eight were long-rangers that were the type where you turned to the guy next to you and said, "Sheesh." The potential back-breaker was one BYU possession with a little under three minutes left to go in the first half, when UCLA played good defense and had the shot clock about to expire when Lee Cummard jacked up an off-balance prayer from about 25 feet and it swished, to give the Cougars a 39-31 lead. UCLA could have gone belly up for the remaining two and a half minutes of the half with how deflating that possession was. But we haven't seen a Howland UCLA basketball team in six months, so we forgot slightly what they're made of. The Bruins didn't just mail it in for those last two minutes, but played even harder on the defensive end and executed on the offensive end to score five straight points and go into halftime down just 39-36. It was a big key to the game, with UCLA coming out of halftime down a very doable three, rather than 8, at least psychologically.
It was a little uncharacteristic to see an opposing team in Pauley Pavilion put up 39 points in a half but, by the end of the game, you realized it wasn't, again, really anything UCLA did wrong, but the fact that BYU shot the ball at that magical level in the first half.
But down the stretch, UCLA's defense and good execution on offense wore down the Cougars, who shot a comparatively quiet 50% in the second half, but just 2-of-6 from three. UCLA held the Cougars to 30 points in the second half, and six of those were just gimme points at the end of the game, and committed just 13 turnovers while forcing BYU into 23.
It was also the play of one player that definitely carried the team.
If you were from another planet but had a good comprehension of Earthly basketball and walked into Pauley Pavilion Wednesday night without any prior knowledge of the players you'd point at that Mbah a Moute guy and say, "That's the NBA player."
Mbah a Moute scored 24 and didn't shoot the ball from further than maybe 15 feet, once. He did it through put-backs and inside play, but also by just being too strong and quick driving to the basket for anyone from BYU to be able to handle. And his game wasn't just one-dimensional; he was all over the boards and had a couple of nice assists at key times. He also did many things that don't show up on a box score, like one time picking a BYU player at halfcourt and then tapping the ball to a breaking Collison for an easy basket. How much Mbah a Moute is potentially dominating at the college level, in terms of who can match up with him when he's on offense and who can't he guard on defense, could be the most predominant element on this year's Bruin team that will propel them to be among the best teams in the nation.
And for those of you worried about Collison, that game was like taking a Valium. Collison was outstanding and, like Mbah a Moute, so much more talented than most of the players on the court. He had only maybe two mistakes in the entire game – a careless travel, and one forced drive, but other than that he was flawless. UCLA broke out its high ball screen, and Collison used it very effectively, coming off BYU's over-hedging to then make great decisions and often times getting into the lane for an easy basket or for an easy assist. In the second half, with UCLA still trying to get ahold of the game, Collison hit two threes on successive possessions that really gave UCLA that control. And, as Howland pointed out in his post-game comments, it's phenomenal that Collison could play this good, and sustain such great defensive pressure, when playing 38 minutes.
The post-by-committee was solid, with Lorenzo Mata getting the surprising start and playing 21 minutes. His presence inside really helped to neutralize BYU's big inside gun, Trent Plaisted. UCLA being able to give 15 fouls among Mata, Alfred Aboya and Ryan Wright had them playing him tight, along with the double-team, and Plaisted was in foul trouble for most of the night, playing just 25 minutes and finishing with just 7 points.
While, again, much of UCLA getting down to BYU in the first half came because of the Cougars' lights-out shooting, BYU's run did come when UCLA put in its subs. Howland quickly re-adjusted his game plan, realizing that BYU might not be the non-conference game to get his youngsters game experience. Russell Westbrook played two minutes and Ryan Wright three minutes in the first half and then didn't see the court in the second half. James Keefe saw just three minutes in the second half for a total of six for the game. Howland said after that he intended to get them more minutes in Maui, but it was clear he realized that he needed to play his starters in the second half to secure the win.
It was, overall, re-assuring to see UCLA play with the urgency, toughness and defense that was its trademark last season. In the second half, UCLA forced BYU into two shot-clock violations because of its suffocating D. The exhibition games were a bit strange in terms of intensity, and it was good to see a different energy to this game than the exhibition games.
And it was good to see that one questioned answered: Where UCLA would get its scoring and superior play when Afflalo and Shipp aren't providing it.