There's plenty to be pleased about if you're a Bruin fan. UCLA is ranked 5th in the country, and probably deservedly so, has some real talent, is well coached, and plays hard and with heart.
But, we're going to be Devil's Advocate and pick apart the Bruins here, just to keep everyone humble.
While UCLA easily beat the Swords, well, first, they should. And while Chaminade never came within striking distance, they hung in the game far too well.
It's mostly because UCLA's defense simply isn't at the level it was last season, at least, yet. Now, to be fair, at this time last season UCLA's defense wasn't what it was at the end of last season either.
But that doesn't necessarily mean that the current team's defense is going to develop the way the defense of last year's team did.
It's going to have to, though, if UCLA hopes to be a Final Four contender.
Perhaps most worrisome in the Chaminade game was UCLA's transition D. The Bruins were allowing the Swords' shooters wide open looks from three in transition, and Chaminade was nailing them. If UCLA plays this kind of transition defense against a high-caliber transition D-1 team, it could be ugly.
Against BYU, UCLA's biggest issue was also its defense against the Cougars' outside shooting. As we said in the review of that game, it was probably more a case of BYU shooting lights-out than UCLA's slack defense. But there were some symptoms in the BYU game that UCLA wasn't necessarily pressuring shooters in transition, and it was a full-blown virus against Chaminade.
It was interesting how much the quickness of Chaminade's stocky guards gave UCLA trouble. UCLA struggled at times to stay with Chaminade's Zach Whiting, and couldn't get a hand in the face of shooters Mike Green and Darrell Birton. It was "interesting," because you'd have to think the athletes UCLA is about to see are going to be on another level than Chaminade's.
UCLA's poor defense was a combination of many things – average on-the-ball D, and poor rotation and closing out. Quite often a UCLA's defender was at least a step slow in closing out on shooters and only gave a half-hearted effort to get in the shooter's face.
In the second half, after UCLA made a big run to go up by 58-28, UCLA's defense completely went lax. Chaminade, for a period of a few minutes, basically did whatever it wanted on offense, with UCLA defenders moving in slow motion to keep up with them. Howland called a time-out after Chaminade had gone on a 12-0 run to cut the lead to 58-40.
UCLA, which had allowed just 20 points in the first half, allowed 43 in the second.
Another carry-over issue from BYU was the real drop-off in play when UCLA puts in it subs. Ben Howland recognized this against BYU and opted not to play them in the second half to secure the win. It was again obvious against Chaminade, with UCLA giving up big runs with its subs in the game. Yes, it is early, and Howland needs to give the subs experience so they can provide solid minutes down the line, but the drop-off in play has made UCLA have to work so much harder to make up for it.
Offensively, UCLA was good, but not great. Arron Afflalo looked happy he was finally unencumbered from a BYU defender, and he went off for 25 points, hitting 5 of 7 from three. Something to possibly watch for with Afflalo is how he might fatigue as the game wears on, putting so much energy into defense and then his shot losing it's early-game smoothness. But it was good to see the Afflalo that everyone anticipated he'd be this season, after getting just 9 points against BYU.
If there was any doubt that Darren Collison is the real deal, you can now throw out those doubts. Collison was easily the biggest difference-maker on the court, and will probably be for most of the season. He scored 15 points and had 7 assists against just two turnovers (making his assist-to-turnover ratio in two games a phenomenal 5.6 to 1). He single-handedly stopped the relative bleeding when Chaminade went on its run in the second half. Collison hit two consecutive threes (something he also did against BYU), then stole the ball on a Chaminade inbound and scored, giving UCLA a quick 8 points and restore the comfortable margin. He had five steals on the night, his quickness probably something Chaminade's players had never really played against much. One of Collison's best moments was on a break, with three Swords back in transition and Collison putting it into another gear and blowing by them for a lay-up.
Howland has said before that he's "excited" about Russell Westbrook, and it's not unfounded. Westbrook, even though he's going to make some mistakes because of inexperience, is going to be very good. In this game, he was good at penetrating, especially against the zone, and dishing to open teammates. With Afflalo on the bench in the first half with two fouls, Westbrook played alongside Collison, and that backcourt will make for some real match-up problems for opposing defenses with its quickness and athleticism. He also flashed that athleticism in going to the rim on a break. His defense is already close to being at a very good level, and you can already see the Howland fundamentals and discipline settling into his game. Westbrook should be very happy he came to Westwood, being able to benefit from Howland's coaching, rather than if he went to one of the run-and-gun programs.
Luc Mbah a Moute had a fairly quiet game, compared to the BYU game, and it was clear that Chaminade had seen that tape. Every time Luc caught the ball at the top of the key, he had two defenders on him. Down the line, that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, because it resulted in Afflalo getting open looks and 25 points. Luc did hit a three and a mid-range jumper, displaying his improved shooting touch.
In the post, it's clear that UCLA is a different team with Lorenzo Mata on the floor. Mata has become a very good shot blocker and solid post defender, and is enough of an offensive threat to keep defenses honest and not cheat off him when he catches the ball in the block. Alfred Aboya is proving to be a solid back-up option, providing good defensive energy, strength and toughness, and a great awareness on the court. Ryan Wright, though, is still struggling to play at this level, with three fouls in 7 minutes while having a hard time defending opposing big men.
Offensively, generally UCLA was good. Chaminade alternated with its zone for a good portion of the game and UCLA didn't seem to struggle with it. In fact, there were times it passed up open looks because, it seemed, UCLA players were thinking it was almost too early in the possession to shoot. During Chaminade's run UCLA committed three turnovers on three successive possessions, which was the low point of UCLA's offense for the game. But it only committed 12 turnovers for the game and generally took care of the ball.
It's also great to see UCLA running, riding the motor of Collison to create breaks, even off made shots. It's clear that part of the game plan is not only for UCLA's defense to wear down opponents, but to get them fatigued by the second half having to keep up with UCLA pushing the ball at every opportunity.
So, while maybe we're being critical of the Bruins, it's difficult not to appreciate how good they are, particularly how well-coached and disciplined they are compared to the rest of college basketball. Because college basketball isn't good. It's degrading every year and, having watched enough games early in this season, it looks like it's taken another big step backwards in terms of quality of play. UCLA, as even the ESPN announcers had to concede, definitely stands out with its fundamentals, discipline, and heart.