And every good team has some very tough early games where it grows, and learns to win.
This one is playing by that script, when UCLA prevailed over #20 ranked Kentucky in the second round of the Maui Invitational Tuesday, 73-68.
Not to say that this is a championship-caliber team by any means, but this UCLA-Kentucky game brought back some memories of another UCLA-Kentucky match-up, at the beginning of the 1994-1995 season, when then-second-ranked UCLA beat 7th-ranked Kentucky in a nail biter in the inaugural Wooden Classic.
If you remember, that team, by the end of the season, was considerably better than they were for that game.
Last year, the UCLA team that beat Memphis in the Elite Eight game was a completely different team than the one that lost to Memphis early in the season.
This was one of those games that in March we could look back on and say, "Wow, this team is so much better than it was back then."
It's also a game where this UCLA team showed it had the mettle needed to win. When Kentucky was threatening with a few minutes left, you saw that competitive fire in this team, in Arron Afflalo predominantly. This program definitely learned last year how to reach down inside and pull out the toughness to win big games, and that might have been the edge UCLA had over Kentucky Tuesday.
Even when Kentucky went ahead with just a few minutes left, after being down by 17, and UCLA was struggling to score and Kentucky, seemingly, was just tossing the basketball in the basket, you still thought that UCLA had what it takes to win the game and Kentucky didn't.
That desire and toughness, inherent in many of the players in the program, but forged through the rigors of being coached by Ben Howland and going through a season like last year, is something a team needs to go far in any particular year.
This team definitely proved Tuesday it has those intangibles. And that was the best thing to see in this game.
There were other things that were also good to see, and some things that, well, maybe you'd like to close your eyes about.
Some of the Bad:
UCLA was 2 of 19 from three, which is 10.5%. After making 2 of 4, UCLA missed its last 15 three-point attempts. It looked to be a combination of a few things, too. As we said in our preview about Afflalo, when he gets fatigued he doesn't shoot near as well, so by the end of most games, when he's been working so hard defensively and is tired, his shot isn't near as accurate. Mike Roll, the designated long-ball shooter off the bench, had open looks for his three three-point attempts and missed all three. Those two combined went 1 for 11. Yeah, the rest of the team didn't shoot the three well either, but these two need to shoot better from the arc. A great deal of the burden falls on Roll; with Afflalo playing 33 minutes and being asked to shut down the opponent's best perimeter player every game, Roll has to do better in his 14 minutes.
It was also a matter of UCLA obviously not having confidence down the stretch that any shot they would take would go in. UCLA won the game after going for probably the last 7-8 minutes without making a true outside shot.
So, that leads us to a Good:
Down the stretch, when any other team might have broken down offensively, UCLA didn't. It couldn't shoot, and Kentucky, on the other hand, had come back from being down 17 and were throwing in threes. But what UCLA did, instead of panicking and jacking up bad shots, it executed its offense and took advantage of a tired Kentucky defense to get easy lay-ups. UCLA executed its double-screen and pass down to the block for a number of baskets by Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Lorenzo Mata in crunch time. You have to give credit to a team of composed players, and also to Howland, who called some key time outs to ensure the team would execute offensively when it couldn't hit a shot beyond five feet.
Without Darren Collison in the game, UCLA is going to struggle. He came out in the first half with three fouls (one of them being a phantom foul when Kentucky's Derrick Jasper caught himself in the air and came down awkwardly, really, without Collison touching him; it was a key bad call by the refs, one that really impacted the game since it contributed to removing Collison for 6 minutes in the first half, giving Kentucky a chance to get back in). And it's not that his back-up, freshman Russell Westbrook, isn't good; Westbrook actually is doing pretty well, in nine minutes getting five points, no turnovers, and executing the offense well enough. It's just that, without Collison, UCLA isn't near the team it is with him.
Collison was so good in this game, especially in the first 15 minutes, it even had the usually anti-UCLA ESPN announcers stunned. There is an argument waging on the BRO message boards about whether Collison is better than Jordan Farmar, but whether you think so or not, just have some satisfaction that the UCLA point guard position is in very good hands. Collison was spectacular at times, penetrating, passing, leading breaks, going to the rim with blurring quickness, and playing suffocating defense that creates turnovers. He had ten points, 7 assists and three steals, against just 3 turnovers, in 30 minutes. In the first three games, he has 24 assists against just 6 turnovers, for a 4-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, something Jordan Farmar could never accomplish. Some of his passes in both transition and in the half-court were gems, the kind of thing you have to replay on your Tivo a few times to appreciate. On one, Collison, from the top of the key, threaded a perfect bounce pass through two Kentucky defenders to find a Bruin cutting to the basket for a lay-up. Collison is so good right now, you almost want him to slow down and hit some speed bumps so that he won't ever consider leaving early to the NBA in the next two years.
It seemed like UCLA's poor free-throw shooting was just a sporadic anomaly in the first two games and the exhibition games, but this game proved it's not. The Bruins shot 54% on the game, and 4 from 12 in the first half. Mata air-balled one. It's now not cute anymore, but could potentially cost the team some games, and almost cost them this one.
UCLA, shooting 10.5 % from three, and 54% from the free-throw line, still had enough to beat a top-25 team.
Mike Roll is going to have to get better defensively. There were a number of times in this game when he couldn't stay in front of his player, and UCLA had to provide some help, which then opened up shots for Kentucky. Help defense is supposed to do this, and do it without allowing open looks somewhere else on the floor, but it happened too blatantly and too often against Roll in this game. You can rationalize that Roll's defense, which isn't ever going to be superior, hasn't been as bad as it was in this game, but if you're going to risk that it might not be good Roll at least has to make it worth having him on the floor and hit his shots, which he didn't do Tuesday. Also, after UCLA had the ball picked and a Wildcat was breaking to the basket, Roll had a chance to stop the break when the ball was being fumbled if he dove on the floor, but he didn't. You could see Howland mouthing to him, "Dive, On, The, Floor." UCLA definitely needs Roll and his shooting, but if he's not going to hit his open threes and play better defense, there is Westbrook waiting behind him for some more playing time, and Westbrook, in taking those back-up shooting guard minutes, would provide, at the very least, some good, active defense.
Even though you might not see it in the stats, Josh Shipp easily had his best game of the season so far. He played better defensively, and had a few heady plays that were key to UCLA winning. The steal at 1:40 left and UCLA up by just two points was a big one. While he did force a couple of drives, he did seem to work better within the offense, taking what the defense was giving him better, and passing the ball unselfishly. He had just nine points, but six rebounds, three assists and one steal, and many more plays that don't show up in the box score.
How good is Luc Mbah a Moute? Teams are starting to clue in and realize that he's one of UCLA's offensive threats, trying to close off his open lanes to the basket, but he is so much bigger, stronger and more athletic than those around him, he's still getting to the rack. He finished as UCLA's high scorer in this game, with 18 points and five assists. What's so deceptive about him is, with those long arms, he plays so much bigger than 6-7 on the block, but he has the quickness of a small forward. So you have a guy who is playing essentially at 6-9, but is as athletic as a 6-5 wing. Here's another instance where you almost want to say, "Slow down a bit, bucko, the NBA will always be there for you." (Do you get the sense that there's some paranoia about players going early to the NBA?)
Lorenzo Mata, as a poster on the message board aptly suggested, should get the game ball. He finished with a double-double, with 12 points and 11 assists, and more or less neutralized Kentucky's big baseline gun, Randolph Morris (11 points, 4 rebounds, 2 turnovers and a bit of foul trouble). Mata was a rebounding machine, and then converted some baskets on well-executed plays down the stretch that were key in the win. After badly missing his first three free throws, Mata then nailed two in crunch time. He might not get much better at his post moves, but if he can give UCLA 10 and 8 a game, and hit 70% of his free throws, that'd be fine.
As we mentioned, the fire you saw flare up in the team, particularly in Afflalo, was encouraging. With UCLA cold offensively and Kentucky making a run in the second half to make the game close, you could see the fire in Afflalo's eyes ignite. In one series, he determinedly forced himself to the basket, scored and was fouled. He then played locked-down D on the other end, forcing Kentucky into a shot clock violation, then smoothly hit a baseline turnaround to give UCLA the boost it needed to stay ahead of the Wildcats with just a few minutes left.
Overall, as you can see, there was more "Good" than "Bad" in this game. It's definitely one that this team can build on, showing that this season's club has the heart and fire it needs to go far in March. It, hopefully, is a game, that you can look back on in March and say, "Man, they've really come far from that Kentucky game in Maui."