UCLA fans generally have high expectations for their basketball program. After all, this is John Wooden's program. But when you've suffered through what UCLA basketball fans did during the "dark" years, those high expectations went into hiding.
With the way UCLA is playing in just Ben Howland's fourth year in Westwood, UCLA fans are now starting to let those long-held high expectations come out and breathe.
And deservedly so.
In UCLA's 88-58 win over Long Beach State Tuesday, #1 UCLA lived up to expectation. On a night when UCLA looked tired, coming off a pretty draining trip to Hawaii where it won the Maui Invitational, playing against a good mid-major team that's expected to win the Big West, UCLA did exactly what you would expect an elite program to do.
It was sluggish before it clamped down and then blew out the 49ers.
But there was no hint of, say, losing in Pauley Pavilion at all, like there was back in those "dark" years. In 2002, UCLA lost to Northern Arizona in Pauley, 67-63; in 2001 the #10-ranked Bruins lost to Pepperdine in Pauley, 85-78; and in 2000, 15th-ranked UCLA lost to Cal State Northridge, 78-74, in Pauley.
Why am I being so masochistic to conjure up those stinging memories?
Just so UCLA fans remember recent history, and appreciate what they now have, and don't let expectations ruin all the fun.
Appreciate the fact that this team, on a fairly poor night, still blew out a fairly good Long Beach State team by 30 points. That is what a good program should do, but rather than naturally expecting it, UCLA fans should really savor it.
The Bruins really did come out slow in the first half, clinging to just a 41-36 lead at halftime. The halftime box score looked strange: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute had 0 points and just 1 rebound without being in foul trouble; UCLA was getting out-boarded by a whopping 25 to 14; and UCLA shot 39%, while its opponent shot 47% from the field.
UCLA's legs looked dead. They couldn't get up to finish easy lay-ups and dunks. They were getting out-jumped on rebounds, and even Darren Collison looked a step slow in his on-ball defense.
UCLA went ahead 34-20, mostly on some hot shooting from behind the arc by Josh Shipp, Arron Afflalo and Michael Roll, who shot 8 of 13 from three in the first half, with Shipp making 4 of 6. It wasn't a fluke, either, with the three knocking down the threes because Long Beach State's defense was allowing them open looks. Even with UCLA moving sluggishly, it looked like the Bruins would cruise.
Thankfully, that didn't happen. And thankfully because, really, you wouldn't want this team to be able to cruise to a win when it was playing so listlessly. It was good that LBSU sent a scare into them: The 49ers went on a 14-2 run and cut the deficit to two, 36-34, with 2:43 left in the half. Long Beach State did it by converting every possession it had in a stretch of two and a half minutes on a UCLA defense that had gone slack. Long Beach State, in that stretch, shot only one three-pointer and got all the rest of its points from within 10 feet. UCLA's defense, usually very physical, went soft, and uncharacteristically went for the reach or got caught in the air.
Afflalo stopped the bleeding with a big three from about 22 feet to put UCLA back up 39-34. But the damage had been done, and UCLA had its wake-up call.
Howland, after the game, alluded to the locker room scene at halftime, saying that he asked the team "nicely" to play harder. Uh-huh.
See what happens when you ask nicely?
UCLA came out in the second half with a 13-0 run and the Bruins found themselves in that comfortable territory they should be, up 18 with about 16 minutes left.
They managed the run with good defense and good rebounding. The 49ers didn't get a good look at the basket for at least the first seven minutes of the second half, and UCLA crashed the boards during that period and allowed them just one shot. You could see a palpable difference in intensity on defense and rebounding from UCLA. Mbah a Moute, who was held to just 1 rebound in the first 20 minutes, had five over the course of five minutes and ended the game with 11.
Howland made some adjustments also. Collison had looked tired in the first half having to stay with LBSU's quick point guard Kevin Houston (It's interesting – Houston was more effective against Collison than the more highly-touted point guards Collison faced in Maui). Howland recognized that Collison needed some relief and he switched Afflalo to pick up Houston a number of times, and that was enough to tire out Houston, and understandably. Could you imagine trying to first play against Collison and then Afflalo, two of the best on-ball defenders in college basketball? Houston had been turning the corner on Collison and was getting into the lane to create for his teammates. In the second half, with Houston fatigued, Long Beach State didn't have the opportunities created for them as much. At one point in the second half, when Houston drove to the basket and Afflalo muscled him, Houston went to the ground in a heap and got up very slowly, as if he didn't want to get back up.
Collison played 17 minutes in the first half, and then just 12 in the second half, and he looked far more active defensively in the second half. It's pretty clear that UCLA is a different team with a rested and active Collison on the floor, and it's going to be one of Howland's biggest coaching challenges this season to keep Collison fresh. Collison finished with 10 points and six assists against just two turnovers and a whopping 9 steals, 6 of which he got in the second half when he was fresher and Long Beach State had tired.
It did help that, again, Russell Westbrook, had another good game in point guard relief. Westbrook played a strong 11 minutes, providing very good defense, and solid play offensively. His handle looks to have improved drastically in just his first five college games. And then with UCLA hovering at about that respectable 18-point lead, Westbrook then took the game into the blow-out category, hitting three three-pointers. He finished with 11 points, and played solidly, until the last couple of minutes of mop-up time. Watching Westbrook you can see a sign on his forehead that reads: "I'm buying into Howland."
One guy who did look tired for the Bruins was Mbah a Moute, especially in the first half. He wasn't his usual active self around the glass. Long Beach State did, to its credit, crash the boards and ended up winning the board battle, 45-38 (when is the last time a team out-rebounded its opponent by 7 but lost by 30?). The 49ers had some lucky bounces throughout the game, with the ball coming off the rim and bouncing luckily to them a number of times.
Afflalo and Shipp did carry the team, scoring 20 and 24 points, respectively. If they hadn't gotten on that three-point roll, along with Mike Roll, in the first half, Long Beach State very well would have been taking a lead into halftime, which might have given the 49ers enough life to stay close longer in the second half. When Shipp then came out in the second half and calmly hit another three, to push the lead to 52-36, you sensed it was the shot that really deflated Long Beach State.
Of course, it was good to see UCLA shoot 50% from three for the game, since it had previously shot just 33% in its first 4 games. And it was most encouraging to see why – UCLA was getting good, open looks in its halfcourt offense after it had executed very well. Long Beach State, surprisingly, didn't zone UCLA, which you would have expected, and the Bruins really looked comfortable and precise in operating their set offense, with Shipp and Afflalo flowing within it like it's second nature now.
Again, when Shipp and Afflalo are doing what they do well, catching and shooting within UCLA's offense and creating off limited, controlled bounces while looking for their teammates, they are very good. After Shipp had hit a few threes in the first half, he then got too revved up and tried to do too much and forced drives, and it contributed to Long Beach State's first-half run. Shipp then settled down again the second half.
James Keefe, the freshman forward, who has been providing a solid seven minutes per game off the bench, played another ten solid minutes Tuesday night. He did miss four shots, one of them a three, and it'd be a shame if that cut into his confidence in shooting and he stopped looking for his shot. Alfred Aboya provided 13 back-up minutes at the post, and did some good things, taking one key charge.
With five games under its belt, it's clear that UCLA's offense is doing very well, far better than it did last season. It's averaging almost 84 points per game so far, while last season it averaged 66 points in its first five games. A great deal of the credit for that, too, goes to UCLA taking care of the ball, averaging just 11.2 turnovers per game.
But UCLA's defense has a ways to go, not near what it was a season ago.
That's probably good, too, giving #1 UCLA some room for growth. And UCLA fans some room for higher expectations.