UCLA didn't get to a 20-point lead until there was two minutes left in the game.
It might look good to the nation, who probably just check the box scores on the #1 team to make sure they're holding up their end of the bargain of being #1, and that would be to blow out mid-majors like Cal State Fullerton.
But anyone who watched the game knows this wasn't really a blow-out.
And let's just get it out of the way at the top of this piece: UCLA isn't playing like the #1 team in the nation right now.
Because college basketball is so poor, UCLA is clearly one of the best teams in the nation. Probably not among the top three or four in terms of pure talent, but overall you could safely say it's one of the three or four best teams. But we all have that idea of how #1 teams should look, and UCLA isn't looking that way (not that anyone else in the nation looks the part either).
Cal State Fullerton would probably agree about UCLA's #1 ranking. Especially when the Titans went up by 10 early on in the first half over the #1-ranked Bruins.
Fullerton came out playing hard and focused, and UCLA came out flat – for the third time in three games. It's hard to know why. Maybe UCLA just can't get up for three Big West teams in a row on its non-conference schedule?
Setting the tone for the game was UCLA's first possession, when Josh Shipp drove to the basket and, instead of dishing to a teammate for a lay-up, went in out of control and got called for a charge. It was the first of a season-high 21 turnovers for the usually careful Bruins. Cal State Fullerton, not to be out-done, had 28 turnovers, making for 49 total in the game. That's 1.225 turnovers every minute.
And that becomes unwatchable.
Why did the Bruins turn over the ball so much? Some of it can be attributed to Fullerton's style, pushing the ball even on made baskets. They were averaging 90 points per game coming into the meeting. They scored 100 points last week in a game they lost. So, UCLA got wound up with the Titans, after being slowed down by the Highlanders on Sunday. The Bruins are like a wind-up toy, dependent on whomever is winding them for how fast they play.
Perhaps the approach to Fullerton wasn't the most effective – and that was to try to run with them. The best theory might have been to slow down the game, let Fullerton commit its turnovers, and not get wound up and into the turnover battle like UCLA did. In the second half, with UCLA leading by 12 to 16 points, Arron Afflalo kept telling point guard Darren Collison to slow it down, even one time almost grabbing him as he raced by after an outlet pass.
So, UCLA got wound up and committed turnovers. But many of those turnovers, also, didn't result from being sped up. Some came from just laziness. UCLA committed six turnovers in the first five minutes of the game, and three of them were lazy passes, one by Afflalo after a rebound, with a Titan stepping in front, intercepting it and scoring. A fourth was after Luc Richard Mbah a Moute had a nice back-door bounce pass to Afflalo and rather than collecting it with two hands, Afflalo tried to bring it in with one and fumbled it out of bounds.
Beyond just the sped-up aspect, there is also the aspect of players trying to selfishly do too much, and that mentality, coupled with the sped-up pace, seemed to infect the entire team in this game. While the Pac-10 named Josh Shipp the player of the week, and many might look at the Fullerton game and see that he scored 16 points and had 4 rebounds, his play, right now, is probably the biggest catalyst to UCLA going through spurts of playing poorly – and selfishly. Shipp, throughout this game, was trying to put the ball on the floor when he can't. If someone had kept the stat of how many times this season he's driven into the lane and either committed a turnover or missed a shot compared to how many he's converted, the ratio wouldn't be pretty. Shipp is not quick, despite what ESPN's Jay Bilas might think, and this isn't his game. If he, however, were good, as some players are, at the tear-drop floaters, we'd be all for him attempting to take his defender off the dribble. But often times Shipp finds himself putting up an off-balance awkward shot in the lane after an ill-advised penetration. If he were good at the pull-up fadeaway, which he is very prone to attempt, we'd also be all for it. If he penetrated and dished, we'd be all for it. But he's not proficient at any of these three things or, at least, won't attempt to dish off much. And as soon as he attempts them, the rest of the team, particularly Afflalo, seems to get infected with it. Shipp is also so busy looking for his shot that sometimes he's late in finding shooters coming around screens. Then, on top of this, Shipp's defense isn't good, and it's primarily the reason why UCLA's defense isn't near where it was last season. Howland yanked Shipp barely three minutes into the game because of what looked like his selfishness and lack of defense and he sat for three minutes.
Shipp is a good player, make no mistake. He's a good spot-up shooter, and that shooting UCLA desperately needs. We know that he has a great sense for the game, and is a good passer. But he needs to play to his strengths, and use that court sense and passing ability to set up his teammates. When Shipp did this in his freshman year in 2004, he was far more effective as a team player.
Shipp might not be capable of playing much better defense, but if he continues to play selfishly on offense, he's not being effective on either side of the court. And it's not like UCLA doesn't have other options; Howland could use Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Mike Roll or Russell Westbrook at that wing spot.
So, with UCLA sped up and playing selfishy, and Darren Collison not having his best game, Cal State Fullerton hung in. Collison might have met his match with Fullerton's guard, Bobby Brown, but you'd have an argument if you said that Brown won the match-up. Brown was also worn down when Howland switched Afflalo onto him and that's a lot of very good defense for one player to face.
It might not have looked like UCLA's increased intensity on defense caused many of Fullerton's second-half turnovers, which gave UCLA its chance to build a lead, since some of them were just stupid, out-of-control mistakes. But those mistakes looked like they were coming from fatigue, and UCLA's defense contributed to that fatigue.
Because of its sloppy play, Fullerton went almost the first seven minutes of the second half with only one basket. Ironically, though, you would have thought that was the time of the game when UCLA would have seized it, taken advantage of Fullerton's trail of turnovers and inability to score and blown them out. But alas, UCLA was only up 13 by the 13-minute mark, struggling itself to hold onto the ball and make baskets. Letting them hang in, Fullerton mounted one more mini-run, to cut the lead to six at 8 minutes.
It's funny though. Any other year, any other UCLA team, even last year, against any opponent, you would have worried that UCLA was in trouble with eight minutes left to go in the game and only up by six. But this year, this team, this game – you weren't worried, just like you weren't against Long Beach State. Maybe that's just false confidence and we can expect a game this year when this happens and UCLA does falter and possibly lose, or at least allow the team to stay in it to the end. But with Fullerton only trailing by six, everyone in the building still knew UCLA wasn't going to lose the game.
There were a number of other frustrations with this game. While UCLA's defense is getting praised nationally, anyone who knows the team well knows that this year's defense isn't close to what it was last season. Hopefully the defense can continue to evolve like it did a season ago, but it very well could be that UCLA is really missing that one other excellent perimeter defender in Cedric Bozeman.
The team doesn't tend to have very good touch around the basket. There is a growing trend to miss easy lay-ups and put-backs, which is really deflating, especially when someone has worked hard to get that offensive rebound. Shipp missed a couple of lay-ups, and Lorenzo Mata is laying it up short many times on put-backs, among others.
But all in all, you can't really be very critical of Mata. He finished with 16 rebounds, skying above the crowd and pulling them down in traffic. In the second half, the combination of UCLA's good perimeter defense and Mata's rebounding kept Fullerton to just one, off-balance or ill-advised shot per possession, and limited them to just 21 second-half points. Mata, also, had three blocked shots, and has emerged as an excellent shot blocker, being very good at controlling his block shots so that his team gets the ball, rather than swatting them into the third row. We believe his offense will continue to improve throughout the season as he gets more and more comfortable, completely healthy and in optimum game shape. We'd expect him to make more of those put-backs.
The free throws, well, that could be another matter.
Mata, though, might have gotten those 16 boards since Mbah a Moute only played 19 minutes due to foul trouble. Fullerton had a good game plan, and that was to clog up the middle with bodies when Mbah a Moute caught the ball and thought to drive. He was called for a few charges, even though some of them were questionable. The charging calls, actually, for both teams, were questionable all night.
Alfred Aboya supplied a good, solid 18 minutes, with 8 points, and James Keefe also had a productive 10 minutes, making a baseline jumper. It appears that Ryan Wright isn't part of the rotation right now, with Howland going with Aboya and Keefe for the back-up big minutes, but it could change with different match-ups from opponent to opponent.
So, on paper, UCLA looked like it lived up to its #1 ranking, looking like it blew out a mid-major by 24. And you have to give UCLA credit, for playing poorly and sloppily, coming out flat, and still winning pretty easily. It also did keep a team that was averaging 90 points to just 54. In the dark years, this might have been one of those games where a local mid-major made its decade and pulled off an upset in Pauley.
But we all know that this team will have to get better in many aspects if it hopes to hang on to that #1 ranking for longer than just through three Big West teams.
While many of you might consider this blasphemous, but it very well might be good for UCLA to lose to Texas A&M this Saturday. UCLA is bound to lose a couple of games this season, and an early-season loss to a highly-ranked opponent on a neutral court is permissable. And it could be UCLA's wake-up call, similar to the loss against USC in the Sports Arena last season.