UCLA Cruises, Snoozes, 74-53

The Bruins use a six-minute, 18-0 run at the end of the first half and beginning of the second to put away another average mid-major team in Oakland. There weren't many in Pauley Pavilion and those that were probably fell asleep or were playing with their pocket PCs by the second half...

This review of the Oakland game, which UCLA won 74-53, will have to omit about 10 minutes of the second half. From the first five minutes of the second half to the last five minutes, I got a bit distracted in the press box.

I bought a new pocket PC, my first foray into smart phones, and the game was so monotonous while that new little gadget just sat there demanding that I play with it.

But I don't think I really needed to watch the middle ten minutes of the second half anyway.

UCLA did what it has done against UC Fullerton State so far this year – play hard and well enough so the opponent isn't a threat.

There were so many elements of this game that you could potentially worry about, but it might be moot since UCLA isn't the same team against top-25 competition as it's been against the mid-majors. You might worry that it shows that UCLA is vulnerable, and could lose to a Michigan, Washington, Oregon or Arizona. Yeah, duh. We know that after these 9 wins.

Probably the one biggest carry-over concern from the Texas A&M game is rebounding. The Bruins got out-boarded again, 38-33, and this time it wasn't by the #6 team in the country. It's hard to imagine just how incensed Head Coach Ben Howland is about this. Rebounding and defense are like his children, and it's as if one of his children has been kidnapped.

You couldn't really attribute it to Oakland being a great rebounding team. They're probably one of the best in the Mid Continent Conference, but they certainly couldn't rebound with the likes of Washington. And the Bruins got out-rebounded while Luc Richard Mbah a Moute pulled down 12 boards, and Josh Shipp got six. One glaring reason was that one measley rebound that Lorenzo Mata got for the game. It was definitely Mata's worst performance of the year, but you have to cut him some slack for how he's played up to this point. He was definitely not himself, not wrapping up rebounds like he usually does, and even looking a bit tentative on defense in the post. Shawn Hopes, Oakland's 6-7 center, had a number of nice conversions around the basket around and over Mata. Howland said that Mata had a strenuous finals week, while he also had a knee contusion (on the one that didn't have surgery). But on the other hand, Oakland did get a lot of very lucky rebounds that seemed to have eyes. Because they were forced to take outside shots for many possessions, there were long rebounds, balls that seemed to miraculously fall consistently into the hands of a Grizzly.

So, the main concerns that we really shouldn't be concerned about are rebounding and Mata. The last two games might have raised the issue that UCLA might not be the best rebounding team, but it has also proven it can still win when it isn't rebounding. Howland, of course, said that if the Bruins continue to rebound this way they're going to lose. Duh. I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict that UCLA will get out-rebounded sometime this year and lose.

Maybe another concern from this game would be another carry-over concern about UCLA's lack of offensive firepower. The team, in the last few games, is looking far more like it did last season, when it struggled to put 65 points on the board, than it did in its first five games when it averaged 84 points per game. It's probably come about because, mostly, opponents have now scouted UCLA, and you're the #1 team in the country and you're going to get everyone's best shot. It's a testament to UCLA's good coaching that it's staying ahead of its opponents scouting, having not been caught in any of these games where it could have been beaten by its better opponents or upset by its lesser opponents. Howland, if you interpret many of his comments, understands that he's now getting hit with by every new opponent with a new theory on how to shut down UCLA. From slow-down to rebounds. But because of this, gone is the easy inside scoring that we saw earlier in the season, where Collison easily dished off to Mbah a Moute, Mata or Alfred Aboya for an easy lay-in. Collison's penetration is being controlled, and the opponents' inside defense is switching off UCLA's screens much better. It really is the difference between the 84 points UCLA averaged in the first five games, and the 69 points its averaged in the last four games. Now, UCLA is laboring on each possession and, most of the time, settling for an outside shot.

On the other hand, like its opponents' defense, UCLA's defense is improving. It went from giving up an average of 68 points per game in the season's first four games, to now 53 points in the last five games. UCLA allowed Oakland just 32% shooting from the field. In many ways, it's a natural occurrence that happens with every college basketball season – that defenses improve and offenses score less as the season progresses. And in this case, it definitely is a case where UCLA's defense is improving, with the Bruins giving up less easy baskets than it had been previously. It's also a matter that the other perimeter players besides Collison and Afflalo – that is, Josh Shipp, Mike Roll and Russell Westbrook – are now providing solid defense. Shipp has played much better defense in the last two games, moving his feet better and showing more of that nose for the ball that he had his freshman year. Roll looks like he's realized that the slimmer, stronger version of himself can actually stay in front of many opposing wings. And Westbrook looks to have discovered that he has the potential to be a superior defender.

In this game, UCLA really won it toward the end of the first half, and in the first couple of minutes of the second half. Over a time span of six minutes between the end of the first and beginning of the second half, Oakland didn't score, with UCLA going on an 18-0 run. That run came because of UCLA's intensified defensive pressure, consistently shutting down Oakland's offense, making them have to throw up panic shots at the end of the shot clock, and not allowing them a good look within 20 feet. Also, to give some credit to UCLA's offense, it executed very well in its first few possessions of the second half, getting back to using its screens for easy lay-ins.

On an individual basis, Collison led UCLA with 15 points. His assist-to-turnover ratio is coming back down to Earth (he had three and three in this game), and many of his penetration lanes that we saw in the first five games are now being denied, but he still is quick and shifty enough to get himself space to score. And, again, he's the best three-point shooter on the team, hitting two of four from three and, again, those two shots being daggers. When UCLA went up 25 or so in the second half, Oakland could have easily folded and gone away, but they didn't. To their credit, they kept playing hard. But after Oakland hit a three to cut the lead to 18, Collison answered back with one of his three-point daggers, sending a message to Oakland that that was about as far as that was going to go.

Shipp has played well the last couple of games, less out of control on his drives and more with a mentality of giving up the ball for open teammates. It seemed like he had more than his credited two assists for the game. And with Mata in a funk, his six rebounds were critical ones.

With Mata in foul trouble (only playing 17 minutes) Alfred Aboya also had 17 minutes, finishing with 5 points and 4 rebounds. Aboya had a couple of good post moves, and it looks like he's UCLA's best interior scorer. Hopefully he'll continue to improve as the season progresses and give UCLA some interior scoring off the bench. Roll also had a good game off the bench, playing solid defense, while also hitting his mid-ranges, finishing with 8 points and 3 rebounds.

But there isn't a great deal you can take from this game. Maybe you could possibly take that UCLA isn't the kind of #1 team that is going to blow out average mid-major teams by 40 points. UCLA doesn't have the pure athleticism to do that. But you might be remiss if you think that because UCLA doesn't blow out mid-majors by 40 that they aren't on the level of the North Carolinas, Ohio States and Floridas. UCLA's improving defense, as it did last season, will keep it in any game, especially against teams that are more athletic but less disciplined.

But man, after these snoozy victories over mid-majors, the program needs to get some excitement into Pauley Pavilion. It was a mausoleum Saturday, not the kind of impression you'd like to give Kevin Love or the football recruits that were in attendance. Thankfully we're almost at the end of the mid-major Cal-State-Sam-Riverside-State portion of the schedule.

So, can I get slingbox on this thing?

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