UCLA Finishes Mid-Major Season

#1-ranked UCLA eventually beats Sam Houston State, 75-61, Tuesday at Pauley Pavilion, to go to 10-0, but it doesn't do it convincingly, which again makes you wonder just how this Bruin team is going to fare now that it's completed its mid-major exhibition season and starts playing high majors...

There's such a great anticipation every year when the team finishes its exhibition games and starts the regular season.

That's kind of the feeling there is right now as #1-ranked UCLA finished its prolonged exhibition season, beating Sam Houston State, 75-61, Tuesday night at Pauley Pavilion.

There were, of course, some opponents that were far better than exhibition team caliber, like Texas A&M, Kentucky and Georgia Tech, in the non-conference schedule.

But can you really remember a distinct difference between, say, Humboldt State and UC Riverside?

As Head Coach Ben Howland put it, UCLA now faces 20 tough games in a row.

Are they ready?

That's really a mystery. You'd have to take the wager that UCLA is not going to go undefeated this season. They look vulnerable, not playing as sharply or being as dominating as you would like against the mid-majors on their schedule, while showing intensity, but also looking beatable, against the high majors they've faced.

But, also, they're pretty good, and with UCLA basketball you have to always remember the Dark Years and thank your blessings for what you have now.

You knew against SHSU that UCLA probably wasn't going to blow them out, since SHSU uses a Princeton-esque, deliberate style that tends to slow down the game and keep scores low. In reality, Sam Houston didn't necessarily do that; they executed their offense precisely but it wasn't a slow-down type and both teams got an average amount of possessions and shots.

It was just another game against an average mid-major: the opponent (and UCLA) kept the game close and then the Bruins went on a few little mini-spurts in the second half and the lead is suddenly 20 points at the 10-minute mark.

It's probably more than coincidental that this has been the scenario in many of these games. It happens since UCLA doesn't have great offensive firepower to blow out teams that are playing with intensity early, then a combination of UCLA's persistence on defense and it's ability to get some quick baskets in transition off steals, particularly from Darren Collison's quick hands, has made this happen in every one of these mid-major games.

How this will translate when UCLA now, game after game, plays high majors, will be interesting.

What will have to change will be UCLA's intensity and sharpness. It wasn't that UCLA was playing sluggishly or sloppily, but against Sam Houston it wasn't really sharp or really intense. It was just enough to eventually dispatch this team, but definitely not the same type of intensity you saw against Texas A&M. If UCLA plays with this type of moderate intensity and sharpness, it definitely is going to struggle through the Pac-10.

The one guy who seems to always have that big-game intensity, regardless of the opponent, is Alfred Aboya. Aboya is a rare bird, indeed – a kid that obviously isn't fantasizing about the NBA, but about being president of his country. On the court, as Howland has said, Aboya plays so hard, and he again showed that desire against Sam Houston, playing the best man defense on the team, by far. With Sam Houston, they step out their big men and spread their players across the court to create space and use sharp screens that they slip to get their big men open. Lorenzo Mata struggled to defend against this so far from the basket, but Aboya, with his active feet and hands, didn't. He commonly was at the top of the key, glued on his man, shuffling his feet actively and getting his hands on the ball. This last summer, a Pac-10 assistant coach I know pretty well said about Aboya: "Where can I get me one of those?"

You can't, coach. In this age of college basketball, Aboya is one-of-a-kind, and the type of role player that helps teams become one of the few best in the country. Is there any doubt why Howland loves this guy so much?

Aboya played 17 minutes, to Mata's 19, had four points and three rebounds, and played great defense. On one Collison steal and dish, Aboya had a one-handed dunk and was fouled, a sequence that got Pauley the loudest its been all month. It's fitting that it's Aboya who put life into the Pauley crowd. While he merely got more playing time against SHSU because of the match-up, it's good to know what kind of great role player Howland has coming off the bench.

The other guy coming off the bench who needs a playing-time increase is Russell Westbrook. After the 10-game non-conference schedule, we've had a good enough look to determine that Westbrook is too good to keep on the bench. Sure, he'll make some mistakes since he's a freshman, but he brings an electricity to the court that UCLA hasn't had in much of these mid-major games. Answer these questions: Is he a more consistent shooter than Michael Roll at his point? Who do you trust more to knock down an open mid-range, Roll or Westbrook? Heck, who do you trust more to knock down that mid-range – Westbrook, Arron Afflalo or Josh Shipp? While we're at it, after watching him for 10 games, you trust Westbrook to hit the three at least as much, if not more, than Roll, Afflalo or Shipp. In fact, while he's taken quite a bit less threes, he has a higher shooting percentage from behind the arc (Westbrook: 43%, Shipp: 40%, Afflalo: 39%, Roll: 35%). Who plays better defense – Westbrook or Roll, or even Westbrook or Shipp? Who handles the ball better, can take his man off the dribble better, go to the hoop better and finish better? Again, Westbrook is going to make more mistakes, but his play has earned him more playing time rather than just as the back-up to Collison at point guard. Perhaps Howland wants to use him at the one exclusively to not get him confused in his assignments, but it seems, when you have superior talent on the bench it needs to get on the court. In this game, he got far too quick of a hook. He missed one mid-range shot, which wasn't a bad shot selection, and he got yanked. In the second half, when Collison had perhaps his worst half of the season, Westbrook needed to get on the court.

Free Russell Westbrook.

It's hard to fathom that UCLA got this guy last spring, as an after-thought. Can you imagine if UCLA hadn't taken Westbrook?

Josh Shipp, in the last several games, has put together a good stretch for him. He started out this game poorly, forcing a shot and playing lackadaisical defense, and Howland pulled him at the 17-minute mark. But from then on, when Shipp got back in the game, he was good. He was the most active he's been on offense yet this season, working hard to get open and pushing physically through screens. He was around the ball all game, getting those garbage loose balls and points he does. He took just a couple of ill-advised drives, which is low for him. At the beginning of the second half, when Shipp was driving, in that usual manner with his head and shoulder down, through the lane, this time he looked up and kicked it out to Collison at the top of the key, who then found Luc Richard Mbah a Moute wide open to knock down a three. It was a huge indication of how, when this team plays unselfishly on offense, it gets good ball movement and will get open looks. Shipp finished with a game-high 18 points and had five rebounds.

Afflalo looked a bit sluggish, on both offense and defense. Offensively, it probably wasn't his fault, but he wasn't getting the opportunities. It took until the 7-minute mark before he got his first field goal. On defense, he didn't seem to have his usual intensity. When you watched Aboya out above the key harassing his man, you realized that you weren't seeing Afflalo doing that, as he usually does. He did get his left hand jammed on a pass in the second half, and that might have slowed him. And we know that Howland wants to get Afflalo his points, but with three minutes left and UCLA up by 20, how would it be if Afflalo twisted an ankle?

Collison, as we said, had some bad stretches in the second half, along with some good ones. He started out the half with a few poor moments, turning the ball over twice very quickly, and getting beat on defense, but he made up for it during UCLA's second-half mini-runs with steals and nice assists. He came close to another double-double, with 11 points and 9 assists, against 4 turnovers.

The game, overall, wasn't the departure from the norm that UCLA fans had been looking for in the last month. It would have been nice to see the Bruins dominate SHSU from the jump, get a big lead quick and then coast, rather than have to grind out another win, with the score relatively close through 30 minutes. Again, it wasn't like you ever thought UCLA would lose, but the lack of killer instinct and sharpness that kept Sam Houston in the game makes you worry about these next 20 games. The biggest worry, perhaps, is that this team hasn't noticeably improved since Maui. The defense, God bless it, has tightened up some, but the offense has, perhaps, taken a step back into its last year's funk. At the beginning of the season, the team looked very confident and sure about executing the offense but now, as opponents have scouted them, there's more tentativeness, and less precision, especially in the screen-setting and cuts. And there still isn't even a slight indication that UCLA will get any kind of consistent inside scoring; in fact, with Mbah a Moute now being scouted, there is less scoring coming from the low block. UCLA is also getting far less points in transition that it was at the beginning of the season and, with it struggling in its half-court offense, it definitely needs the open looks it gets in transition. While UCLA did out-rebound SHSU, 32-30, it didn't look particularly improved; you'd expect UCLA to out-rebound them since, most of the time, they're so far from the basket on offense. The Bruins did, though, improve their free-throw shooting; while the poor free-throw shooters continued not to be good, at least the good ones, like Shipp, Afflalo and Collison, went 15 of 16 and got UCLA to shoot 81% on the game.

So, we definitely have a mixed bag heading into the second third of the season. UCLA is 10-0, ranked #1 in the country, but showing vulnerability. Will it improve – and then peak – like it did last year in the NCAA tournament? Will it need a loss like it had last year against USC, which was really the bell-ringing wake up call for the season? Will it need a couple of them? Last year, down the stretch, UCLA really got superior play from its bench – Collison, Mata and Aboya – which was critical to its NCAA run. Will it get it again this season?

The questions will start to be answered this Saturday against 11-1 Michigan.

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