And in recognition of the new year, #1 UCLA must have gotten started a day early on its New Year's resolutions because it easily played its best game of the season in soundly beating #14-ranked Washington, 96-74.
If those resolutions included playing more unselfishly, sharing the ball, fulfilling your role on the team and playing with intensity then UCLA already lived up to its resolutions.
Hopefully the resolution was to sustain it for the rest of the season, too.
The Bruins looked very good Sunday, looking like a team perhaps playing the best ball in country.
Arron Afflalo had been getting a lot of hype as the best shooting guard in the country, and he made a very good argument for it against the Huskies. How's this for a stat line: 27 points (tying a career high), 5 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 steals and no turnovers. He made 5 of 8 threes. But even with those very impressive stats, his game on the floor was even more impressive; Afflalo played like a seasoned, smart veteran, getting those 27 points in the natural flow of the offense, not forcing shots, but taking good looks. It helps when, of course, the opposing team doesn't play very good defense and you get great looks and don't have to force anything to create a shot, but Afflalo did have chances where he could have forced the action and didn't. When he came around a pick he used two, strong, in-control dribbles, pulled-up and coolly hit 15-footers. There was no barreling into the lane with his shoulder down. In fact, to his extreme credit, he had a number of chances to establish his career high late in the game but gave up the ball to a teammate with a better look.
This is the irony here: This is what NBA scouts want to see.
Afflalo simply was spectacular, in every phase of the game, playing arguably the best game of his Bruin career.
But the entire team made the non-selfish resolution also. Josh Shipp had one ill-advised drive into the lane, trying to lay the ball in against the 7-foot, future NBAer, Spencer Hawes, and was tied up. But Shipp, overall, played very well, committing just two turnovers against 13 points, 3 assists and 3 rebounds and, most importantly, he played unselfishly, giving up the ball, pulling up for mid-ranges, and exhibiting that famous nose for the basket. Shipp's sneakiness is a great deal of fun to anticipate and watch; When UCLA doubled the post against Washington, Shipp baited the doubled post player, sagging off the man who could receive the desperation, doubled pass, and then repeatedly stepped into the lane.
Darren Collison had a game that was just about the best you could expect from your point guard: 15 points and 12 assists, against just 2 turnovers. He didn't necessarily look like he turned over a new leaf with the new year, but he simply didn't make many mistakes while making some huge plays. When Washington would make a run and threaten to get back in the game, Collison was there to either create a play for a teammate or hit one of his dagger threes (he shot 3 for 6 from behind the arc).
As Head Coach Ben Howland said in his post-game comments, you couldn't probably want for a better performance from your backcourt. Afflalo and Collison combined for 42 points, 20 assists and 2 turnovers. There ain't many teams in the country that are going to beat you when your backcourt is playing like that.
Of course, many of the better teams in the country aren't going to allow you to play like that. As we all have recognized, Washington simply plays poor defense, allowing UCLA so many open looks, which you just can't do against a good-shooting team like UCLA. The Bruins had a whopping 29 assists on the night, against a total of 13 turnovers. When a team gets 29 assists it's obviously an indication that they're giving up the ball to teammates for good looks, but it also indicates that the opposition isn't playing good defense, allowing the ball to move too well within its defense. UCLA shot close to 60% for the game, and 72% in the second half, because it executed well and got many points on easy transition baskets, but also because Washington's defense allowed UCLA easy baskets.
Please, please, Lorenzo Romar, don't ever teach your team to play good defense. We like the theory of the Huskies merely trying to out-score their opponent. It works for the Bruins.
If there was any nit-picking you could do about this game it would be that, after UCLA came out of the second half and built its lead to 22 points at 59-37, it could have put its foot on the neck of Huskies, but it allowed them back in the game. Washington went on a 14-4 run and eventually pulled within 11 at 66-55, with about 10 minutes left in the game, and you were telling yourself: Okay, we have a game on our hands. That tune changed incredibly quickly. By the TV timeout at the 7:53 mark in the game, UCLA had blown up its lead to 78-55, and the game was over. The 12-0 run was fueled mostly by good defense creating points in transition.
Watching that period in the second half where UCLA lost its lead, it was also during a stretch where Washington went to a zone and UCLA struggled to score in its halfcourt offense. Now, if you're the coaching staff of a future opponent, you might think -- hey, look, UCLA really struggled against the zone, that's what we'll do against them. And yes, while it's true that UCLA had a couple of awkward possessions when the Huskies sprung its zone on them, UCLA really won't be a great team to zone. It just simply has too many good outside shooters coupled with a point guard who is very good at penetrating. So, the Bruins, and especially Howland, are probably hoping that other teams come to this conclusion, so he can get the ball into Mike Roll's hands against those zones.
Roll had one of the best games of his Bruin career, getting 15 points, going three-for-six on threes, with those threes being big ones. UCLA had gotten a few transition baskets during the letdown stretch against the zone, but then Roll hit a three to put the Bruins up 66-51 (off an unselfish assist from Josh Shipp, by the way). Roll started the Bruin roll, perpetuated it with another three to put UCLA up 73-55 and then deliver the coup de grace UCLA had wanted a few minutes earlier when he hit his third three to ice the game, 76-55 (off an unselfish assist from Arron Afflalo).
In this specific game, when UCLA had a few possessions against the zone where it struggled, it countered it with some great defensive stops of its own. UCLA's defense stepped up, almost as if it was challenged by the fact that Washington had gotten a few stops itself, forced Washington into a couple of turnovers and bad shots, and created points in transition. Playing good defense and creating easy transition baskets was, this time, UCLA's best counter to the zone.
Looking at stat lines, it's obvious that some Bruins had great games, but you might not recognize just how good a game Lorenzo Mata had, with Mata finishing with 8 points and just two rebounds. But Mata was stellar, providing good post defense against Washington's formidable posts, making great decisions, looking strong scoring around the basket, blocking shots (3), and passing (2 assists). While there might have been other sequences that would make Sports Center from this game, one of the best was Mata stealing the ball and then bringing it up the court, under control and laying off a nice bounce pass to Afflalo for a fast-break basket.
The play that did make Sports Center was the spectacular dunk by Luc Richard Mbah a Moute with only a minute gone in the game. Mbah a Moute forced a turnover, took the ball up the court and threw a one-handed, emphatic dunk over Jon Brockman. While it does make for a great highlight, it also set the tone and attitude for the entire game, getting the crowd riled up from the start. Mbah a Moute was critical in doubling the post, just being so fast to collapse on the post after he catches the ball, and so quick and active. While Washington's Hawes did score 21 points, he also committed 6 turnovers, mostly because Mbah a Moute was in his face on the double. What was great to see was Mbah a Moute, with his back to the basket posting up, getting entry passes. In the first half, Afflalo fed Mbah a Moute on the baseline rolling off a high screen and Mbah a Moute, with his strength and length, is just so good at finishing on the block.
UCLA got very good minutes from its bench. Roll played 22 minutes and had a big impact, especially in UCLA's run that sealed the game, with Josh Shipp on the bench experiencing cramps. Both Ryan Wright and Alfred Aboya played 8 minutes apiece and provided very good post defense, with Wright getting 4 points and 3 boards. James Keefe seemed to be on the court longer than the listed 10 minutes. With UCLA looking out of sync against the zone in that second-half stretch, Keefe caught the ball at the high post and confidently swished a 15-footer. Russell Westbrook played just 7 minutes and perhaps it wasn't enough. Against the zone, he looked like he could really give you even more options, driving the baseline like a jet and pulling up for a smooth 12-footer.
It was a very impressive win and, like we stated, the best of the season so far, with UCLA looking like the #1 team in the country on a nationally televised game. You have to consider, though, like we said in our game preview, UCLA matches up really well against Washington, and it really played out Sunday. Perhaps the biggest factor was Washington's youth and inexperience, the Huskies committing 22 turnovers against the wily Bruins. The Huskies are talented, but young, and UCLA's coaching staff exploited the experience differential deftly. It will be interesting to see how much this Washington team has matured when UCLA goes to Seattle for the last game of the Pac-10 regular season March 3rd.
But for now, it was a win to savor. UCLA is 13-0 and ranked #1. When you're sitting in a sold-out Pauley Pavilion that's rocking, and your #1 Bruins are blowing out the #14 team in the country, always have a moment when you remember the Dark Years, and appreciate where the program is now.
And on Sunday, you could also appreciate that UCLA definitely seemed to turn over a new leaf with the new year, a day early.