That was the case in UCLA's win in Berkeley against the California Bears Thursday night, 62-46, which puts them at 18-1 and atop the Pac-10 alone.
UCLA came out slowly, again, a trend that hasn't changed for much of the season.
But the Bruins also did some things in this game that indicate change, and improvement. It was easily one of UCLA's best executed offensive games of the season, with UCLA definitely making it a priority to feed the post, a move that turned out to be very effective and helped to give UCLA a much more multi-dimensional offense.
There were probably more post feeds in this game than in the entire season leading up to this game. All of UCLA's perimeter players were looking first to feeding the post.
With Cal not having great interior defense, hopefully this wasn't just a one-week game plan.
But there were other new offensive wrinkles. Since Ben Howland has been at UCLA, his teams have continued to expand their offensive arsenal as the season progresses. Against Cal Thursday the Bruins introduced new plays, mostly those that used screens to get players in the post freed up. It also looked as if there were more specific plays designed to get the ball into the hands of Arron Afflalo.
Afflalo had a spectacular second half. Much like his team, he is a guy that has had games with fantastic halves, and it's almost frightening to imagine a game where Afflalo plays both halves like he did in the second against Cal (also much like his team). He scored 20 of his 25 points in the second 20 minutes, and had a about a 10-minute stretch where he played flawlessly. He hit pull-up jumpers with precision, he posted up and nailed turn-arounds, he hit threes, he fed the post with skill, got out on the break and finished well, and he hit his free throws. At the 15:50 mark, Afflalo was fouled from three, hit all three free throws and that seemed to focus him, because the next 10 minutes or so were some of the best basketball Afflalo has played, even though we tend to be saying that now week after week. It's not coincidental, either, that Afflalo is playing better as he's learned to play more under control, and not force things he's not good at doing. He's driving less to the basket with his shoulder down, out of control, and he's cutting better, using screens even better, and his teammates are getting him the ball in space.
And Afflalo's playing unselfishly. He was one of the first to look down low to feed the post in this game.
It was a good idea generally, with UCLA's big men scoring inside well, giving UCLA that other offensive dimension. Lorenzo Mata had a nice, quick jump hook, Alfred Aboya flipped one in with his left hand, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute had some very good opportunities. They were in such a "feeding" frenzy, that even the wings got fed in the post. Feeding the post, also, just doesn't give you the option of scoring, in the post, but creating from the post, as Mata did on a beautiful pass to Collison as he cut down the lane for a lay-up.
Besides the advancements on offense, some other things changed about this game. The atmosphere was different than recent UCLA-Cal games in Haas Pavilion. A BRO message board poster who was in attendance commented about it – how there was almost a feeling of resignation from the Cal crowd that UCLA is better and would win. Even with UCLA down 16-8 early on. It's quite a bit different than the last several years where, for everyone in the building, a Cal win over UCLA is completely reasonable, if not even likely.
Even with UCLA coming out cold, you still never felt the Bruins would be in danger. They went ice cold for over 4 minutes in the first half, but then the offense got in sync, the post started getting fed, and it opened up good looks from inside and outside. For the last 8 minutes or so of the first half, UCLA went on a 20-8 run, where they converted 9 of 13 possessions, which is very good. They continued their good offensive execution in the second half, out-scoring the Bears in the second period 34-22.
You might look at the final point total of 62 and not think UCLA played well offensively. Take away that bad 4-minute stretch, and figure in that Cal was trying to slow down the game and dropping off all of its players once they shot the ball, conceding the offensive rebound to not give up transition points, and it was a pretty good offensive game. Especially if you recognized the difference in UCLA feeding the post.
It, in fact, seemed that UCLA out-rebounded the Bears by far more than 35-23. Many times it was a host of Bruins going up for a rebound without a Bear in sight.
And it wasn't really effective for Cal in limiting UCLA's transition baskets. UCLA didn't run rampant, but it certainly got a good amount of points in transition, highlighted by Josh Shipp's behind-the-back pass to Afflalo on a break for a lay-up in the second half.
UCLA's defense was good, not spectacular. Anytime you hold a team to 46 points on their home floor it's pretty good. Cal had many possessions when UCLA was making its push late in the first half and in the second when they just couldn't get a good look at the basket. Maybe we're nit-picking, but there were other times, however, when Cal did, in fact, get far too easy of baskets. UCLA's occasional defensive breakdowns still look to be resulting from poor switching on screens, or when hedging a screen or off double teams. Last year, UCLA was able to hedge and double so well because it switched so well. It's definitely one area where UCLA still needs to improve. There were also some individual defensive lapses, with Aboya closing out too aggressively on Theo Robertson on the perimeter, allowing him to go around him for a dunk, or Josh Shipp allowing Robertson to go right by him for another dunk.
Darren Collison probably had one of his less productive games of the season, from a stat standpoint, finishing with a season-low four points. After emerging as the #1 three-point shooter in the Pac-10 a week ago, he has yet to hit a three, missing his one attempt against Arizona and both attempts against Cal. He did, however, penetrate Cal's defense to create opportunities for his teammates, and played good defense on Ayinde Ubaka, Cal's bigger and stronger point guard, forcing Ubaka into a pretty poor game.
Many fans on the message board after the game were also criticizing Mbah a Moute. It's strange that a guy can get 11 rebounds in a game, make some great defensive plays and some good passes on offense but somehow he's saddled with what is described as a poor game. Mbah a Moute is suffering from Elevated Expectation Symdrome, which doesn't impact him but his fans. If this had been a game from last season, most fans would have said it was a typical workman-like effort from Mbah a Moute. But now with heightened expectations that Mbah a Moute should be scoring 12+ points per game, some fans are saying he's under-performing. He did clank some shots in this game, but you'd have to concede that his rhythm might not have been completely there after missing one game with a knee injury. But overall, just because Mbah a Moute's offensive game hasn't developed by leaps and bounds doesn't mean "there's something wrong with Luc."
Last season, part of the reason UCLA made such a strong run in the NCAA tournament was the quality and depth it had in its post, and it looks like a similar situation is developing this season. Lorenzo Mata got into early foul trouble, picking up his second foul after just five minutes or so, but he still got 6 points and 8 rebounds in just 15 total minutes. Alfred Aboya is looking like he could be a critical part of a deep NCAA run this year, being very productive on both ends of the floor. Aboya had 4 points and 8 rebounds, and was a better option in guarding Cal's Ryan Anderson, who likes to step out. Aboya's defensive quickness kept him on the floor instead of Mata. For his size, Aboya is such a quick defender, even staying with Ubaka a couple of times when he found himself defending him on a switch. The options UCLA now has in the post with Mata and Aboya have really developed into a key for UCLA, giving them the ability to match up with opponents whether they go big or small, which actually gives them even more versatility in the post than they had last season.
Russell Westbrook now looks like he's earned the trust of the coaching staff, getting 10 minutes, and playing generally well, playing good defense and creating offensively. His spin move and pull up in the lane was pretty.
Mike Roll really provided a spark that ignited UCLA's offense in the first half. When the Bruins were going through their offensive funk during that four minutes, Roll kick-started them, hitting a pull-up from the baseline and then a three-pointer on the next possession. Roll is starting to do more than just catch and shoot, looking for his mid-range game, and he's the best post-feeder on the team.
So, while it could just be a characteristic of this team – that they're going to start off most games slowly – this game showed some of the improvement we've been emphasizing will be key for UCLA to make a deep NCAA tourney run. Cal wasn't, plainly, very good, and there did seem to be some resignation from even the Cal players that UCLA was better and it was just a matter of time. But the new offensive wrinkles, the post feeding, the energy on defense, Arron Afflalo's continued maturation, and the versatility that's developed among UCLA's post players is definitely something that could be called solid improvement.