The Bruins showed improvement against California a week ago, had a little setback in the second half of the Stanford game on Saturday, but again made some strides Thursday night against #9 Oregon, beating them at Pauley Pavilion, 69-57.
In fact, because UCLA showed improvement individually in this game, and as a team, particularly in their defensive effort and execution, it might have been its best overall game of the season. The Washington game was good, but playing this way against a much better opponent like Oregon makes this game hard to beat.
One aspect that we've cited repeatedly that needed improvement was UCLA's help defense, and this game was a nice step forward in terms of that aspect of the game. There were very few easy Oregon baskets, with the Ducks shooting 36% for the game, a team that was shooting just about 46% on the season. It was mostly because of UCLA's help defense; every time a Duck got around his defender, there was another Bruin stepping in front of him. The second-best player in the Pac-10 conference, Aaron Brooks, is one of the toughest players to hold down, and UCLA did it, mostly with excellent on-ball defense from Mr. Everything, Arron Afflalo, but also because, on the few times when Brooks got free from Afflalo off a screen, Brooks would drive to the basket, see the lane fill up quickly, have no one to dish to, and get rejected as he put it up. Lorenzo Mata swatted him a couple of times, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute had at least one block in there also.
Just analyzing this aspect of UCLA's game indicates so much. For one thing, it starts with scouting. It's been made famous that Brooks only goes right, supposedly, and he tried hard to dispel that theory by going left a few times. Afflalo, though, allowed him to go left, because even though he did go left he simply isn't very effective doing it. But also, when Brooks goes right, he tends to look to score more than pass. UCLA recognized this, with its big men rotating to fill Brooks' lane to the basket well. It also definitely affected Brooks that Afflalo, this strong, 6-5, 215-pounder, was constantly in his face, harrassing him as he was driving that lane, bumping him off his game just enough to make him out-of-sync when he did get to the basket, making it easy for UCLA's big to swat his shot away.
It was a great combination, on UCLA's part, of scouting, coaching, execution, and effort.
UCLA recognized it needed to take Brooks out of this game, and it did. He had 14 points (five points below his average), on 5 of 13 shooting, but he had long lapses where he just wasn't effective offensively. He didn't score for the first 14 minutes of the game, and it wasn't coincidental that UCLA built a 29-14 lead while he was silent. In the second half, he went about 9 minutes without scoring, and UCLA had a 16-point lead. Brooks was held to just five points in the second half, making just 2 of 8 shot attempts and one of three threes. Brooks can have such an impact on the game, a combination of one of the few toughest guards in the nation to guard while having a great outside shot with a lightning release. He made three three-pointers in the first half, which basically kept Oregon from being blown out. He's been shooting a whopping 56% from three in the conference. So, shutting him down was key, and UCLA succeeded.
There was a great little duel going on, between perhaps the two leading candidates for conference player of the year – Afflalo and Brooks. In the first half, Brooks hit a three, to really hold back UCLA's onslaught. Afflalo came back down the floor and hit a three, and then Brooks answered with another.
In terms of the defense, there's also something to be said for UCLA not having to double the post, which it generally didn't do in this game. Without having to double the post, it keeps its bigs at home, and much more able to provide help when Brooks gets into the lane. And it keeps your perimeter defenders on their man, rather than having to rotate onto the open man. With Oregon's outside shooters (shooting 38% from three as a team), it was a very smart move to not double the post, keep the bigs at home, and keep your perimeter defenders glued on their man.
It also helps when you have someone providing very good one-on-one post defense, as Lorenzo Mata did against Oregon's Maarty Leunen. Leunen got the ball in the post early a few times, and Mata denied him baskets, playing smart post defense on him. Leunen went scoreless in the first half, which was key to UCLA building its two-digit lead, limiting Oregon's offense to jump-shooting.
In terms of the head-to-head battle between the two candidates for conference POY, you'd have to give this one easily to Afflalo. While Afflalo's defense on Brooks might have been the one biggest factor of the game, you can't dismiss his offensive production. He finished with 17 points, making four of six from three. When it looked like Oregon would make a run and get them back in the game, Afflalo responded offensively. If you haven't noticed, Afflalo's offense has drastically improved because he's now playing far more within himself compared to the beginning of the season. He has eliminated the out-of-control, shoulder-down drive into the lane. He takes the room given to him, pulls up for mid-range jumpers, feeds the post, and takes shots in rhythm. You can't give Afflalo enough credit for how he's adapted offensively.
If Afflalo doesn't win the Pac-10 Player of the Year it'd be a travesty.
Offensively, overall, UCLA showed improvement. Howland has installed new offensive wrinkles, as he's done every year as the season has developed. In this one, Howland wanted to exploit Josh Shipp being guarded by 5-6 Tejuan Porter, so Shipp found the lane cleared out for him, with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute passing from the top of the key down to Shipp on the block, where he easily converted against Porter. Against the man D, generally, UCLA executed well, with Collison penetrating, finding teammates for easy baskets. Shiipp threw a very nice alley-oop to Mbah a Moute off a set piece. The Bruins also executed well enough against a zone that it kept Oregon out of it for most of the game. It did so with some aggressive penetration from Collison but some smarts from Afflalo, Mbah a Moute and Mike Roll. Roll, who you could say is limited athletically, makes up for it so much in his soundness fundamentally, always on balance, jump-stopping, and his sharp, two-handed bounce passes, etc. Freshman Russell Westbrook, playing just four minutes, penetrated and made a mid-range, then on the next trip down the court had a nice assist. Given that UCLA did this against Oregon's defense, which has been among the best in the conference this year, it's a testament to, again, good coaching, execution and – improvement.
It's tough to write this much about this game and not mention the huge contribution of Mbah a Moute. Many UCLA fans have been asking for most of the season what's wrong with Mbah a Moute, which I think is off-base. But he left no doubt Thursday, finishing with a double-double, 15 points and 12 rebounds, to go along with 4 blocks and 4 steals. His presence was everywhere, getting big offensive rebounds and put-backs on key possessions, making great passes, getting big steals and blocks, and on defense taking Oregon's Malik Hairston out of the game. When Mbah a Moute stays out of foul trouble, and he plays just around 30 minutes (he played 31 in this one), he can stay on the floor while being fresh, and it makes a significant difference in his performance.
Collison, also, quietly showed improvement. Offensively, he looked to attack Oregon's defense more often, and it proved productive. His three-point shooting, as it's been all year long, are like daggers to the opposition.
Shipp didn't play a very good game. He had a few good moments, but too many not-good ones. His defense wasn't good, particularly at the beginning of the game, on Bryce Taylor, who was Oregon's leading scorer with 17. He also made some bad decisions: shooting early in the shot clock with UCLA up by 12 with just 45 seconds left in the first half, enabling Brooks to get a look from three in transition the other way, which he nailed, to pull Oregon within 9 points at halftime; the out-of-control spin move that garnered a charge, and the biggest mistake – missing a dunk – in a very critical time of the game. UCLA was up 60-48, but Oregon was getting a little momentum. Shipp had an open lane to the rim and could have easily laid it in, but went for the one-handed slam, and missed it. Oregon made the next three points to draw to within 9 with four minutes left in the game. Against Stanford, Shipp took an angle on the basket to prepare himself for a dunk, and because of it, fumbled a pass. In Howland's press conference this week, the coach emphasized that Shipp needed to make the fundamentally sound move and just get the lay-up. Shipp, in the press conference, said he recognized that and learned his lesson. Well, that lesson didn't apparently make it to Thursday.
Perhaps the only other real negative about the game is Mata's free-throw shooting, going 1 for 6 in this game, in a very ugly way. When the joke was made that Mata needs a sports psychologist for his free throws, it might not be a joke anymore. It's amusing to watch the body language of the UCLA coaches on the bench when Mata approaches the free-throw line.
Alfred Aboya provided a strong 18 minutes off the bench, with four points and four rebounds, particularly a few big boards during key possessions.
Mike Roll, as we stated, was big in his 16 minutes. He showed improvement himself, driving into the lane against the zone and hitting a nice 12-foot pull-up.
One other aspect of the game that you have to put in the highly-positive, improved column was the crowd. It was easily the loudest Pauley crowd of the season. The fans getting on their feet and cheering to start the game definitely set the tone of the night, and pumped the arena full of energy that Howland said the players definitely fed off of in the first half. It was definitely key to UCLA starting the game with intensity.
While you didn't expect UCLA to lose this game, it was very encouraging the way they won it, showing that they're improving in the many aspects of their game that needed improvement. It was also a testament to their drive and heart, to come out so strong and all-business after the disappointing loss to Stanford Thursday.
If the Bruins, now 19-2, and 8-2 in the conference, alone in first place and in command of their own destiny as far as the conference race, can continue to show this type of capacity for improvement the remainder of the season, that #1 seed is looking far more attainable.