The encouraging development for the Bruins was the way they approached the game. In the past, UCLA has had a tendency to play down to its opposition. December matchups with a number of mid-major opponents (and that's about the level of talent OSU possesses) had resulted in flat starts by the Bruins. They'd come out lethargic in the first half, allow the opponent to hang around (or even get a lead) and then turn it on in the second half to pull away for the win. In this game, though, UCLA came out aggressive and intense from the get go. They defended very well, forced some turnovers and had a number of easy baskets in transition.
Watching UCLA this weekend against the Oregon schools, one gets the impression that the Bruins may be starting to come together the way last year's team did. It seems kind of funny to be talking about getting better when the team is 20-2 and in first place, but the Bruins do have room for improvement. Last year's team, by the end of the season, was very consistent in terms of their approach, at both ends of the court. They had very specific things they wanted to do and, by the end of the year, they were accomplishing those things on a consistent basis. The offensive sets became crisper, the shot selection was very good and everyone understood their roles. The team defense was outstanding, with excellent help and rotations. Possession by possession, UCLA executed what it wanted to do as well as anyone in the country.
This year's group of Bruins looks like they may start to approach that level of efficiency. The offense is showing signs of becoming more diverse, with more post-up options for Afflalo and Shipp, along with more low-post touches for the bigs. The guards are doing a better job of penetrating under control and finding teammates for open looks. At the defensive end, virtually every shot is being contested and the ball pressure has been very good. One big difference from last year to this year, though, is the Bruins' ability to get transition baskets. They're forcing more turnovers and converting them into easy points in transition.
Everyone played well yesterday for the Bruins, but I thought Afflalo, Mbah a Moute and Westbrook were particularly good. Afflalo is playing the best basketball of his career. After forcing some stuff earlier in the season, Afflalo is now making excellent decisions and letting the game come to him. Everything is in the flow of the offense and he's not just settling for jumpers. He's attacking the basket, but he's under control when he does so and he'll now pull up rather than always trying to get to the rim. His post-up game in the mid-post has become a very good weapon for UCLA. He's doing his usual excellent job of defending and he brings the intensity/energy level that sets the tone for UCLA.
Afflalo made the best play of the game yesterday and it came on a simple play. Mbah a Moute hustled back in transition and got a steal. He pushed the ball ahead to Afflalo and Arron could have easily gone to the basket for a lay-up himself. Instead, Afflalo gave it back to Luc for a dunk. Not only did Arron reward Luc for making the original hustle play off the steal, but he also set a great example for his teammates. It's very common for star players, in games like this against outmanned opponents, to look for opportunities to pad their stats. It's especially common when you're talking about a guy who has an eye to the NBA. Afflalo obviously is hoping to attract the attention of NBA guys and it would have been very understandable for him to be looking to put up big numbers in a game like this and help his scoring average. But that's not what Afflalo is all about and it's why he is, in my opinion, clearly the MVP of the Pac-10. Afflalo is the ultimate team guy and his approach carries over to everyone else. The Bruins have great chemistry – witness the starters reaction to the walk-ons play at the end – and that chemistry is one reason why UCLA (not Arizona) is the standard in the Pac-10. That unselfishness, that giving of yourself to your teammates, is a concept that is foreign to Arizona's Marcus Williams and it's one reason (of many) that Williams is not nearly as good a player as Afflalo.
Mbah a Moute also had an excellent game in limited minutes. Many people have commented on Luc's play this year being somewhat disappointing. While I don't think he's been disappointing – more a victim of high expectations – there have been times where Luc's focus hasn't seemed as sharp as it was last year. He's missed some easy shots he normally makes and, at times, he's seemed to lack that extra burst of energy he had last year. But in the last couple games Luc has been outstanding. His defense has been great, whether it's forcing turnovers with his quickness and length, or just shutting down his man with smothering, active defense. He's rebounding in traffic and converting on put backs. And his shot looks very fluid and confident. He knocked down a three to start this game and he's now shooting 37% beyond the arc for the season. While it's true that he hasn't had many attempts at that range this year, there's no question that Luc's shot has improved dramatically from last season. The Bruins obviously want to get most of his shots within the 12-15 foot range – or, right next to the basket -- but Luc is now certainly capable of making the three when left open.
Russell Westbrook came off the bench and gave the Bruins a jolt of offensive production. Granted, they were up big at the time and it wasn't really needed, but it's still nice to see your freshman point guard get eight points in the span of one minute and fifteen seconds. Westbrook's offensive potential is considerable. He's easily the best at penetrating and finishing on the team. While someone like Shipp is a solid finisher, he doesn't have nearly the quickness or penetrating ability as Westbrook. Collison, on the other hand, has the quickness, but doesn't have the size, strength and length that Westbrook possesses. But Westbrook's excellent play wasn't limited to his scoring. He had a couple nice drives where he set up Luc and Abdul-Hamid for easy shots. He also took two charges in the game. He only got credit for one though, as the ref missed the other and called it a block. This is a notable development for Westbrook and it shows the value of Howland's coaching. Taking charges isn't something that Westbrook did in high school and the fact he's taking them now is a testament to Howland's coaching.
While Afflalo, Luc and Westbrook were particularly good, all the Bruins played well in this game. Shipp had a solid game defensively and he got out in transition for a couple easy baskets. Shipp has a good feel for when to take off and get out in transition. His three-point shooting is still off – he was 0-2 in this game – and it appears that he's not consistent with his mechanics on those shots. He drifted back on the first attempt and then was leaning forward a bit on the second one. Mike Roll was 0-4 on his shots in the game, but played well otherwise. Roll has improved his ability to get in the lane off of shot fakes or dribble penetration. He's not settling for three-pointers any longer and he's making himself more of an overall offensive threat. He did have two mid-range shots where he kind of short-armed the shots – he needs to just let it go and finish those shots with confidence.
It was great to see the bench players get extended minutes after so many close games where the starters had to play heavy minutes. Nikola Dragovic got his first real time of the season and he knocked down a couple three-pointers. There's no question that Dragovic has a very good stroke, with good range, but he's got a lot to learn about the way Howland wants him to play the game. Defense is definitely an area where he needs to improve. So it wasn't a surprise when, on the very first play he was in, Dragovic got lost on an in-bounds play and Marcel Jones knocked down an open three. Dragovic later had a travel call where he seemed to forget that he was playing in a game – he took about eight steps – but he played hard and did manage to come up with an impressive six rebounds. The big issue for Dragovic is learning to play with the level of focus/intensity/energy that Howland demands. UCLA basketball is very different than the basketball he was playing in Europe and it will take him time to adjust.
James Keefe had an off night shooting, finishing 0-3, but played fairly well otherwise. He had a big-time block to stop an Oregon State fastbreak in the second half. He also had a block to end the first half that was not credited in the box score. Keefe does three things very well at this time. He runs the court extremely well, he's a very good rebounder and a solid shot blocker. While his shots haven't been falling consistently, he is a good shooter. It's just a matter of not rushing things and allowing the game to slow down. When those things happen, Bruin fans will see the real James Keefe. One thing he needs to improve upon, though, is taking charges. He had an opportunity to take a charge in this game and turned his shoulder at the last minute. That's a play that Howland demands from his big men and Keefe has to make that play if he wants to get consistent time on the court. In high school, Keefe was a shot-blocker and he was never looking to take a charge. But at this level, there will be times when the opportunity for the block isn't there and you have to take the charge.
With the Bruins approaching the stretch drive in the Pac-10, it's good to see the improved focus to detail. They stayed sharp for forty minutes in this game and they'll need those kinds of performances with some tough games in the next month. Games at Washington, Washington State and Arizona won't be easy. Up next, though, is USC and I expect UCLA to come out with the same intensity that it had this weekend against the Oregon schools. If they keep defending with the same energy they've had, and continue to show good patience and shot selection at the offensive end, the Bruins should be in good shape on Wednesday against the Trojans.