This game was an illustration of it.
The Bruins didn't play particularly well, Arron Afflalo had just five points with only five minutes left in the game, but they still beat the #19 Trojans, 70-65.
USC has to wonder what hit them. In two games against UCLA, they had the lead for probably 75 of 80 minutes, but they come away with two losses.
What happened? The best team ultimately got the two Ws.
UCLA is good not just because of Arron Afflalo, or even Darren Collison.
UCLA is good because it has guys like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Alfred Aboya, Mike Roll and Russell Westbrook. While every team has its stars, UCLA has some of the strongest "supportive" players in the nation, and they rode the backs of those players Wednesday to beat USC.
Two of UCLA's three top scorers, Afflalo (17 points per game) and Josh Shipp (11.7) both had just three points between the two of them with 9 minutes to go in the game. For many other teams, that would be a death knell.
But not for these Bruins. It's one of the biggest elements of this team that sets them apart, that makes them worthy of the #2 ranking in the country. UCLA got 13 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists from its bench, while USC got 0 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists.
The first guy off the bench for UCLA is Aboya, and he was probably the most prevalent reason UCLA won this game. Aboya finished with 9 points and 6 rebounds in 20 minutes, as opposed to USC's heralded center, Taj Gibson, who had 8 and 9 in 32 minutes. Aboya started off picking up three quick fouls in the first half, and looked like he was going to be a non-factor, probably having to spend most of the game on the bench. But Aboya settled down and emerged as the key factor down the stretch for the Bruins. His four offensive rebounds were four of the biggest plays in the game, retaining possession for UCLA in critical stretches. It's the main reason why UCLA had 17 second-chance points, to USC's 7. He's a tireless worker on the boards, working to get position on the offensive glass, and when UCLA's offense bogs down, as it tends to do, his ability to get the offensive rebound and give UCLA a second chance at a possession is proving to be a huge factor this season.
Thank God for the country of Cameroon. Where would UCLA be with Aboya and Mbah a Moute? Everyone – UCLA fans, sports writers, both local and national -- is under-appreciating what the Cameroon Connection is doing for UCLA. Many don't see it since their stats can be unassuming at times. But if you know basketball, you see the effort, intensity, strength and athleticism each are bringing to the floor, and the combination of the two is tough for opponents to combat. Aboya would be starting for just about any other D-1 program in the country. Mbah a Moute is seriously one of the best all-around players in the nation, if you take into consideration his ability to guard any position, rebound, pass, and do all the little things on offense. Mbah a Moute is so highly valuable because of his defensive versatility that it gives UCLA the ability to match up against just about anyone in the nation, and create mis-matches offensively. There is a mindset that Aboya and Mbah a Moute were just kind of throw-ins to last year's recruiting class, and that they're mere role players on this team. Make no mistake: Aboya and Mbah a Moute are stars in their own right. Without them, UCLA is a middle-of-the-pack Pac-10 team.
Mbah a Moute had another double-double, getting 11 points and 10 rebounds. Those 11 points were highly important, with Mbah a Moute hitting four mid-range jumpshots to counter against USC's zone during possessions when UCLA, again, struggled against the zone. They were just about the prettiest thing you could see if you're a UCLA fan – Mbah a Moute's jumpshot going down with a swish.
Both Mbah a Moute and Aboya are becoming so good, and so critical to the success of the team, that it's hard not to expect them to get more playing time, and play more significant roles on this team as the season progresses.
As everyone knows, BRO has been advocating that Josh Shipp's playing time be reduced. Shipp didn't have a good game Wednesday, and it again emphasized the points we've been making: Shipp is a defensive liability, for the most part, and, proving not to be a good shooter, which should open the door for others on the team that are emerging as potentially more productive. This isn't to say that Shipp should be benched; he brings some very good things to the court. But he's currently playing almost 30 minutes a game, and if his minutes were reduced to, say, 20, and those 10 minutes were distributed among Aboya, Mike Roll and Russell Westbrook, it'd be interesting to see how the team would improve on both ends of the court.
We've discussed how good Aboya is. If he were to get more minutes, and you slid Mbah a Moute over to the three spot for some stretches, UCLA becomes a devastatingly physical, defensive team. Mbah a Moute guarded Nick Young last night very well. With about 1:30 left in the game, and UCLA up 59-54 (in other words, a very critical possession), Young started his one-on-one rhythm from about 18 feet away from the basket. Young is jus so quick and lithe, and just needs a moment of separation to pull up and nail a jumper. But Luc, who is probably two inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than Young, stayed with him every step. Mbah a Moute played 35 minutes in this game, so fatigue had to be a factor. But Mbah a Moute was so quick defensively Young couldn't get space or get a step on him, and Young was forced to put up a bad, fall-away jumper that clanked off the rim.
With Mbah a Moute being able to give you that kind of defense, his rebounding, his physical play, and now, being able to hit the mid-range jumpshot, wouldn't it be overwhelming to see a frontline of Lorenzo Mata, Aboya and Mbah a Moute for at least a few minutes every game? UCLA out-rebounded a good rebounding team in USC, 33-24, mostly because Aboya got 20 minutes on the floor. In the conference, Mbah a Moute is shooting 47.7% from the floor, while Shipp is shooting 47%. Mbah a Moute is shooting 33% from three (4 for 12), while Shipp is shooting 17% (6 for 34).
Then consider Russell Westbrook. This game was a great campaign poster for the cause of Westbrook getting more playing time. While the Bruins were struggling in the first half, and allowed USC to get a 10-point lead, Westbrook came in and was the only Bruin effective at breaking USC's zone. With his combination of size and athleticism, he easily penetrated USC's zone by penetrating and pulling up, or penetrating and dishing. He was directly responsible, either through scoring or assisting, on six straight UCLA points during a very cold offensive streak against USC's zone. Westbrook just does it so effortlessly, with his athletic ability, vision and shooting skill. Collison then came back in, Westbrook dished to Collison for a three, and you thought that UCLA had the backcourt recipe to break USC's zone. But then Howland took out Collison, put in Shipp, and UCLA's offense bogged down once again. It's a mystery why Westbrook, after that display in the first half, didn't see the court in the second half. We can only attribute it to Howland not quite trusting the freshman yet in crunch-time situations.
And there's also Mike Roll. So many casual basketball observers only judge a player's offensive abilities by his one-on-one talent. But there are other ways to "create" offensively, like short penetrations and passes, entry passes, etc. It's called creating for others, and it's a lost art in this And-1 World, and Roll is more adept than anyone on the team at doing it. When Roll came into the game in the first half, while he didn't score, the zone offense was far more effective, passing the ball, finding a seam and getting an open look, because Roll has the ability to play against the zone.
And that's just talking offense. Aboya and Westbrook would give UCLA a defensive advantage if they got more playing time. Roll has even emerged as a better defender than Shipp. And again, this isn't a condemnation of Shipp, but just pointing out how other guys on the team are emerging enough where they merit more playing time themselves.
Afflalo and Collison had 16 and 17 points, respectively. Afflalo padded that stat at the end, hitting many free throws when USC was fouling to get back in the game. Afflalo didn't necessarily play poorly, but it was hard for him against USC's good athletes to get an open look. USC scouted UCLA well, and were step for step with UCLA's offensive sets, keeping a man on Afflalo for most of the game. When Afflalo did hit his only three of the game (going 1 for 7) it was a huge one, tying the game at 46-46 with 8:45 to play. It was a big momentum booster for UCLA, and fueled UCLA for the rest of the game. Collison, after starting off the game with a number of mistakes, settled down and began finding open lanes to the basket. After going around a ball screen, Collison knifed his way into the lane for an easy lay-up to give UCLA a 59-54 lead with about two minutes left.
UCLA had one of its worst shooting nights of the season, going 2-for-17 (11.8%) from behind the arc, mostly because Afflalo, Shipp, Roll and Collison just couldn't get many open looks because of USC's active defense.
USC, definitely, deserves a great deal of credit – for both its players and coaches. Usually you come away from games recognizing that UCLA out-coached the opposition, but against USC it's usually a draw. USC came out at the beginning of the game with some nice curls off screens, and UCLA was slow to get through them. Defensively, they're tough, and USC coach Tim Floyd has them buying in and playing hard.
UCLA's coaching and smarts, though, did consistently come through. With the score tied at 48-48, Gibson caught the ball above the key. UCLA hadn't doubled him for most of the game, but they quickly did, and the trap surprised him and caused him to turn over the ball. Mbah a Moute dished to Afflalo for a dunk, which continued the second-half surge in momentum for UCLA.
You'd have to also say that UCLA, finally, benefitted from the officiating. It wasn't necessarily that UCLA got calls that weren't there, but UCLA definitely got more calls than USC. UCLA was 24-of-31 from the free-throw line while USC was just 3-of-5.
It was interesting, too, even with UCLA only drawing even with USC with just about 7 minutes left, you still thought UCLA was going to win the game. Even when they were down by 10 in the first half. There's something about UCLA that gives them an advantage that sometimes can't put your finger on. But it's becoming more and more clear: UCLA's depth, its other "stars," are just too good.