On one hand, you could call it a close game. On the other, you could call it a blow-out. And the score didn't indicate, really, either.
In terms of games to analyze, this was one that gives a BRO writer quite a bit of material, both good and critical – but mostly good.
Let's start with a criticism, however.
Why can't UCLA start a game strongly? There have been games that UCLA has fallen behind early because either 1) the other team jumped on them and were hot from the outset or 2) UCLA was flat and didn't play defense early, or both.
This was a case of both. Cal was on fire, converting eight of its first 10 possessions to jump out to an 18-9 lead. But it helps when six of those points were either lay-ups or dunks, because UCLA's defense was slow in its defensive rotations and help. Cal had 20 points by the 12-minute mark, which would have put them on pace to score 100 points for the game. Just about every UCLA starter had a defensive lapse in the first half, by not actively pushing through a screen, missing a switch or being late in providing help-side defense.
UCLA also struggled in the first half because point guard Darren Collison struggled. He was scoreless when he left the game with his second foul at about 11:30, with UCLA down 20-13. Collison, on occasion, seems to forget just how big of an impact he can make on a game and settles sometimes for just floating along, and it seemed that this is the mode he started off with Thursday.
Arron Afflalo also didn't make a big impact. In the first half, between Afflalo and Collison, the two guys that have basically carried the team the entire season, they had 7 points, 0 assists and 0 rebounds.
Luckily UCLA has found one guy in particular to also be able to carry them, at least in the last two games. Josh Shipp followed what many thought was his best game as a Bruin against Arizona Saturday with what was arguably an even better game. While Afflalo and Collison started out cold, Shipp was on fire, scoring 10 in the first half on 4-of-5 shooting. He continued the hot streak in the second half, finishing with a game-high 22 points, in just 27 minutes. In fact, he played just 11 minutes in the second half. But it wasn't just Shipp's scoring that made this possibly his best game, but a few other elements. There are times when a player does something so well that it's just not ordinary, or even within the realm of being conventionally good. Shipp's passing on Thursday was in that other realm or, should we say, on that "magical level." He finished with 6 assists, and they were particularly impressive assists. He found cutters in the lane a number of times for easy baskets that were really things of beauty – basketball played the way it should be played. They weren't no-look, flashy things, but fundamentally sound, strong passes – done by someone with a great feel for it. Also, Shipp is, less and less, barrelling into the lane with his shoulder down with nowhere to go. He now, more and more, is penetrating with a purpose, to get to space in the lane for a high-percentage floater or pull-up jumper. While his defense isn't excellent, it's a bit better, and when he steps into passing lanes for steals, like he did Thursday, it makes up for the times he gets beat on the ball. He did all of this while attempting just one three-pointer, which is a testament to how, if Shipp plays the game the right way and within his own capabilities, how big of an impact he can make. When someone's playing like this, you'll even overlook the missed dunk. Heck, he was fueling a second-half run that put UCLA up on Cal for the first time in the game, and he was hyped, so you forgive it. Head Coach Ben Howland was shaking his head right after the missed dunk, but I would bet Howland forgave Shipp also.
It's simple stuff: If Shipp continues to play like this, UCLA has a very strong chance at making the Final Four and winning a national championship.
It wasn't just Shipp who fueled UCLA's second-half run, but the Bruins' defense. UCLA settled down and was far more disciplined in its rotations and help defense. Cal players weren't getting good looks near as often and their shooting cooled. That fueled easy defensive rebounds and steals, that then fueled transition points. UCLA got out on a break for 8 points in the first 6 minutes of the second half, and they blew open the game, building the lead up to a 24-point deficit before Howland pulled the starters.
UCLA's offense generally executed well, probably due a great deal to Cal playing a minimal amount of zone. It is also putting in more new plays on a weekly basis – in this game a entry pass from Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to Mata for a lay-up from the top of the key was a new wrinkle. UCLA's man offense is good, and with Shipp dishing off to cutters for easy baskets, it's even better.
Lorenzo Mata went 8 for 9 from the foul line. It's pretty amazing since, a few weeks ago, we said the three critical things UCLA needed to accomplish to make a deep run into the tournament were 1) Josh Shipp improving his play or getting reduced minutes, 2) UCLA's defense having to step up and 3) Mata's free-throw shooting having to improve. After this game, you'd have to say that UCLA can check off two of those agenda items, with a more consistent defensive effort the only thing left to fulfill (hey, it gives them some room for growth). You have to give a great deal of credit to Mata on his free throws; it's obvious he's been working hard on them and persevered through the mental issues. But even beyond the improved free-throw shooting, Mata's interior scoring ability has improved. He finished with 14 points, a season-high, and it wasn't just because of those 8 converted free throws. Lately, Mata is providing UCLA more of a scoring threat in the post, with jumps hooks from either hand. If Mata can continue to become even more of an inside scoring threat, it gives UCLA's offense so much more dimension, and will afford Afflalo, Shipp, Collison and Roll so many more open looks from the outside.
Russell Westbrook also has to be given some props for his role in the win. When UCLA was down early in the first half and a struggling Collison came out of the game with two fouls, Westbrook was the guy responsible for turning around UCLA. In just six first-half minutes, he had five points and one assist, on some eye-opening plays. He made two strong drives to the basket and was fouled on both, converting one of the free throws. When he goes to the basket, he has an uncanny knack for finding a seam, and then is quick enough to dart through it and strong and athletic enough to finish. It's exciting to think what Westbrook is going to be like in the future, as soon as next year, when watching him Thursday night.
Mike Roll also provided 16 strong minutes, and is looking to put the ball on the floor more often to create shooting space. He was actually fouled driving through the lane and effortlessly made both free throws, shooting 100% from the line for the year (six for six).
Perhaps one more issue should be added to the list of things UCLA needs to do to be at its optimum level for the NCAA tournament, and that's utilize Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's offensive capabilities more. In this game, when guarded against a small-forward-sized Theo Robertson, Mbah a Moute was just too much for him. Mbah a Moute caught the ball at the top of the key a few times and just muscles his way to the basket, like a man would do against a boy. Very early on this season, UCLA was getting the ball at the top of the key for Luc to create, but they've gotten away from it as the season has progressed. Truly, even more so that an open Arron Afflalo jumper, it probably is the most high-percentage offense UCLA has – isolating Mbah a Moute one-on-one with a defender. Now, since he has shown he is a modest shooting threat, defenders will have to at least partially honor his ability to shoot. So, if you're an opposing four man trying to guard Mbah a Moute at the top of the key, Mbah a Moute is too quick and he'll just blow by you. If you're small-forward sized, like Robertson, Mbah a Moute will just power right by you. So much of basketball is about match-ups and, more specifically, creating mis-matches, and Mbah a Moute, with his unusual combination of size and athleticism, is a walking mis-match. UCLA simply doesn't run enough isolation for him. Mbah a Moute had 8 points in the first half exploiting Robertson, and had none in the second.
With UCLA's win, and Washington State's loss to Oregon, combined with UCLA's skyrocketing RPI, the Bruins have to only avoid a huge collapse in the final three games of the conference and the conference tournament to not get a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. If they win just one more of their last three remaining conference games, they will at least tie for the Pac-10 championship. That, at the very least, as well as no first-round flame-out in the Pac-10 tournament – and UCLA has its #1 seed.
UCLA now is playing for the #1 seed overall in the NCAA tournament. And if it can check off a couple more of the items on its to-do agenda, it could very well get it.