UCLA beat Portland State Friday, 69-48, with Russell Westbrook playing 30 minutes at point guard and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute at the small forward position, and they both clearly struggled with it.
Quite a ripple effect will be felt when Darren Collison returns, hopefully in time for Monday's game against Youngstown State. Collison will go to point guard, Westbrook will play the majority of his minutes at the two-guard, Shipp will shift back to the three and Mbah a Moute will settle back into the four spot predominantly.
Westbrook, at the point, had 6 turnovers against five assists, was out of control too often, and was sloppy with the ball, both in passing and handling it. Mbah a Moute had, perhaps, one of his worst games as a Bruin, with 1 rebound, two points and three turnovers. At small forward, he isn't in a position to do what he does best, rebound, when he's pulled away from the basket on the perimeter. He didn't shoot the ball well, going 1 for 6 from the field, and he over-dribbled himself into problems a number of times. The good news is that, when NBA scouts are trying to project Mbah a Moute as a NBA small forward and they need some tape of him at the position, they'll be able to get out the Portland State game – and more than likely they'll compel Mbah a Moute to return to UCLA for his senior season.
The even better news is that, if Collison stays healthy, we probably won't have to see Mbah a Moute at small forward much.
The rest of the team played fairly well. Kevin Love, in his collegiate debut, was impressive, with the first of many double-doubles, getting 22 points and 13 rebounds in 28 minutes. It's obvious that some opposing teams are going to use the Hack-a-Love tactic, but luckily Love is a very good actor and flops very well and also is an 80% free-throw shooter. In UCLA's impressive first 13 minutes or so, Love was truly spectacular, scoring inside, hitting a three, throwing outlet passes to streaking Bruins and owning the boards. He slowed down a little by the end of the first half and at times in the second, apparently suffering from cramps. Really the only concern with Love is whether he has the stamina to sustain a high level of effort throughout a long season and a deep run into the NCAA tournament.
Josh Shipp's shot is vastly improved – shorter, quicker and softer. He hit his first four threes like he was tossing stones into the ocean. Even though Love was the workhorse in this one, without Shipp the game very well might have been tight. He hit a big three in the second half to stop a mini-Portland State run. He also brings experience and execution to UCLA's offense, which was needed when Westbrook looked lost at times.
Alfred Aboya, on one hand, is a bull in a china shop, committing needless fouls. On the other, he provides such good post defense and lifts the team with his defensive energy. UCLA went through a lull early in the second half, where Portland State was playing with effort and UCLA looked flat. Aboya came into the game and immediately gave the team a spark with his defensive effort.
If you had watched just the first 13 or 14 minutes, you would have thought, Wow, UCLA is actually looking like a top ten team without Darren Collison, Mike Roll and James Keefe. They were playing generally tough defense, limiting Portland State looks, getting points in transition and executing in the half-court well, getting Love touches in the post.
Then, the funk began. UCLA scored 29 points in the first 13 minutes and then only 15 for the next 15 minutes, going 8 minutes deep into the second half still in a funk. Westbrook's lack of point guard sense and a letdown on defense were the main culprits, along with UCLA going a few possessions without getting Love a touch in the post. UCLA is a different offensive team than in past seasons, as long as it gets Love touches. If not, they look exactly the same – operating high, moving the ball and setting screens in search of the open three. And when they did that in this game, like in the last several years, the offense somtimes can't find a look, runs too deep into the shot clock and then, sometimes (like in this game), the possession ends with a turnover. UCLA had 18 turnovers for the game, in fact.
So, the first 13 minutes had fans thinking UCLA could go to the Final Four without Collison, Roll or Keefe, but then the last 27 minutes it was very evident they're not going anywhere – well, significant – without those guys. Not only was it obvious Collison was missed, but there's a huge difference when the offense is setting screens to get Mbah a Moute outside looks rather than Roll.
Hopefully Collison will be back by Monday, because, unless Westbrook and Mbah a Moute improve drastically at the point guard and small forward spots and quickly, it's nothing we'd like to see again for any extended minutes this season.