Review of Youngstown State

The #2-ranked Bruins made some baby-step improvements in beating cupcake Youngstown State, 83-52, Monday. Russell Westbrook played better and without two of its best players, UCLA still almost had three double-double performances...

Even without two of its best players, UCLA blew out lowly Youngstown State Monday in the first round of the CBE Classic, 83-52.

It wasn't really a "classic." Not even a classic blowout.

There weren't any big, flashy runs. UCLA ran up the lead to 36 points in the second half mostly by playing good defense and executing on offense. In fact, Youngstown State had more fast-break points than UCLA, 16-13.

I was trying to work up some kind of criticism of Ben Howland, too, just to keep balanced, right? So, right when I wrote down in my notes, The starters are still in the game up 36 points and with 8 minutes left, Howland promptly took them out.

It was a generally better showing than against Portland State Friday night. Even though, really, it's tough to take much from these fluffy non-conference games since they're the equivalent of exhibition games. Seriously, Azusa Pacific would give these teams a good run. But UCLA did play better than it did Friday, and put together a good second half, after a mediocre first.

So, in the game against Portland State, UCLA played well in the first half, and in the game against Youngstown State they played well in the second half. If the Bruins can ever put those two halves together, it could be very impressive.

In this one, UCLA had a better second half, mostly because it played much better defense, both individually and as a team. Youngstown shot 42% in the first half and just 36% in the second, and made just one three-pointer. A big difference defensively was Josh Shipp improving from the first to second half, the Bruins' post defense playing more under control and generally UCLA staying in front of their man and pushing through screens better. In the first half, Shipp allowed his man to get loose a few times, as did Alfred Aboya and Chace Stanback. Russell Westbrook, throughout the game, played very good defense, limiting the YSU point guard to just nine points and forcing him to commit 5 turnovers against just 2 assists. When Darren Collison returns, it's going to be tough to keep Westbrook out of the lineup because of the defensive combo he and Collison represent in the backcourt.

Westbrook, too, settled down in the second half and generally played much better than he did against Portland State. He tried to do a little too much in the first half a couple of times, and had 3 first-half turnovers. He didn't commit a turnover in the second half, and finished with 9 assists and 9 points. You can see the Howland influence slowly overcoming him, with Westbrook moving his feet on defense and in the second half being disciplined enough to take a charge. What was also exciting to see is Westbrook's quick and easy catch-and-shoot from the outside spotting up on a teammate's penetration.

The other guy UCLA wanted to see some improvement from was Luc Richard Mbah a Moute playing the three, and it was a modest improvement. It was tough to assess because Mbah a Moute got into foul trouble quickly in the first half and only played 6 minutes. He played better in the second half, providing good defense and, on the offensive end, a few nice assists to go along with an impressive looking jumper. It hasn't been often when Mbah a Moute's stat line is 4 for 6 from the floor, and five of those shots were from 15 feet or further.

Shipp wasn't great offensively, missing all four of his threes, after the performance against Portland State when he was effortlessly stroking it. He also is a bit of an enigma in terms of trying to assess his overall offensive performance – on one hand dishing out a nice assist, then in the next instance being a bit selfish. He had four assists and four turnovers.

The MVP of the game was easily Lorenzo Mata-Real, who collected an impressive double-double (the second of his career), finishing with 14 points and 14 rebounds. He kept UCLA ahead in the first half when he had 9 points and 10 rebounds. He hit a nice baseline jump hook that he himself looked stunned when it went in. Mata-Real looks like he's going to be a real force coming off the bench this season, giving UCLA a very intimidating one-two punch in the post with Kevin Love, and even more intimidating when they're on the court at the same time. It is time, however, for Mata-Real to see a sports psychologist about his free-throw shooting. The reports are that he's shooting about 75% in practice, but it's getting in his head in the game. He banked in one free throw, and shot perhaps the worst air-ball free throw in the history of the game, the shot coming up about 4 feet short. The scariest words that can be uttered by the PA announcer this season during a game are: "Lorenzo Mata-Real shoots one-and-one."

It's funny that the freshman has, so far, shown the most consistency in UCLA's first two games. Love scored 22 points against Portland State and 21 against Youngstown State, with 13 and 9 rebounds. He was workman-like again in this one, and his teammates kept up a steady effort of trying to get him a touch in the post, rather than forgetting him for a stretch like they did against Portland State. He also looked far fresher in his 27 minutes in this one than he did against PSU and in the exhibition games, which is, perhaps, the best sign you can have for Love. Probably his most impressive moment of the night was, in the second half, when Chace Stanback lobbed him an entry in the middle of the paint, three Penguins converged on him, and Love showed those great hands, squeezed that rock and went up for a shot. Those are the kinds of hands and catches that NBA scouts are looking for (and there were a few in the building last night, including the Clippers' Head Coach Mike Dunleavy).

It's good that Nikola Dragovic, Chace Stanback and walk-on guard Mustafa Abdul-Hamid are getting time to gain experience with the three injured players out (Collison, Roll and James Keefe). Dragovic has gotten better, but he still doesn't give you much if he isn't making his threes. Stanback had two poor turnovers in the course of a minute in the first half and Howland yanked him. He does, though, show a great natural feel, and that ability for the extra pass. More than anything he needs to dedicate himself to his defense so he can get on the court.

Overall, it's a pretty impressive thing when, your projected high scorer (Shipp) has an off-night and you get one double-double and a near two others from three different players (Mata-Real, Love and Westbrook). And that's without Collison and Roll.

While Collison is the obvious guy to miss when watching UCLA play the last two games, playing without Roll truly has a big impact on the team. He probably plays more intelligently than anyone on the roster, and without him there seems to be a higher degree of recklessness and lack of fundamentals. And the shot is sorely missed.

Offensively, UCLA is attacking a zone much better than they have in recent seasons. Youngstown switched between man and zone, sometimes on successive possessions, and UCLA didn't bat an eye. There was probably one possession against the zone where UCLA stagnated like it had in previous years, but with Westbrook able to penetrate, Mbah a Moute being a great high-post option and Love on the block, it gives UCLA so many more options to break the zone.

One more cupcake game, against Cal State San Bernardino, who surprised Weber State in the other CBE Classic game, and Collison returns, and the everything is closer to being right again in the UCLA basketball world.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the night was the limited harassment of ESPN commentator Steve Lavin by the UCLA student section. They waved some signs featuring Lavin's face, but generally let him off easy.

Perhaps the scariest image for UCLA fans is Lavin having a pow-wow with notoriously bad Pac-10 official Dave Libbey. They might be the two people on Earth who have done the most damage to UCLA basketball in the last couple of decades.

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