Without its All-American point guard, without its best outside shooter, and without a key frontcourt reserve, the #1-ranked Bruins gutted out a win over the #10-ranked Spartans.
It was another gem in the ever-expanding jewelry collection of Ben Howland. Down by 11 at halftime, down by 13 at one point, UCLA came back in the second half with tough defense, rebounding, and some key adjustments to overcome MSU.
You not only have to give credit to the players for staying mentally tough and not giving up in this game, but a huge amount of credit goes to Howland.
There are a few coaches in the country who, if you give them enough talent, can play at the level of Howland. Michigan State's Tom Izzo is one of them. At halftime, my notes read: "Izzo is out-coaching Howland." MSU seemed to have UCLA's sets scouted better and their offense was far more effective in getting its shooters open on the outside.
But Howland redeemed himself in the second half. UCLA's defense tightened up, with its guards taking better angles in chasing through screens, and UCLA's offense went to different sets that exploited UCLA's offensive strength against MSU and it had a considerable impact.
UCLA shot 24% in the first half and 55% in the second. Yes, UCLA missed a number of lay-ups in the first half that skews that stat, but still, UCLA wasn't getting good looks with its offensive execution. In the second half, Howland called different plays, with Kevin Love stepping out to the high post to pass out of it. Howland also worked to isolate Josh Shipp against his smaller defender, successfully posting him up a few times. Those, among other second-half wrinkles, gave UCLA some critical easy baskets in a grind-it-out game that had only 8 fast break points between the two teams.
Shipp scored four points in the first half and 14 in the second half. Love finished with 21 points, 11 rebounds and 3 assists.
Love also essentially fouled out MSU's entire front line, drawing fouls throughout the night, making Izzo have to rotate post players in to guard him. Drew Naymick and Idong Ibok both fouled out and Goran Suton had four fouls, and even Tom Herzog, in just two minutes, collected two fouls. It's another dimension to Love's game that many who are new to watching him are just discovering – his ability to draw fouls, not only because of his excellent use of his body, but his excellent use of his acting skills.
The two CBE Classic games were a good measuring stick for how Love is going to compete against high-major post players.
You could say he gets a passing grade. Love won the MVP of the tournament, deservingly.
Russell Westbrook had a couple of struggles, but overall played an outstanding game, playing 40 minutes and committing one turnover while scoring 13 points. He provided good perimeter defense and provided a spark offensively, hitting a big three pointer and getting into the lane effectively when UCLA needed someone to create. He did also provide a considerable scare, when he went down with an apparent knee injury in the first half after getting a dunk blocked. He didn't miss a minute, however.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute had another poor 20 minutes in the first half, with one point and zero rebounds. He redeemed himself in the second half, finishing with 8 points and three boards, two very nice assists in the lane for easy baskets, a big follow-up dunk in the last couple of minutes and then the shot of the game, hitting the three-pointer to give UCLA a 66-63 lead. It was a huge moment, with UCLA coming out of a timeout and MSU switching to a zone, and UCLA looking a bit disoriented for the first 15 seconds of the shot clock until Mbah a Moute coolly spotted up in the corner and swished his open three.
Shipp had a typical Shipp game, with some key sequences that made a big impact, and others that didn't. On the down side, Shipp's perimeter defense in the first half was poor, with Shipp not trailing through screens quick enough, allowing various Spartans, particularly Drew Neitzel, open looks. He was better defensively in the second half, and he also had three steals that were key in getting UCLA some much-needed easy baskets. He made a critical mistake, charging on a break before giving up the ball, at about 6 minutes left in the game and UCLA trailing 56-52. UCLA was gaining momentum at the time and it was a momentum breaker. But all in all, we'll definitely take the good and the bad of Josh Shipp since his "bad" are getting less compared to his "good."
Plus, when Darren Collison returns, Shipp will mostly find himself guarding threes instead of twos, which will lessen his chances of getting burned defensively.
There were some strange elements to this game, which actually made it interesting. UCLA, in the first half, curiously had 11 offensive rebounds but just 7 field goals. They finished the game with a whopping 22 offensive rebounds, with just 23 baskets. In the first half, UCLA had just one assist, and then nine more in the second half. MSU actually shot the ball better in the second half, 55%, compared to 50% in the first half. But the Spartans went 1 for 8 from three and had 12 turnovers in the second half, a definite indication of UCLA's improved defense.
UCLA's free throw shooting has now hit critical mass. Lorenzo Mata-Real's mental block on free throw shooting has now infected the entire team. It's a revelation if anyone can hit both free throws when they step to the line. They shot 61% for this game, 19 for 31, so if UCLA had just made 75% of their free throws, they would have made three more – three more points that are critical in a game like this. In the past, UCLA's poor free-throw shooting hasn't cost them a big game, but it almost did in this one. We suggested before that Mata-Real needed to see a sports psychologist about his free-throw shooting but it's clear now that it needs to be a group therapy session.
If you're handing the true MVP of the tournament, it has to go to Howland. Without his point guard, his best shooter and a key frontcourt reserve, he worked some magic to pull out this win. If you know recent college basketball, you knew that, even though UCLA trailed the entire game, he'd have his Bruins scratching their way back, which they did.
Rob Carpentier, in the game's preview, picked UCLA to lose, citing that playing without Collison and Roll would be too much to overcome Michigan State, and he looked correct, for most of the game.
He did, however, also say: "But imagine where this team is going if they win."
With Howland's coaching, it's easy to imagine.