Review of the Yale Game

The Bruins start out a bit lethargic against Yale, but turn it on late in the first half and end up winning big. Luc Richard Mbah A Moute and Russell Westbrook are particularly impressive...

After playing two high-profile games in Kansas City on national television – one of them a very emotional win over Michigan State – then flying back to California and enjoying a big Thanksgiving dinner, it would have been understandable if the Bruins weren't real fired up to play Yale Friday night. And for the first thirteen minutes or so, UCLA was a little flat. The Bruin defense gave up multiple open shots, with players getting beat off the dribble and slow rotations from the weakside. At the offensive end, the Bruins got some good shots early – against both a zone and man defense – but then had a series of quick shots or careless turnovers. The result was a 17-17 tie with about seven minutes to go in the first half and I was starting to think maybe I should have stayed home to catch up on all my TiVo viewing (it's amazing how many mediocre shows I'll watch if I can skip the commercials).

The Bruins, though, woke up at that point and dominated the rest of the way, outscoring the Bulldogs 64-30 to finish the game. Most of the Bruins played well, but Russell Westbrook, Luc Richard Mbah A Moute, Josh Shipp and Lorenzo Mata-Real stood out. Shipp's shot was a bit off, but he had several nice passes to finish with four assists and one turnover. Mata-Real was a big presence inside, with two blocks (with several other shots altered) and a game-high twelve rebounds. Lorenzo is going to go down as one of my all-time favorite Bruins. It's been a great experience to watch him grow as a player and person. What has been most impressive to me about Lorenzo is the way he's handled his role on the team. He was a starter as a sophomore, but then got injured and Hollins took the job. Then Lorenzo was a starter as a junior, only to lose his spot as a senior when Kevin Love arrived. Many players would have been unhappy, but Lorenzo has shown a lot of maturity in the way he's dealt with the situation . He doesn't get a lot of shots, but he plays his role of rebounder/defender exceptionally well.

The two clear standouts in the game were Mbah A Moute and Westbrook. Luc has been struggling early in the season, as he adjusts to playing small forward. I think it's been pretty obvious that he's overly concerned with showing small forward-type skills in hopes of getting to the NBA. He's been so caught up with handling the ball, and shooting jump shots, that he's gotten away from the aspects of his game that made him a prospect in the first place. Someone needs to tell Luc that the only reason the NBA guys had any interest in him in the first place was because of his unique rebounding and defensive skills. Take those things away and Luc never gets a sniff at the NBA. Dennis Rodman (minus all the crazy) should be Luc's model. Go get every rebound, guard the hell out of people and you've got a role in the league. Yes, he can get better in terms of his handle and shot – but those aren't the things that will get him drafted. He'll never be drafted on his skill level. If he has any hope of playing in the league, he needs to get back to the way he played as a freshman and then parts of his sophomore year.

In this particular game, we saw flashes of the old Luc. It actually started with the second half of the Michigan State game, when he got a couple offensive rebounds and kept another play alive when he battled inside and tipped a ball to a teammate. Against Yale, Luc seemed to find a balance between showing three-man skills and being the defender/rebounder that he's capable of being. He finished the game with fourteen points, ten rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block. The Bruins have already shown they're a pretty good team, but they'll go to a whole different level if they can get more performances like this out of Luc.

In addition to Mbah A Moute, the other guy that really stood out last night was Westbrook. His progression from the start of the season to last night has been very impressive. He's always had the tools to be a big-time player, but it's a huge jump to go from high school scoring lead guard to Pac-10 point guard. In high school, Russell didn't have to make many decisions. Most of the time, the decision was "go score the ball." He wasn't trying to run complicated offensive sets, getting teammates in position, figuring out what the defense was doing, etc. He was mostly just in attack mode, all the time, in high school. Now he gets to UCLA as a freshman and it's a whole different ballgame. Not only does he have all these different things to consider – he's doing it with less than ten minutes a game. So it's not exactly surprising that Westbrook wasn't a polished point guard when he began his sophomore season this year. And he's still not a polished point six games into the season. But if Westbrook were a stock, every analyst in the country would be telling you to buy. All the signs are there for him to develop into an exceptional player someday.

Westbrook had a couple careless turnovers early in the game last night, but it was still obvious that he gained a lot of confidence from Kansas City. He attacked the basket with several explosive drives early and he made excellent decisions as the game went on. He also had a couple steals and it felt like more than two. His defensive ball-pressure is very good and opposing teams are going to have a lot of trouble when Collison and Westbrook are on the court together. Their ability to defend the ball is going to make it difficult for other teams to get into their offense.

The one piece of bad news from the game was the injury suffered by Alfred Aboya. He suffered a fracture of the orbital floor of his right eye. It's unclear yet just how severe the injury is and whether he'll miss any time. He'll be evaluated more thoroughly early next week. Kevin Love also suffered an ankle sprain, but he appeared to be fine when he returned from the training room late in the game.

With tough games coming up in the next couple weeks against Davidson and Texas, the Bruins could certainly use some healthy bodies. Both Darren Collison and Mike Roll are thought to be making progress and it sounds like there's a chance that one or both could be back in another week or so. However, that's assuming there are no setbacks. With Collison's injury being a knee, the Bruin staff is understandably being very cautious. And Roll's injury, from everything I've been told, is the kind that can very easily flare up again.

Assuming, though, that both Collison and Roll return to 100% sometime in the near future, and James Keefe hopefully soon as well, it's exciting to think about what this team could become. The Bruins had trouble in Kansas City maintaining their intensity and defensive pressure for forty minutes. They just don't have enough depth with only eight scholarship players available. But when UCLA can start throwing out a second team that includes guys like Westbrook, Roll, Mata and Keefe – guys that would start for just about every Pac-10 team – that's when you're going to see the Bruins really take off. The defensive pressure and intensity will be maintained for the whole game, instead of the spurts of five or seven minutes at a time that you see now. When that happens, this group has a chance to be the best team Howland has coached.

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