Bruins Pull Out of Sleep Walk

UCLA showed its championship caliber by coming back from an 18-point deficit against a good Davidson team to win. But it also, again, showed its now prevalent habit of playing with no urgency and bad defense in the first half against a good opponent...

It's puzzling that anyone finds it puzzling that UCLA can fall 18 points behind a team like Davidson and then ultimately beat them, 75-63.

Has anyone been paying attention? Remember, it's all about defense.

This is a simple one. UCLA played crappy defense in the first 14 minutes of the game.

There isn't much else to analyze.

There is a sweeping conclusion to make of it, though, since UCLA playing poor defense to start a game has happened a few times this season: If the Bruins don't start playing defense from the beginning of the game UCLA fans can cancel their plans to San Antonio.

In those first 14 minutes Russell Westbrook was the only Bruin playing effective defense. It was very reminiscent of last season, when UCLA would do this same thing, if you might remember, dig itself a big first-half hole, while Arron Afflalo was the only one playing defense.

Thank God for Russell Westbrook. He is easily the Bruins' MVP of this season's first 9 games. Without him, UCLA would probably be 6-3 and hovering down around Arizona territory in the polls.

It's a lethal combination if Darren Collison, Josh Shipp. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Kevin Love all play bad defense at the same time. Voila! An 18-point deficit.

Should we give Collison a pass since he's still recovering from his knee? You'd like to, but then, in the second half, his defense was vastly improved. Maybe it's psychological with the knee – that Collison needs to get moving and play a bit before he trusts it. For now, we'll get Collison a slight pass on his D.

If we're handing out passes so liberally, though, we should probably then give Shipp a pass, too, since he's never been a great defender – except in the NCAA tournament last season.

(Are you sensing a bit of sarcasm here?)

Mbah a Moute had a great offensive game, and a very good rebounding game, but his defense wasn't fantastic, particularly in the first half.

Love, well, he's still just learning how to play defense.

Howland tried to find a spark by subbing in Mike Roll, Alfred Aboya and Lorenzo Mata-Real in that 14-minute stretch. Aboya's energy and intensity definitely helps defensively, but it still is tough when at least three of your teammates aren't playing with it.

Maybe this might be a tinge drastic – but it might be time Howland sent a stronger message and benched Collison, Shipp and Love, at least, at the start of a game. But on the other hand, it's a matter of whether you consider having to dig yourself out of 15- to 18-point deficits every game is drastic.

Davidson's Stephen Curry is one of the best offensive wings in the country. If you haven't seen him before, and you thought that he was taking ill-advised, off-balance shots from much too far away from the basket against UCLA, then you aren't aware that he makes many of those shots. He has one of the quickest releases in college basketball, and combine this with the ability to take you off the dribble and you have a clear future NBA player.

Westbrook kept Curry to a season-low 15 points. Curry scored 20 against Duke and 24 against North Carolina. He's averaging 26 per game, while shooting almost 50% from the field and 44% from three – while every team's best defender has been assigned to him, and many times the opposition's two best defenders have tag-teamed him. Even though this season is not even a third over, it's safe to say that Westbrook's defense against Curry is one of the top ten things about the UCLA 2007-2008 season. It was beautiful. Curry, truly, only got one clear look at the basket, and that was in one sequence when Westbrook slipped. Curry is bound to have nightmares about Westbrook, about those quick hands and feet and the strength.

And not only did Westbrook turn in the defensive gem of the season so far, he also had 14 points and 6 assists on the offensive end. He started off making a few mistakes, losing the handle on a couple of relatively out-of-control drives, but he got himself under control and was a spark on offense as well. Besides the 14 points, which were all pretty (including a big three pointer in the first few minutes of the second half that brought UCLA to within one at 38-37), the six assists were the most beautiful, especially when your point guard only has one for the game. Westbrook laid off a few nice assists in transition, and some really pretty ones in the half-court, mostly by penetrating and dishing. He had one penetration/dish to Josh Shipp for a three with about 6 minutes left in the game, with UCLA up by just five and Davidson still not quite dead yet that just about put Davidson in its grave.

If the rest of the team can play with the urgency of Westbrook then, Bruin fans, you might have a National Championship on your hands.

The other real stand-out performance was by Mbah a Moute on offense. He finished with 21 points, which is his most offensive output since that awe-inspiring first game of the season against BYU last year (the one that falsely had everyone expecting Mbah a Moute to do that every game last season, and he never reached 20 points again). Mbah a Moute looked very comfortable offensively against Davidson, taking the mid-rangers when they left him open (and hitting them), but also getting points around the basket like the old Mbah a Moute, on offensive rebounds and garbage. Mbah a Moute has scored 14 and 21 points in UCLA's last two games, against two good opponents, with seven and eight rebounds, respectively, and it's probably not a coincidence that it's happening after he's been moved back to primarily playing the four. Mbah a Moute is getting bigger, slower opponents matched up with him defensively, and he's in his element – close to the basket.

If you're handing out credit, I guess you have to give it to UCLA's defense in the second half, too. Davidson couldn't get a shot off many times during a possession, and had just 12 shots total in the second half. A couple of times, too, UCLA defended them well right down to the last couple of seconds of the shot clock before Davidson hit a prayer three at the buzzer. UCLA also forced Davidson into 7 turnovers in the second half, which is a huge key for the Bruins, enabling them to get out in transition and get some easy baskets. Davidson committed just two turnovers in the first 14 minutes, and then 9 the rest of the way, mostly because UCLA finally decided to play some D.

Those first 14 minutes, however, weren't pretty defensively for UCLA. Davidson is a three-point shooting team, having shot more than 40% of all of their shots from three. Wtihout much of an interior offensive game, and with even their big men able to shoot from the outside, it's what they do. In those first 14 minutes, however, it looked as if UCLA didn't know that coming in. Davidson would rotate the ball, using off-the-ball screens to get shooters open and – there they were – with a UCLA defender either half-heartedly trailing the shooter around the screens or half-heartedly closing out on him. Davidson hit six threes in the first ten minutes of the game. They also, though, got easy baskets with UCLA's defenders allowing their opponents to slip off those screens to the hoop.

Combine that, in those first 14 minutes, with UCLA's offense looking inept, and you have the 32-14 score. Davidson, on defense, was playing like they had a copy of UCLA's game plan, beating Bruins to their spots on offense, anticipating passes and screens. Up to that point, you were ready to give Davidson's coach, Bob McKillop, a national coach of the year award.

But then you wanted to take it away. As UCLA mounted its late first-half run, getting a number of steals and easy baskets, McKillop, thankfully, didn't call a time out. In just about 4 minutes, that 18-point lead evaporated to 6 before he called one, with UCLA scoring 12 straight points and then finishing the run with 15 straight unanswered. It felt almost like Gonzaga all over again, how quickly UCLA made that 18-point deficit disappear.

As we stated at the top, this isn't a tough game to analyze. When you have two of your three perimeter guys playing poor defense this is going to happen. Collison, truly, had a poor game for him. In the first half, he had 2 points and one turnover with no assists, and he made a number of poor decisions and, as we said, his defense was lackluster. He was better in the second half.

Shipp also did his usually poor-first-half/improved-second-half act. Shipp had a total of 2 points in the first half, on two free throws, taking just three shots, and all of them from three. In the second half, Shipp scored 12 points, was 5 for 8 from the field, two for four from three and had three assists and a steal. His defense was a bit better in the second half, even though he did allow his man to get open a couple of times for threes, shots that kept Davidson in the game.

There just wasn't a sense of urgency to the Bruins in the first half, much like it was against Texas. The complacency is a bit alarming, especially in this game. After seeing how it bit you in the ass against Texas you would have thought UCLA would not have trouble coming out with intensity against Davidson, clearly a good team and not a cream puff.

It's almost a shame that UCLA now goes into a cream-puff phase of its schedule again. With this team, you feel it needs to be consistently challenged to get it to play well, and to get it to work out of its first-half somnambulism habit.

There are teams throughout the country that, for whatever reason, I become a fan of during the course of a season. Davidson is now on that list. Curry is something, and the way they play to their strengths, don't turn over the ball, play good defense and make you defend them is very good basketball. We probably won't be able to see them on TV until March, since their huge, lopsided wins in the Southern Conference aren't going to get too much television time. But they'll definitely get some time in the tournament; if there's a mid-major who could make some considerable noise in the Dance, Davidson is it. You have to feel a bit sorry for them, too, currently being 3-5 because they lost to UCLA, North Carolina and Duke, and Atlantic Ten Charlotte. Against Charlotte, they were down by just one point with three minutes left; against Duke they were down by 2 with 7 seconds left; and against North Carolina they were down by 3 with 13 seconds left.

And against UCLA, they were up 18.

UCLA needs a couple more Davidsons on the rest of its non-conference schedule to make the Bruins realize it can't start a game sleep-walking, especially on defense. Because, if it does continue with this pattern, come late March the Bruins will have plenty of opportunity to catch up on their sleep.


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