On the other, you have to question UCLA's intensity in cruising to a 77-52 victory over Western Illinois.
UCLA barely beat the Leathernecks in the second half, 35-33. Yeah, they did miss some wide open shots against WIU's zone that would have stretched the lead considerably.
But the concern, really, is allowing a team like WIU to score 33 points in a half. Morehead State and IUPUI kept WIU to 49 and 47 points for its two games. You'd think UCLA, with its vaunted defense, would at least be able to surpass that, especially against a team that was slowing down the pace.
Coming into the game, the challenge should have been to make this game a defensive statement – to see if you could keep Western Illinois below, say, 40 points for the game. Without much to get out of the game, that would have, at least, provided a goal.
But UCLA's defense was playing at three-quarters speed in the second half.
Now, again, you can easily make the case that with a cupcake game like this, coming off another one in Idaho State, and probably looking past the game a bit toward the Michigan road game on Saturday, it's understandable that UCLA's intensity wasn't optimum.
There really are two types of people with two different perspectives on something like this: On one hand, the one guy who understands the situation and writes it off. Then the other who feels that UCLA should have the killer instinct and play with its optimum intensity always if it's going to hope to contend for a national championship.
Take your pick. v We have to mention, however, again, that there really isn't much to get out of two cupcakes games in a row – Idaho State and Western Illinois. And there's no way to determine how playing these types of cupcake games at this point in the season will impact the outcome, whether it made the team complacent or not.
If UCLA comes out fairly flat against Stanford and California on the road when it begins tournament play January 3rd, there will be many who blame these cupcakes games for not preparing UCLA. But, again, if UCLA does come out with intensity against the Bay Area schools, you could make a case that the Bruins were well-rested, having not really been through a tough game for weeks.
Again, take your pick.
What we, as fans, did get out of the WIU game, though, is more evidence to support just how good Russell Westbrook is. He had seven assists to one turnover in this game. He is lethal penetrating and dishing. If you're an opposing team's coaching staff and you wanted to build a defensive game plan against UCLA, it should start with trying to keep Westbrook out of the paint. You'd rather give the ball to Kevin Love in the post without a double team or give Josh Shipp and Darren Collison open looks from three than allow Westbrook a chance to drive and jump stop in the lane.
If you are an opposing coach and the WIU game was the only one you had tape on you certainly would allow UCLA to take shots from the outside. UCLA went 0 for 12 from three in the second half, and just about every one of those was a wide-open look. Shipp went 0 for 4 in the second half and 2 for 8 for the game. Mike Roll bricked two in the second half and looked out of sync taking them (he did hit one three in the first half).
Kevin Love had a nice game, being perfect from the floor and the line, finishing 16 points and 7 rebounds in 25 minutes.
Perhaps, though, the most disturbing aspect of the game – which does directly reflect a lack of intensity and effort – was UCLA tying WIU in rebounds, 30 to 30. That's inexcusable. Missing open shots – okay. You're going to have off shooting days. But not being able to out-rebound the Leathernecks?
Admittedly, WIU wasn't as bad as advertised. They certainly weren't as bad as Idaho State. They played hard on defense and executed offensively, and were smart in trying to slow down the game and use the shot clock. UCLA had very few fast-break opportunities.
But come on. Mbah a Moute did say that Coach Howland told them after the game they'd be doing some blocking-out drills the remainder of the week.
At this point, after these two cupcake games, it's really tough to determine just how good this team is, and what kind of team it is. It's 10-1. It's eaten up the cupcakes. In its tougher games – Michigan State, Texas and Davidson – it started out flat and had to come from behind in all three and lost one of them. It hasn't shown a championship killer instinct yet, in either its tougher or easier games. Collison has yet to really have a signature game, definitely looks bored on the court, and doesn't look as quick as he was last season, perhaps still not quite 100% recovered from the knee injury. Roll isn't himself, and when you have a bench of just three players, it's pretty important that the one back-up guard you have is playing close to his optimum. Love is averaging 16.6 and 9.7 rebounds a game, just about what we thought he'd do before the season, but there are concerns with getting him enough touches, his defense and his conditioning.
And it doesn't look like we're really going to get any significant answers to these questions before January 3rd. All of these issues could be exposed in Pac-10 play, or UCLA could step up, turn it on and grow into the Final Four caliber team you'd project them to be.
Take your pick.