It's encouraging that UCLA can be this good with still so much it can improve.
If we can just get the Bruins to play a full game like they generally play in second halves, they'd be fine. In the second half, they out-scored the Cardinal, 41-33, and kept them to 40% shooting from the floor.
And they looked like a #5-ranked team in the country on the road against the #20-ranked team.
It was not only a significant win since it was the Pac-10 opener, and on the road, but it was really UCLA's first experience playing against some serious size, Brook and Robin Lopez.
In fact, the Bruins got out-rebounded, 35-31.
But you'd have to give UCLA a very good grade for the way they matched up against the Lopezes. Brook Lopez was 0 for 5 in the first half, and ended with 13 points and 5 rebounds, a guy who is averaging over 17 points and about 7 rebounds per game. He and his brother, Robin, both fouled out in this one due to UCLA continuing to pound the ball inside – and the remarkable ability of Kevin Love to draw fouls against defenders.
Love, in probably his first game against a legit NBA Lottery pick, had 15 points and 7 rebounds. It was particularly encouraging that, when he got the ball in the block, he unflinchingly took it right to the Lopezes and either scored or drew a foul. You can criticize AAU ball all you want, but without Love's AAU experience, when summer after summer he went up against the best high school big men in the country, he might have been unprepared to play against the Lopezes.
It also might just be his natural instincts. It's definitely because of the width of his body. When he goes up, he's so wide, and such a good actor, that he can easily draw fouls, and then is shooting close to 80% of his free throws.
It was refreshing to see UCLA actually have a real, elite big man go against other elite big men, really for the first time during Ben Howland's coaching tenure at UCLA. It makes you realize how Howland had really been doing it at a deficit for the last few years, unable to really match up with any kind of inside presence against opposing big men. Before Love came to UCLA, he was hailed as the missing piece of the puzzle, and he certainly was Thursday night.
Interestingly, and surprisingly, Stanford used a zone only sparingly. I would love to sit down with Trent Johnson and hear the explanation why. Everything seems to point to Stanford employing a zone against UCLA: 1) They don't have the perimeter athleticism to stay in front of Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook 2) It would help keep your big men out of foul trouble against Love 3) UCLA was without Mike Roll, a designated zone buster 4) Stanford is better defensively with a zone than with man, and 5) UCLA notoriously struggles against a zone, and there are probably a few more reasons. UCLA, actually, did okay against Stanford's zone when they did employ it, but really did well executing their offense in the second half regardless of what defense Stanford employed.
We've said so many times that UCLA wins with defense. It's happened a number of times this season; UCLA picks up its defensive intensity in the second half and pulls out ahead. But in this game, while the defense was a tinge better, it was the offense's execution in the second half that was the difference. UCLA shot 56% from the floor in the second half, and was three of four from three, mostly because they had good, easy looks within 15 feet of the basket for most of their shots and their three-pointers were generally open looks.
Josh Shipp is certainly the guy who can translate good offensive execution into points. He's critical because of his ability to do that. You can have a team that executes well, and gets good looks, but if you don't have a guy who can put the ball in the basket, it's all for naught. Shipp is that guy. He finished with a game-high 21 points, three assists and no turnovers. His five threes were killer, coming at big sequences in the game, particularly one from about 24 feet straight-away with about 4 minutes left that gave UCLA its biggest lead. It was certainly one of those times when, you see Shipp spotting up and you say, "Bad shot," and he hits it. Psychologically, it has to be tough for an opposing team, too, when they play good enough defense to force a team to take a bad shots and the player makes it. Defensively, Shipp wasn't great. In the first half, he allowed Stanford's Anthony Goods to go right around him effortlessly a number times. Goods, in fact, was the leading scorer for Stanford, with 17. But this is what we're going to get with Shipp: He will, at times, be a defensively liability but he's the guy who is going to be your point-converter on offense. He'll, at least, always have to out-score the guy he's generally guarding.
The good offensive execution that Shipp converted into points came particularly from Russell Westbrook. It's almost unable to be put into words how good Westbrook has become, and still how much more upside he has. Westbrook's line was 15 points, 6 assists, no turnovers and two steals. And while those numbers are spectacular, it probably doesn't even reflect how good he was in this game. Westbrook, when he was matched on Goods, generally kept him from scoring. And on offense, he is now the generator that gets UCLA going. He is so good against a zone, able to penetrate and dish beautifully. You know that every opponent has prepared for him doing this, but he can still do it. His penetration and dish to Luc Richard Mbah a Moute in the first half was the prettiest play of the first half. You might be able to make a case that his mid-range pull-up along the baseline with picture perfect form could be it. You could also argue the way he is now crashing the boards for rebounds, and the offensive board and put-back against both Lopezes in the second half to put UCLA up 53-49 was a momentum builder. It was particularly a good move for Howland to allow Westbrook to now crash the boards, with that fantastic ability to get to the ball and that athleticism.
Alfred Aboya had probably his best offensive game of his UCLA career, hitting his first three-point ever and burying a pretty baseline jumper. As always, his defense is so vital to this team, being so active and athletic matching up against big men.
Darren Collison had an okay game, finishing with 9 points, four rebounds, four assists and four turnovers. He hit a couple of big, back-to-back threes that fueled the offensive surge in the second half. It's curious, though, if he is still hampered by the knee injury even without the brace, since he still isn't close to the same Collison UCLA fans are familiar with. Defensively, he only sporadically plays with the same intensity as in the past, allowing a considerably slower Mitch Johnson to turn the corner on him a few times, particularly in the first half.
Generally, UCLA's defense wasn't great in the first half, which gave Stanford life. UCLA's perimeter defenders were allowing Stanford's guards penetration, there were a couple of very poor hedges by Love that resulted in easy baskets, and there was poor rotation on the weakside after a big had to rotate over to step into a lane. Love, Lorenzo Mata-Real and Aboya, however, did well against the Lopezes down low, which is what kept UCLA from falling into their usual first-half deficit.
So, let's take that as a sign of progress. UCLA didn't get down by its usual ten points, but, after Stanford came out to start the game with a run, the Bruins generally led throughout the first half.
James Keefe, who came out of his redshirt year for this game after Roll re-injured his plantar fascia this week in practice, got just four minutes in the first half. He had a couple of rebounds, where he looked good, and a couple of turnovers, where he didn't. From what we can surmise, he can play this weekend and still redshirt if he hangs it up after that. If Roll can actually return in three to four weeks, it'd be something to consider in regards to Keefe. It's pretty clear that Howland doesn't have enough confidence in Chace Stanback, who played 1 minute in the first half, to carry the eighth-man responsibilities, and we know Howland is, and rightfully so, all about winning now, especially when you have a chance at the national championship, like this team does. But unless Keefe gets more significant minutes against Cal, it seems futile for him not to back to his redshirt. Essentially, if he's getting four minutes, he's not really contributing as the eighth-man anyway. Stanback, despite Howland's lack of confidence in him, can certainly provide that.
UCLA was the only team on the road in the Pac-10 last night to win its game. USC got beat at Cal and Oregon lost at Arizona State (who is, by the way 11-2 and doing well, like we said they would in our season prediction). If anything, it's an indication that it's going to be a very tough conference race, with most teams hoping desperately to at least hold down their home games since they're proably going to get a good number of losses on the road. So, UCLA getting this win against Stanford in Palo Alto could be even more significant as we work our way through the conference schedule. Now, if UCLA can beat Cal Saturday in Berkeley, that would not only be a 2-0 start in the Pac-10, but two big conference road wins, which could be significant enough to be the difference in the Pac-10 championship when it finishes in March.