UCLA Takes Big Step Against Cal

The #5 Bruins completed the road sweep of the Bay Area schools, beating the Bears, 70-58, with perhaps their best game of the season. It not only was a step forward in terms of the conference standings, but in this team starting to gel...

UCLA registered a significant win when it beat Cal, 70-58, in Berkeley Saturday.

It gave UCLA a weekend road sweep, which will probably be rare in the Pac-10 this season, and will more than likely have a huge impact on the conference race.

Most significantly, it was easily UCLA's best game of the year. Not only did they play well, both offensively and defensively, they played with intensity and focus for a vast majority of the game.

And it gave us all a hint of what this team could be.

Really, for the first time, the team truly gelled for almost the majority of the game's 40 minutes. In fact, you could even make a legitimate case that it was the first time the offense gelled with a balanced, inside-out attack in the last several years.

The difference, of course, is Kevin Love. UCLA couldn't play like this the last several years because they didn't have an inside player with Love's talent.

So far this season the team hadn't played completely seamlessly with Love. There have been flashes, but it's almost like they've been taking baby steps.

This game was a big step.

The ball went down low to Love consistently. The rest of the team got Love singled up on the block and threw him nice entry passes. Love posted up well, against a future NBA player most of the time, caught the ball, stayed in control, waited for space and avoided the double team. He showed more of his post abilities we knew he had in this game than he had in just about all of the 14 previous games this season. In the first half, he sealed, scored off jump hooks and turnarounds, even a three-pointer, and passed out of the block to cutters with precision. He blocked out and rebounded, and played very good defense. In fact, his post defense against Devon Hardin was perhaps better than Lorenzo Mata-Real's, which is a first for Love.

And the rest of the team played well away from and with Love. They played well off him, moving well away from the ball when he had it, and found good, open looks and lanes.

UCLA's offense, now, isn't primarily about swinging the ball around the perimeter and setting multiple screens to get its perimeter shooters open. In this game, it was about swinging the ball around to be ready when Love tried to post up on either block.

You could see these Bruins starting to realize that the team's offense needs to go inside-outside for it to operate at its optimum, and they look like they feel far more comfortable doing it. UCLA's offense in recent years has never been multi-dimensional and, many times, was disjointed. This was the first you could see UCLA actually getting in a true offensive rhythm.

They couldn't sustain it for the entire game. In the second half, Cal made a run, to pull within two points. They did so by trying to collapse on Love and deny him touches, and UCLA went back to its old habits -- that familiar, perimeter-oriented and out-of-sync attack.

There were a few minutes worth of worry there for a while. Were they going to remember what got them there in the first half – that is, getting Love touches in the post? UCLA, after scoring 36 points in the first half, scored just 8 in the first 12 minutes of the second half. When Love got called for his third foul and came out Cal went on a mini-run and pulled to within 38-36, and every Bruin fans was probably sweating – thinking UCLA was in trouble and this is where the game could really go bad. But it might have been the best thing for UCLA, because after Howland hurried Love back in, the Bruins then went back to giving him touches and the offense, once again, sparked. While it wasn't just about Love scoring again, he did, too. He went scoreless in the first 8 minutes or so of the second half, after scoring 15 in the first half. He then finished with 4 more points, had a nice assist, a few more rebounds and played very skillful defense while have three fouls.

Thankfully, Cal obliged in helping UCLA play its best offensive game of the season. It only played zone for a couple of minutes in the entire game. And Hardin, it's 6-11 athlete assigned to guarding Love, looked like he had watched the tape of the UCLA-Stanford game from Thursday night too much, where Love fouled out both Lopez twins. Hardin looked tentative defensively and gave Love far too much room to operate in the block.

UCLA's defense was excellent. Cal went the first half with just a handful of shots from within 10 feet, having to settle for bad, outside looks and, most of the time, only getting that one opportunity since UCLA was crashing the boards. Cal shot 36 % for the game and just 29% in the first half. The D did so many things really well, not only applying very good on-ball pressure, but excellent post D. There were also some new variations, such as a trap out of hedge, which caused a turnover. Love's defense, again was very good, keeping Hardin from catching the ball close to the basket. And the Bruins completely frustrated Cal's big scorer, Ryan Anderson, with their athleticism and quickness. He was four of 13 from the field, and a couple of those were garbage at the end of the game and at least one was a complete off-balance prayer he threw up after traveling and not getting it called on him in the lane. Alfred Aboya and Luc Mbah a Moute are truly exceptional defenders, with just about no one in the country their size able to get around them or even get a slight amount of space to get off a shot most of the time.

This was a Cal team that just scored 92 points against a good defensive USC team Thursday. That's a 34-point difference.

Russell Westbrook was superb, in every facet of the game. Perhaps the only negative you can point out about Westbrook is that, every once in a while, he gets wound up a little too much and needs to slow down. He had 11 points, seven rebounds and 2 assists, and one turnover on a questionable traveling call. While the high-flying dunk made all the highlight shows, and it truly was an eye-popping moment, the alley-oop finish and foul a few minutes later was even a more athletic play. His mid-range jumper has become very reliable, and when it's part of the arsenal of a guy who can get into the lane so easily as Westbrook, it's a money play. It's bizarre to think that UCLA wasn't sure about taking Westbrook. He is clearly becoming the best NBA prospect on the team, and you have to really hope he doesn't decide to test the NBA draft waters after this season.

Darren Collison had a relatively non-existent first half, but redeemed himself with a very improved second half. His mid-range, too, has become very reliable and he made some very key shots down the line in the second half to keep UCLA comfortably ahead. His defense started to look more like the Collison of old, too.

What is probably the most indicative stat that this is a different UCLA team than you've seen in recent years is UCLA shooting 3 of 17 from three. The Bruins were cold from the outside and, in the last couple of years, they might very well have lost this game because of it. But UCLA has cast off its old stereotypes – it no longer is a slow-down team but one that runs, and it no longer is perimeter-oriented but is exploiting its advantage down low.

And it truly is an advantage. It was Love's first true challenging weekend, going up against both the Lopezes and Hardin, and it's pretty clear that he emerged from the weekend as the superior post player. While the Lopezes and Hardin might be the more promising pro prospect because of their size, length and athleticism, watching Love go up against them, with his superior skills and feel for the game, you have to start possibly believing that Love might not only be the better player now, but even down the line. He's just too good, with the kind of game that many bigger, longer athletes will just never learn.

And, Bruin fans, hopefully this was just a first big step. Hopefully this team tasted this and liked it, and they'll continue to play together – and hard – and know that their offense has to go inside-outside for it to gel.

Because this is the Love we saw in AAU ball. That's not to say he hasn't been exceptional so far this season, but he still wasn't quite as good as we thought he'd be. We did say, however, at the beginning of the season, that as Love grows and learns, by the end of this season his effectiveness could be considerably improved. There's also the growth curve of Westbrook. There's the continuing recovery of Collison. There's just so much upside for this team.

And there was an intensity in this game that we hadn't really seen, except in little glimpses, so far this season. UCLA played with far more energy and focus on defense, and won many loose balls.

It was a great start to the Pac-10 season, with two big road wins in the Bay Area. And it was possibly the start of UCLA playing like it's capable of.

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