That was two Final Four caliber teams squaring off, and some of the highest quality of college basketball in the nation this season.
No matter what teams you watch this year, you might never find the same level of fundamentals, defense, skill and coaching from two teams in the same game.
You might find more athletes on the floor in a given game, but not better basketball.
In fact, the basketball UCLA played in the first 16 minutes or so was some of the best it's played under Ben Howland. It played tough, active defense and executed a well-balanced, inside-outside offense. Washington State didn't get an actual field goal for the first eight and a half minutes. The Bruins kept the Cougars to 38% shooting in the first half.
They even did it with 8 first-half turnovers. In other words, it could have even been better.
Love has now assured himself the title of the best big man in the Pac-10, and one of the handful best in the country. He had a career-high 27 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks, and played very good post defense. It's amazing how far he's come in just 17 games of college basketball, and very exciting to think about where he'll be by NCAA tournament time.
We knew he was this good as a scorer and passer, and we can't necessarily say that he's improved in these areas because he was already pretty darn good at them before he ever became a Bruin. It is phenomenal, though, how much he's improved defensively. He was pretty spotty defensively just 10 games ago, but now he's shown he can defend any post player the Pac-10 can throw at him. His new sense of position on D, to use his wide body, stay on the ground and make his opponent have to shoot over him, has been successful in limiting some very good offensive post players. Aron Baynes, WSU's 6-11 and 275 pound center, had been working every defender he faced before this game – in much the same way Love does, getting good position close to the basket and then using his wide body and a patented jump hook in a way that defenders can't touch the ball. But Love, first, showed he's big enough to move out Baynes from position, and he's big enough to knock Baynes off balance so he can't get off a good shot. Baynes worked USC and Washington down low, but in this game he had 8 points, below his 12-point average, which is becoming commonplace for Love to do (keep post players below their averages). Baynes only took three shots and made one and was flustered throughout the game by Love.
Love is playing himself into first-team All-American status, and he's truly showing just how talented he is, being able to out-play opponents who are bigger (Baynes), more athletic (DeVon Hardin), or both (the Lopez twins) because, when it comes down to it, he has such a great natural feel and ability to play basketball.
Westbrook, also, is proving to be one of the best at his position in the league. In the first half, you had Love converting on the inside, rebounding and playing great post defense, and you had Westbrook driving the lane, hitting his mid-range jumpers like they were automatic, making great assists and picking opponents like he was a man playing against children on a playground court. He had 10 points, 4 assists and two steals in the first twenty minutes.
With Love and Westbrook, UCLA had the #4 team in the country down 26-8 with five minutes left in the first half.
There were stretches in this game where you didn't think UCLA could play better defense.
Darren Collison, coming back from a hip contusion he suffered Thursday against Washington, was fairly quiet offensively in the first half. But he played good defense, especially on deceptively quick WSU point guard Taylor Rochestie, which was instrumental in UCLA building that commanding lead. It's really handy, then, to have a pre-season All-American point guard at your disposal in the second half, and Collison stepped up and kept the game iced for the Bruins. He had just two points in the first half and was turning the ball over. But in the second half he had 16 points, was creating off the dribble and making his mid-range floaters. When the game became a possession-by-possession affair late in the second half, Collison was critical to preserving UCLA's double-digit lead. No matter whether you think Collison isn't the same as he was last season, or hasn't played at the same level consistently this season, UCLA is definitely not near as good a team without him, especially defensively.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute also, after having a fairly poor first 30 minutes, then also helped carry UCLA down the stretch with Collison. He had, throughout the game, been getting to the basket but was missing easy lay-ups, which at times Mbah a Moute has been prone to do. But he made a couple of them down that late-game stretch. He also played very good defense on whomever he matched up with on WSU, whether it was Robbie Cowgill (who had just two points), or Daven Harmeling (who had 10 points, but six of those came from that three-point shooting flurry at the end of the game).
Shipp scored his sneaky 14 points and, while he had a couple of defensive lapses, showed increased intensity on defense.
Alfred Aboya and James Keefe both provided very good help, especially defensively. It truly is a pleasure to watch Aboya defend; when he matches up against bigs and he displays his incredible foot speed and energy, you have to think that the opponent is saying, "What the hell is this?" Keefe, too, is showing himself to be a very good defender and rebounder, and it's clear that he's starting to get more comfortable. It will be interesting to see how far he'll come by March.
Perhaps the most disappointing performance by a Bruin was that of Chace Stanback. With UCLA's rotation not a big one, Stanback's ability to provide 5-10 minutes a game could be critical down the stretch of the season and he looked like, in the last several games, he was making progress, especially defensively, which is what it will take to get him on the court. But in this one, he came in and had WSU's Nikola Koprivica drive right around him and score, and Howland took out Stanback within a minute.
Washington State is clearly a very good team, in many different ways. They not only are a good defensive team, as has been their calling card, but very good offensively, with some capabilities that are going under-appreciated. In the first half, WSU was trying to execute its half-court offense but UCLA's defense was a step ahead of them, beating them to the spot, a result of energetic defense but also of great scouting on the part of the UCLA brain trust. But then Washington showed some good adjustments of their own, getting away from its set offense and trying to take advantage of some different individual match-ups to get its players freed up for open shots – and it worked.
The three-point flurry at the end of the game was uncanny. UCLA's defense slacked off a bit, perhaps from fatigue, but it wasn't that bad. It really was just a matter that Washington State knew they had to shoot threes to get back in the game, and they're just that good at shooting them.
WSU's biggest weakness and it really was what hurt them during UCLA's run in the first half, is rebounding. They missed a few shots in the first half, but they never got a second chance with an offensive rebound. They only had 18 rebounds for the game, against UCLA's 33. It is the one aspect of their game that could be their Achilles Heel down the line; in the NCAA tournament they could go up against a less skilled team but one that out-boards them so significantly they can't compete.
It was a great game, and a very big win for the Bruins. To really get the benefit of the two wins on the road last week in the Bay Area, it needed to hold serve at home against the Cougars. It was a big step toward UCLA being the team to beat in the Pac-10 conference race.
But WSU is a very good team that is well-coached. Watching them play, with their physical play, the many screens they set, their shot selection and the very good defense, it tends to remind you of another team you're very fond of. Like it did last year, it makes you, as a Bruin, a Cougar fan, and it'd be nice to see both UCLA and Washington State in San Antonio that first weekend in April.