Is There Anything to Worry About?

It's a testament to how good this team is -- or could be -- when they play poorly for at least half the game and still beat a Pac-10 opponent on the road, 85-62. Oregon State isn't very good, and struggling against them for a half in this game does present some worries, especially about defense...

I guess you could say we're getting Cranky when UCLA wins on the road in the Pac-10, 85-62, and the game creates more worries than satisfaction.

Let's first run through the satisfying aspects.

Darren Collison has found himself. He scored a career-high 33 points, was 9 for 12 from the floor and 13 of 13 from the line. He has now put together easily his best two offensive games of the season – and perhaps his UCLA career. He is taking up the leadership role far more.

Kevin Love is phenomenal. He had 16 points and 21 rebounds, which broke the record for rebounds by a UCLA freshman he set against Oregon (18). He's had 39 rebounds in the last two games. He was already very good, but he's getting scary good as he gets more comfortable with college basketball. He is now averaging 17.3 and 11.3 points per game. He is doing everything on offense well, with his astounding outlet passes, his passes out of the post, hitting threes, and his quick release on turn-arounds that are incredibly consistent.

Collison and Love led UCLA, as they did against Oregon, and brought the Bruins back in the second half to pull away from Oregon State. UCLA went on a 17-1 run to start the second half, with OSU going 0-for-10 and not hitting a field goal in the second half until the 11:40 mark.

Okay, those the good aspects. Here come the worrisome ones:

The first half was easily UCLA's worst of the season. There were other halves that weren't great – but this was against the Beavers, who are a pretty bad team. In the first half UCLA allowed OSU to shoot 49% from the field, a team that 1s shooting 38% on the season. The Bruins allowed them 39 points – a team that is scoring 61 a game on the season.

UCLA's defense was, perhaps, the worst it's been in any half in the last several years. This wasn't Florida, Texas or even Oregon. This was Oregon State taking UCLA's defenders off the dribble with ease for easy baskets. UCLA's defenders just plainly aren't good at staying in front of their defender. To add to it, UCLA's hedging and bumping have slacked off considerably, with poor rotation. This is a different defensive team than the one that played Washington State in that first half at Pauley Pavilion just two weeks ago.

Why is it different?

The first and most profound difference is playing without Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. We wrote this after the Oregon game but it bears repeating: Mbah a Moute is such a good defender that, without him, UCLA becomes an average to poor defensive team. Playing without him greatly impacts UCLA's defense, and creates poor defensive mismatches.

Russell Westbrook has lost some of his mojo. Strange, that when Collison gets his, Westbrook loses his. Westbrook has allowed more players to take him off the dribble in the Oregon and Oregon State games than he did all of the other games this season combined. And Westbrook's defense isn't the only thing that has slacked off a bit; he looks out-of-sync some offensively.

And Westbrook is the barometer for how UCLA plays. Against Oregon, he didn't play well for 3/4s of the game, and UCLA struggled. He then had a very good last 7 minutes of so of the Oregon game, and UCLA turned it up. He then played poorly against Oregon State, and UCLA struggled – until he had a good sequence in the second half and UCLA improved. Without Mbah a Moute, UCLA desperately needs Westbrook for his defense and athleticism. Perhaps without Mbah a Moute, Westbrook is too concerned with his D, and it's taking him out of his offensive game.

Josh Shipp played two average to poor games in the state of Oregon. His defense was its usual – spotty – and his offense wasn't great. He was 3 of 10 in this game, after going 2 of 8 against Oregon, which makes him 5 of 18 from the field in the last two games, which is 27%. He is 2 for 12 shooting three-pointers. He's not making poor decisions in driving to the basket, like he used to, but his shot selection isn't stellar when he's sometimes lazily taking off-balance outside jumpers.

After Nikola Dragovic hit the big three against Oregon, it appeared that Ben Howland gave Drago some of Shipp's minutes against Oregon State. Hey, it makes sense; if Shipp is possibly slumping offensively, there isn't much of a drop-off in terms of defense between Shipp and Drago. So why not see if Drago can generate some offense for you? Make no mistake, Shipp is clearly the better player, bringing so many intangibles and cleverness to the court that doesn't show up in a box score. But if Dragovic can actually challenge for some minutes it can only help Shipp step up his game.

UCLA also isn't as good without Lorenzo Mata-Real. While Love is phenomenal, he's still learning how to play defensively, and UCLA is still much better defensively with Mata-Real in the game, with Mata-Real far better at hedging on screens and taking away dribble penetration. The combination of no Mbah a Moute and a limited Mata-Real really helped the Oregon opponents get to the basket this weekend.

So, the road trip definitely garnered some worries. Hopefully they'll all be allayed with a healthy Mbah a Moute. Hopefully Westbrook and Shipp will get their mojo back. Hopefully, when they do, Collison and Love will continue to play the way they did in Oregon.

It is definitely an accomplishment when, having generally not played really well, UCLA gets two Pac-10 road wins over the weekend. It's a testament to really how good this team is, and hopefully how good it can be when it puts it all together.


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