UCLA blew out Arizona State Thursday, 84-51, in a game that surprised just about every sports pundit who provided a preview of the game. The match-up had many indications going in that it'd be a closer contest. Arizona State plays a tough zone defense, which UCLA usually struggles against one. ASU slows down the game by taking their time with each offensive possession, which should have kept the game close and the score low. They have one of the best scorers in the Pac-10, James Harden, who is very effective off the dribble, which UCLA had shown some particular vunerability to in defending lately. And, you could possibly see UCLA looking past the Sun Devils, anticipating their game with Arizona on Saturday.
But none of that came to fruition. This is why, as the saying goes, they play the games.
The game was a nice reassurance for UCLA that it hadn't lost its mojo.
It was also probably a huge indication that ASU is, perhaps, coming back down to Earth. The Sun Devils clearly weren't a very good team Thursday; in fact, they might have been one of the worst teams UCLA has faced all season. See, this is how everyone can be fooled – ASU had put together a ten-game winning streak, and started out the Pac-10 season with four straight wins. Just a few weeks ago, they were 14-2 and nationally ranked. But Thursday night, they were exposed, and you then could see right through their record: They were a team that had won some big games at home, and made a name for itself by beating Arizona in a thriller, when the Wildcats were without their very talented freshman, Jerryd Bayless. Also, at home, the nothced a big win by beating nationally-ranked Xavier, but then they really didn't beat any other good non-conference teams. At home, also, at the beginning of conference play, they beat Oregon and Arizona, and then had a solid win against an okay Cal team on the road. The wheels were starting to come off when it lost to a legit Stanford team a couple of weeks ago by 25 points, then was wobbling when it dropped two games at home against the Washington schools last week, and now the cart is in a ditch – wheeless -- after Thursday.
It's really a testament to ASU's coach, Herb Sendek, for what he's doing in Tempe – being able to get that much out of team that isn't very talented. Sure, he has Harden, and a decent post player in Jeff Pendergraph, and an okay spot-up shooter in freshman Ty Abbott. But the talent then falls off considerably after that. And you just don't have a lot when two of your three best players are freshmen – and wings – and they seem to be hitting the very common freshman wall.
Harden was averaging 18 points a game, and UCLA held him to his lowest point total in two months, 9 points. Abbott, who was averaging 11 points per game, had 4. The two of them combined to shoot 36% from the field and two for seven from three.
Pendergraph, ASU's best rebounder, averaging just about 7 per game, had just one board for the night.
UCLA definitely played better defensively than they did in the state of Oregon last week, but it, still, wasn't this good. ASU missed some open shots in the first half, and UCLA made most of theirs – and when the rout was on, ASU folded.
That ASU zone defense, that had been so annoying to a few teams, was like paper. UCLA cut it up with an aggressive, smart zone offense that consistently made the extra pass for the easier basket. UCLA has the rap as a team that struggles against a zone, but if you're an opposing coach and you watch this game, you might reconsider. Howland started Russell Westbrook instead of Alfred Aboya specifically because Westbrook is so good at penetrating a zone. He and Darren Collison were like surgeons, knifing through, jump-stopping and finding a man open as a result of the zone collapsing. It was a very pretty thing to behold.
Offensively, ASU didn't have much. The combination of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Westbrook guarding Harden was too much. Harden, though, looked like a shell of a player he had been in various other games. But even so, give credit to UCLA's defensive tag team – you either have long, strong Mbah a Moute, or harrassing Westbrook, both with quick feet. It's enough to give a scorer nightmares.
Pendergraph, also, couldn't compete down low with UCLA's interior D. Pendergraph isn't exactly a physical post, and Kevin Love and Lorenzo Mata-Real bumped him out of his comfort zone. There was only a couple of times when Pendergraph scored in the post, and he got none of his usual put-back points, with UCLA's posts completely sweeping him out of the lane for rebounds.
It was particularly encouraging that UCLA's defense was so good, without Mbah a Moute for long stretches. After Oregon, it wasn't hard to believe that UCLA's defense really suffers without him, but Mbah a Moute got into foul trouble in this one, played just 17 minutes, and UCLA's D was fine.
Again, it was probably because ASU just plainly didn't have much to challenge the Bruins off the dribble.
But, as has been the case more often this year, this was a game led by UCLA's offense and not its D. Josh Shipp showed in this one just how effective of an offensive player he can be when he lets the game come to him and shoots on-balance, squared-up and in rhythm. He made five threes. ASU allowing him some wide-open looks is probably the best remedy for coming out of his mini-shooting slump in Oregon.
Collison and Westbrook combined for a lethally efficient backcourt offensive pair. Collison had 14 points and Westbrook had 10, but the mind-blowing stat is that the two of them combined for 16 assists against just 1 turnover, along with six steals. It'd be tough to be more efficient than that. The two of them are probably now drooling to face more zones, both of them looking very confident finding seams to exploit.
Love had another double-double, finishing with 20 points and 10 rebounds. It's frightening when Love gets 20 points and they're even a fairly quiet 20 points like they were against ASU. The zone offense, though, worked well in getting him touches, in both the low post and high post. And if you might have noticed, it also had him step out in the corner to create room for Westbrook and Collison to penetrate. Love is now such an effective offensive weapon, even from the outside, that the opposing post has to go out to guard him when he steps out, creating some real estate in the paint for Collison and Westbrok to fill.
One of the best sequences of the season came in the first half, when Love hit a three from the corner and then Collison stole the in-bound from ASU, stepped back into the same spot and drained a three himself. That started a run that seemed to last the rest of the game.
While, again, ASU, looks like they're done, give UCLA credit for keeping its foot on the neck of the Sun Devils and not allowing them to get up from the mat.
Perhaps the only worry to come out of this game was Love, Collison and the other starters still in the game with 10 minutes left and UCLA up by 30+. Envisioning Love twisting an ankle when he's playing meaningless minutes makes you cringe. When Collison went up for a lay-up, was fouled and went down hard in a heap with UCLA up by more than 30, you closed your eyes and prayed.
All the pundits were spouting the warnings, that the ASU/Arizona weekend is no longer just one tough game. This was, perhaps, UCLA's easiest game since they blew out Idaho State by 40 in mid-December. And it goes a long way to helping them against Arizona, keeping them fairly rested for Saturday.
If the Bruins can, indeed, beat Arizona, they'll finish the first half of the Pac-10 season at 8-1. With Washington State losing at home against Cal last night, they are now 5-3. Stanford, who is 6-2, has to now go to Pullman, to play a pissed-off WSU team. If the Cardinal lose, and go 6-3, UCLA is two games ahead of both of them in the Pac-10 standings and looking pretty tough to beat heading into the second half of conference play.