With ESPN in town, and much of the college basketball world tuning in to watch, UCLA picked a good time to play its best game of the season. The Bruins were dominant at both ends of the floor in the 82-60 win over Arizona. After the Oregon road trip, I told a UCLA assistant coach that I wasn't going to be impressed with close wins over the Arizona schools at Pauley. I thought if the Bruins played well, they should win both games fairly comfortably. Well, consider me impressed.
The Bruins were intense and focused from the opening tip on Saturday. They were active on defense, efficient on offense and a step quicker than Arizona throughout the day. They took the fight to Arizona from the beginning and the Wildcats were never able to counter-punch. As impressive as the first half onslaught was for UCLA, the second half was just as good. It's very easy to let up a bit when you have a twenty-point lead, but the Bruins never gave Arizona a chance to get back in the game. UCLA's ability to stay focused was very encouraging.
This game was somewhat similar to the Washington State game in that the Bruin defense was very strong early and the Wildcats had difficulty getting many good looks. The difference, though, was that Arizona's defense wasn't nearly as good as Washington State's. The Bruins got very good shots and they shot a blistering 57% from the field. The Bruins were able to get quality shots on most possessions, whether it was Kevin Love posting up, Russell Westbrook slashing to the basket or Darren Collison taking the Wildcats off the dribble.
The Wildcats ended up shooting 48% from the field, but that was due to some late, garbage-time baskets. When the game was on the line, UCLA held Arizona below 40% from the field. That's a very impressive statistic because Arizona is a good offensive team. The Bruin team defense was excellent early on and the Wildcats struggled to get good shots. When UCLA did start to give up some easier shots later in the half, you could see that Arizona was uncomfortable. The Wildcats were still looking for Bruin defenders and ended up missing shots they might normally make. They had a couple relatively easy lay-ups that were missed just because they weren't expecting to be open. Chase Budinger was blanketed by Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and struggled to get any good looks. When Budinger did get an open jump shot late in the first half, he looked out of rhythm and clanked it badly.
Before the season, there was a lot of talk about how UCLA's guards could potentially be very disruptive at the defensive end of the court. With Collison and Westbrook, the Bruins have two very good on-ball defenders. But with Collison being hurt for the first part of the season, we really hadn't seen consistently great ball pressure from both of them at the same time. Collison started to look like himself on the Oregon trip, though, and his defense is much improved from where it was a month ago. Westbrook has been UCLA's best defender all season and it wasn't surprising that he held Bayless well below his season average. Both Collison and Westbrook were key in disrupting Arizona's offense yesterday.
It seems like a long time ago that we were talking about the inability of UCLA to fully integrate Kevin Love into the offense. Whatever early season kinks there were in that area have been worked out. Love is the focal point of the offense and the Bruins are doing a great job of getting him touches at different spots on the court. By moving him around the court, the Bruins are now allowing teams to just double-team Love down low. It's hard to double a guy when he's popping out to the stripe and shooting threes. And Love's passing ability, from the low-post or the perimeter, is a huge part of the improved Bruin offense. Love's overall game has improved tremendously since November. It's due partly to improved conditioning, as well as applying all the lessons he's been taught by the staff. Love is an extremely smart basketball player and his ability to pick up concepts, and apply them so quickly, has been very impressive. He completely dominated Jordan Hill, as well as any other players Arizona tried to throw at him.
One could argue that this was Russell Westbrook's best game of the season (although the Michigan State game – 40 minutes, one turnover, was pretty good). Westbrook's defense on Bayless was important, but his offensive production was huge as well. I've been thinking for some time that Westbrook needs to be a bigger part of the UCLA offense, as he's only player other than Collison who can create his own shot. You can run Josh Shipp through sixteen different staggered screens, but sometimes the defense is going to take that away. Westbrook, on the other hand, doesn't need you to run anything for him. Just give him the ball and let him create something off the dribble. He's got the ability to get to the rim, pull up for the mid-range or jump stop in the lane and create for others. Westbrook's progress in this area – coming in under control, jump stopping and finding a teammate – has been truly remarkable. Not too long ago, Westbrook was kind of like a wild colt. He had a scorer's mentality and he either wanted to shoot it or dunk on your head. Now, he's under control, surveying the court and ball-faking to get teammates open shots.
While Westbrook, Collison and Love were the three clear standouts, everyone played well in this game. Mbah a Moute's defense on Budinger was huge and Shipp had several nice plays in transition. Alfred Aboya, Lorenzo Mata-Real and James Keefe gave the Bruins some depth inside that Arizona could only dream of having. The Bruins don't have much depth in the backcourt, but it's quite a luxury to bring those big guys off the bench.
I was speaking with a UCLA assistant after the Arizona State game and he said he thought the win over ASU was important because it gave the Bruin players an idea of just how good they could be. It showed them what was possible when they made the extra pass, defended, took good shots, etc. This win over Arizona will likely only reinforce those concepts. In the first run to the Final Four, the Bruins discovered themselves after the loss at USC. From that point on, they realized they needed to be a great defensive team, that was tough and hardnosed, as well as a disciplined team at the offensive end. They weren't a great scoring team, but they became an efficient team. They didn't give away possessions and they didn't beat themselves – they made you beat them.
This past weekend feels like something the Bruins can build on in a similar way. They've seen the blueprint for success at a high level. They're starting to recognize how they need to play in order to beat good teams. Players are stating to understand their roles. Everyone on the team has a better understanding of how to play with Love. The Bruin players now have an idea of what they need to do in order to be one of the elite teams in the country. Every team goes through a process of figuring that out, of finding themselves, each season. For the Bruins, the two games this past weekend may have gone a long way in giving them a road map for a trip to San Antonio. They may not make it there – anything can happen in a one-and-out tournament – but the Bruins' chances are as good as any other team's if they play the way they did this past weekend.
UCLA Cruises Easily Past Arizona
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