UCLA finished off its trip to New York with a win over Southern Illinois in the third-place game of the 2K Classsic, 77-60.
It was a game that was more indicative of the state of the team – exhibiting some issues that need to be resolved, but also some flashes of potential for the season.
It was also a game that allowed you to dream a bit. That is, it would be a complete dream if Alfred Aboya could play the way he did in this game throughout the season, or even just re-enact the performance a few more times.
It was easily Aboya's best performance of his UCLA career, and it's rewarding – even as just a fan – to see a hard-working, intelligent kid with the right attitude have four years of dedication pay off on national television, and getting one of the most celebrated coaches in college basketball history, Bobby Knight, as the television commentator repeatedly praising you.
Aboya was a wonder Friday afternoon. His impressive stats – 22 points and 8 rebounds – don't even come close to representing the type of game he had. He was excellent on defense, taking charges (UCLA says he took five charges in two games, but I remember more), blocking out to create rebounds for others, and executing the offense with precision. He also shot 10 of 13 from the free-throw line, which is as many free-throws as the rest of the team shot for the night (and they only made 9). He injured his wrist while still in the game in the last few minutes when UCLA was up by double digits, but the results of the X-rays and CT scans taken in New York were negative. He'll have another CT when he returns to Los Angeles, but with eight days until UCLA's next game he has plenty of time to heal up.
The other player that stepped up considerably is Nikola Dragovic, who had 8 points and three assists, even though he didn't register a rebound. Dragovic has been able to get on the court more this season because of his improved on-the-ball defense (even though his off-the-ball and help D are still a bit lacking). He hit 2 of 5 threes, and the two were in fairly critical times in the game. But what really made a case for playing time was his passing ability, finishing with 3 assists while having at least a couple other passes that set up baskets. Dragovic played 18 minutes, and the guy he's subbing in for – James Keefe – played 23. The night before in the game against Michigan the minutes were exactly the same between the two – 23 and 18. So, it appears that this is how Howland intends to play this position, to use Keefe for his rebounding and better defense, but to inject Dragovic for shooting and passing. In the two games, the two combined to average 13 points and 6.5 rebounds, which is solid production out of that position. When Howland needs more defense and rebounding, Keefe will probably get more time. When he needs some scoring, Dragovic will get the nod. Keefe could still continue to start and get more minutes because of the need at rebounding (UCLA got out-rebounded in this game 34-29).
If this can work this way for the rest of the season, it would be a coup for the power forward position. It's just a matter of both Keefe and Dragovic playing with more consistency, which hopefully will improve as the season progresses as they get more comfortable with their heightened roles on the team.
Perhaps the flash of potential that didn't get indulged enough was J'mison Morgan, the freshman post player who got in the game for just 7 minutes. In that time, Morgan made a nice turnaround jump hook and attempted another that looked good – and that was enough to show that Morgan does, in fact, have the best chance of providing back-to-the-basket scoring for this team this season. His defense, at this point, is clearly a liability, but hopefully if he gets more playing time his D will improve, to at least be adequate most of the time. It will be interesting to see, with some cupcakes coming up on UCLA's schedule, if Morgan will get more than the 6.7 minutes per game he's averaging. Getting him some time now against the cupcakes could be critical to getting UCLA a true inside presence later in the season.
There was also a good development in the backcourt, in terms of roles for Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday. Collison will always have the designation of "point guard" this season, but UCLA blew open a close game in the second half when Collison spotted up for consecutive three-pointers that he knocked down. Collison is such an excellent shooter, easily the best on the team, it's plain wrong and detrimental to the team that he, so far this season, has taken only the fifth most three-pointers on the team. He's attempted 9 three pointers – while Dragovic has attempted 15, Roll 12, Shipp 12 and Holiday 10. Heck, Keefe has attempted 8, one less than Collison. It's plain what needs to happen here: Collison, SHOOT. It's simplifying the Southern Illinois game, but UCLA certainly starting flowing offensively when Collison found room to spot up and nailed those two threes. Collison is, by label, a point guard, but he's the best shooting guard on the team and if he's not completely exploited for that talent UCLA will be leaving a great deal of offense on the table.
Then there's the guy who is the true point guard by nature – Holiday. Holiday was credited with just three assists but he had probably 8 to 10 passes that were of the uncanny kind. He's just a naturally gifted passer, one that benefits from a remarkable vision and feel. While it won't change that Collison is going to have the ball in his hand quite a bit, the offense flows when Holiday is creating and Collison is spotting up. We haven't seen it much yet, but in the short glimpses we have seen it, the offense functions and flows better than in just about anytime under Howland at UCLA when Holiday touches the ball. Holiday, even if he isn't dominating the ball, needs to touch it every few seconds in the offense, to give him a chance to find baskets with his passes. It's just too remarkable of a skill not to exploit, like Collison's outside shooting.
While there isn't a strong low-post threat, UCLA will get low-post scoring from the passing of Holiday. Also, as the season progresses, it's key that Holiday get more than the 24 minutes per game he's averaging right now. He needs to be on the floor more to make the offense be effective, and we're hoping his somewhat limiting playing time so far is just a matter of easing him into the season.
The combination of Collison and Holiday has to be the dominant one on the floor more than the combination of Collison and Shipp. Collison and Shipp, together, don't bring out the best in each other – as do Collison and Holiday. When Collison and Shipp are playing together, it leaves them working one-on-one far too much, since neither creates well for the other, and that's where Shipp gets in trouble. Shipp is best utilized as the third option to touch the ball behind Collison and Holiday, and right now, it's not that way. Hopefully Shipp will see that he'll score more by being the recipient of Holiday passes rather than by putting the ball on the floor himself, and that by getting Holiday the ball he's only going to benefit himself. Not only would Holiday find Shipp for more open threes, he'll get him the ball when he has a step on his defender, which is what Shipp needs, rather than Shipp having to create for himself. The Southern Illinois game was an indication that it could be that way, either by design from the coaching staff or by the natural order of the basketball universe. It could be truly up to Holiday to seize his role as the guy who needs to touch the ball on the offense and create. If Shipp realizes that Holiday is doing it to get others baskets he might sign off on it more readily.
What Shipp is doing well is rebounding. He's bought in that it's a collective effort this year in rebouding without Kevin Love, and he's averaging 5.3 boards per game, consistent with the 5.2 he averaged as a freshman.
But going forward, If Holiday touches it more, and Collison looks for his shot more, and Shipp realizes that Holiday is going to set him up to score, this offense could be a very potent one.
If this is how the offense evolves this season, the one critical aspect that will also have to improve is UCLA's ability to finish under the basket. If you're going to have Holiday dropping dimes on his teammates in the block, they have to be able to finish – or at least get fouled and make their free-throws. Aboya showed that he's capable of it, finishing better but also shooting free throws much better in the SIU game. Keefe, Dragovic, and Drew Gordon simply have to get stronger on the block to convert those easy lay-ups. It really hurt the Bruins against Michigan, and it was a big factor that was keeping Southern Illinois in this game.
UCLa was even with SIU at 48-48 with about 10 minutes left in the game, in fact. UCLA then went on a 20-4 run in the next six minutes, benefitting from a young SIU team that fell apart defensively like it did against Duke the day before. But it was also when UCLA's offense flowed with the ball more in the hands of Holiday and Collison looking for his shot.
UCLA's defense also remained vigilant. There were some SIU possessions in that stretch where UCLA's bigs executed the double team much better, and UCLA's perimeter players stayed in front of their man. It was a matter of time, in fact; up until that point, UCLA had played generally pretty good defense, but seen SIU get lucky in the last few seconds of the shot clock, after UCLA had played solid defense for 32 seconds. UCLA's defense continued to play tough deep into the shot clock, but in that last 10 minutes of the game SIU tired against it, and in that stretch the persistence of the D paid off.
So, the SIU game could be one where we witnessed roles emerging more. This team – and the coach staff – had to have a period in the early season where it scouted itself, and recognized how all the parts fit together. Hopefully in the non-conference season the team continues to take steps forward in its evolution, and all the cogs of the machine are working at optimum efficiency in time for March.