DePaul Review

UCLA beat DePaul in the Wooden Classic, 72-54, Saturday, and, even though you can't (again) take much from playing against such inferior opponents, it appears more and more that UCLA's offense is flowing while the defense is still a work in progress...

It went about the way you would have expected; UCLA did well enough that Ben Howland put in John Wooden's great grandson, with the Bruins beating DePaul in the Wooden Classic, 72-54.

As we said in the preview, DePaul isn't very good and definitely falls into the cupcake category among this season's opponents, so (again) there isn't a great deal to take away from the win. However, like it will be with every cupcake game this season, there are bits and pieces to discuss.

Overall, the team played one of its most disciplined and focused games of the season, committing just 11 turnovers and allowing DePaul to shoot just 41% on the game (even though a great deal of that could be attributed to DePaul being a very poor shooting team). There weren't many glaring mistakes or costly turnovers. Of course, some of the reason is the freshmen played less minutes collectively, so there were less poor decision and turnovers.

With Howland shortening his bench and limiting minutes for the subs, it was either an indication that Howland wanted to treat this game as if DePaul weren't a cupcake, or the season's bench-shortening and sub-minute-limiting is already starting to happen – or both. If it's the case of the latter, that would be a shame since UCLA isn't close to being out of Cupcake Land, with Loyola Marymount, Mercer, Wyoming and Louisiana Tech on the way over the next two weeks, which is far too much potential playing time to develop the youngsters.

Even against the 2-3 zone and the diamond-and-1 that DePaul was playing against UCLA, there was an improved flow for the Bruins in the game. UCLA had 19 assists, to follow up a 22-assist effort against Cal State Northridge, and it has made for a much more fluid, effective offense. Against Northridge, Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday combined for 10 assists, and against DePaul they had 11 (Holiday 6 and Collison 5). With Mike Roll and Jerime Anderson, two very good passers, coming off the bench, it seems that passing has become a bit infectious. Josh Shipp also seems to be buying in, with 6 assists against Northridge and 3 against DePaul.

UCLA could have treated this game as a 40-minute practice against a zone, and generally emerged successful. The flash to the top of the key is effective, especially with someone like Alfred Aboya or James Keefe who can hit that 15-footer, which makes the defense have to honor them, but UCLA's perimeter players are improving in finding space in the zone, and trying to exploit it with the extra pass. UCLA is most effective against the zone when it tries to pass through it and only allow Collison and Holiday (and occasionally Anderson) to try to penetrate it.

It's all about players (and coaches) recognizing their roles, which this team looks to be starting to do.

Collison played a much better game than his box score line would indicate. If we could find a criticism, it would be that Collison didn't look for his shot enough; the best shooter on the team has to take more than 9 shots in a game and score 10 points. But it's still hard to diminish his game, when he had a number of very good assists against zero turnovers, while also playing good defense, creating a number of turnovers that led to fast-break points, and finishing with 4 rebounds.

Holiday had 14 points and those 6 assists, 2 steals and 1 blocked shot, while shooting 6 for 8 from the field and 2 for 3 from the three-point line. He hit both three-pointers at the beginning of each half that sent kind of a de-moralizing message to DePaul. He had four turnovers and a few that were just lazy and sloppy on easy passes. But he's bringing so many dimensions to the two-guard spot that opens up so much of UCLA's scoring opportunities – not only bringing great passing vision, but the ability to penetrate, create turnovers for easy transition baskets and merely keeping an offensive rebound alive for a second chance. His defense against DePaul's leading scorer, Dar Tucker, was very good, limiting Tucker to just 11 points on 3 of 13 shooting and 1 for 6 from three.

Then there was Holiday's put-back dunk that brought down the house in the second half.

With Collison and Holiday playing so well and so unselfishly (perhaps a bit to a fault), Shipp also seems to be finding his most productive offensive role. He finished with 14 points, getting most of those points on either mid-range pull-ups after a couple of bounces or finishing in transition – the two areas where Shipp is an effective offensive player. He also seems to have re-discovered the sneaky Shipp, the one who steps into passing lanes or tips loose balls to teammates. Shipp is getting his points where they come to him more naturally, rather than barrelling into the key with his head down like he's done in the past. Against the zone, Shipp kept the ball flowing more, making a pass rather than looking to shoot first. It still is a concern that he went 0 for 4 from three, and is now shooting just 20% from three on the season. There wasn't much more you could do in this game to improve that stat, with Shipp getting wide-open looks from three and clanking all of them. If Shipp can improve his outside shooting in Pac-10 play – boost that 3-point shooting to just 35% -- UCLA has the chance to be a very lethal offensive team.

He at least has to recognize some things, too, about his shooting. In one possession, UCLA couldn't get penetration or a good look after about 25 seconds against DePaul's zone, so Shipp pulled up for the three. If anyone's going to take the last-option three-pointer, Collison, Roll or Holiday – or even Keefe -- have to be higher on the hierarchy of shooters.

While UCLA generally performed well against the zone, the difference in the game was the Bruins' ability to get scoring in transition. UCLA had 16 fast-break points, and even more opportunities that they just couldn't convert, for one reason or another. But that was clearly the difference in the game. Shipp is a very good finisher in transition, and Collison and Holiday are excellent in the open court. Throw in Roll, who is a great passer in transition and very good trailing for the look from three, or Nikola Dragovic, who has been good at getting out on a break, and UCLA has a very nice transition game.

UCLA's defense, on paper, looked like it had a good game, and it certainly didn't have a bad game. But let's face it – DePaul can't shoot straight. The Blue Demons had many open looks and lay-ups that they just couldn't convert. UCLA's D was okay, but broke down on switches or on rotation from the post double-team. It's clear why Howland keeps emphasizing defense in practice at this point; despite how UCLA fans can malign UCLA's offense, the O is flowing, while the defense is the side of the court that needs more work.

You could say that it's strange how Keefe is being used. He starts, plays for about 6 minutes, and then Dragovic automatically comes in for him. Keefe, in those first 6 minutes or so, has repeatedly played really well, hitting his early shots and pulling down multiple rebounds. But then, and it could be coincidental, he doesn't seem to regain that spark after he's subbed out. It would be good, one time, to see Keefe left in the game when he's playing so well early.

And while Dragovic still isn't shooting well from the outside (going 0 for 2 in this one from three, and now shooting 20% for the season), many are wondering why Dragovic is "playing too much," to quote the BRO message board denizens. In the last two games, however, while you might think that Dragovic might be playing too much, it really hasn't been the case; Keefe has played exactly 22 minutes in the last three games, and Dragovic has played 13 and 14 minutes, respectively, against CSUN and DePaul. The 14 minutes are probably about right for Dragovic.

It could be that Drew Gordon has earned floor time, and Howland is squeezing him in for 10-15 minutes per game, while Aboya has slid over to play some four. We've heard that Gordon continues to improve in practice and he is definitely doing so in the games, looking good in the 11 minutes he played in this one. He had a sequence in the second half where his relentless effort resulted in a put-back and foul, and then on the next possession he passed out of a double team to J'mison Morgan for a slam. He attempted a baseline jump hook, which is good to see, and his defense is improving, being able to move his feet better and get to the spot when he's defending in the post.

It used to be that if you could say Aboya played 31 minutes and only committed two fouls you would consider it a good game for him. But our expectations are rising for Aboya. He had a decent game against DePaul, seemingly a little out of it (perhaps those grad student finals?). He reverted a couple of times to old bad habits – moving on screens and gambling with on-ball defense. Mac Koshwal, DePaul's 6-10 freshman, was having his way with Aboya in the first half.

Besides Holiday's put-back dunk, and Tyler Trapani (Wooden's great grandson) playing in the game, easily the other highlight was all five freshmen on the court at the same time. While, of course, it makes for some sloppiness, it also gives you a glimpse of the potential of the team down the line. While the freshmen didn't convert some offensive possessions, you could see a much better flow to the attack. And you can see how UCLA, with Gordon and Morgan, could be dominant rebounding. Morgan played in just those four mop-up minutes at the end of the game, had a conversion for a basket and pulled down three rebounds, using his size and length to easily snatch rebounds above the rim. He also had a nice-looking outlet pass. You would have thought that, in this game against DePaul who has some big, slower posts, Morgan might have seen more minutes.

Again, you have to take everything you saw Saturday on the floor of the Honda Center for what it's worth. We're in the middle of Cupcake Land and we still have two week before we come out.

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