Let's start with the things that went well for the Bruins. Let's face it, the Bruins were going to beat Mercer, the only question was by how much. In his game preview, Tracy Pierson predicted the Bruins to win by 14, and they did win by 17. From that standpoint the game went according to plan. Junior swingman Mike Roll got significant minutes starting in place of the injured Josh Shipp, and Roll responded with a solid 16-point, 2-rebound performance that included solid passing and good defense. It was the kind of effort, especially from behind the 3-point line, that many Bruin fans wish Shipp would produce on a regular basis.
Senior Darren Collison had a very good defensive game individually, being able to essentially neutralize Mercer's best player, guard James Florence. Florence was held to 9 points on 3-11 shooting and he was limited in certain areas of the game because of foul trouble. Collison also led the Bruins with 20 points and hit 2-5 from behind the arc. In fact, Collison and Roll combined to shoot 6-10 from behind the arc, while the rest of the Bruins shot a combined 0-9 from 3 point land.
The Bruins started fast, opening a quick 7-0 lead because of freshman Jrue Holiday and his ability to penetrate behind Mercer's zone defense and UCLA's superior and quick passing. The Bruins eventually opened a 14-3 lead and while Mercer closed within 5 on several occasions in the first half, you never got the impression that they would really threaten the Bruins. This, however, highlighted several of the areas that the Bruins need to work on in order to be more successful this season.
Tracy Pierson has pointed out on numerous occasions this year that these young Bruins are a work in progress, especially on the defensive end of the floor. Coach Ben Howland has predicated the success UCLA has had the past few seasons on defense, especially on the Bruins' ability to wear down other teams and to make proper defensive rotations to mitigate the ability of opposing teams to run their offenses out of traps and defensive help. Last night the Bruins started the game with excellent defensive intensity, but it waned after the first few minutes. The Bruins built their early double-digit lead because they forced Mercer into some very difficult shots. The defensive rotation was good and Mercer didn't have an answer for Collison's defense on Florence. Once the defensive intensity fell off, Mercer was able to find open shooters as they stopped forcing the ball to Florence. Particularly disturbing was the amount of open three-point attempts UCLA gave up in the first half. Mercer isn't a great shooting team (they were only 5-16 from long distance), but many of their three-point misses were off uncontested looks. Against teams that can hit 35-40% of their outside shots, lapses in defensive rotation like against Mercer are going to doom the Bruins to some losses they don't necessarily need to suffer. The Bruins did pick up their intensity at points during the game and this helped them keep their lead around double digits throughout the second half, but UCLA still has yet to show a consistent effort on the defensive end for the majority of a game.
Another area of particular concern is defensive rebounding. When the Bruins showed poor defensive rotation it was noticeable on the defensive glass. While UCLA did ultimately win the battle of the boards, it was only by one, and in the first half in particular UCLA was giving up what seemed to be an inordinate amount of second chances to Mercer. It seems as if the Bruins are hurting on the glass if James Keefe and Alfred Aboya aren't collectively in good rebounding position.
Defensively the Bruins should get demonstrably better as the season goes on because many of the defensive breakdowns they suffered as a team were because of individual breakdowns, particularly by the freshmen. Malcolm Lee, who played a season high 20 minutes, was a perfect example. Lee, who's talent is without question, was caught many times turning his head away from the ball on defense and wasn't able to consistently fight through screens or use moxy to get around them. The good news is that as Lee gains more experience in Howland's system, his "moxy" should increase. This is true of fellow frosh Drew Gordon and Jerime Anderson, who are sure to get at least the 10 and 6 minutes respectively that they saw last night in most games.
That leads to another area of concern. Actually, let's call it an area of questions because I don't want to be so critical of a coach such as Howland to call it concern. It's the area of subbing and the minutes that are being handed out to respective Bruins. Now, we aren't privy to UCLA's practices and what Howland expects out of particular players, but Gordon only played the aforementioned 10 minutes and the rest of bench, save Lee, played a collective 31 minutes and that includes the 19 logged by Nikola Dragovic. A specific question which continues to seem unanswered is why Dragovic plays almost the same amount of minutes that James Keefe does. Keefe was active and played solid interior defense while hitting two shots that forced Mercer's defense to be honest. Dragovic went 1-7 from the floor, including 0-4 from behind the arc, and the defense definitely fell off when he was in the game. Keefe was in a bit of foul trouble, (finishing with 4 personals), but perhaps Howland could have used the combination of Gordon at the 5 and the increasingly effective Alfred Aboya at the 4 to give the Bruins more energy and rebounding on the defensive end.
The Bruins are going to be what they are offensively, a perimeter-oriented team that occasionally can get the ball inside. However, last night the Bruins seemed to move the ball better for longer periods and got the ball inside, especially to Aboya (who responded by hitting a couple of nice jump hooks in the first half) enough of the time to at least give the perimeter players more open looks and wider seams to cut through. Aboya had perhaps the best all around game of any Bruin, scoring 14 points and pulling down 7 boards. He is becoming a solid interior option on the offensive end while not forgetting that it was and is his work ethic that has made him successful to this point in his career. He has developed a decent back to the basket game, (his jump shot still is a work in progress), and he is now hitting his free throws at a consistent level, going 6 for 8 last night. There are little things that he does when he gets the ball in the post, specifically holding the ball high so as not to get stripped, that one would love to se Gordon do with regularity. Gordon, who's offensive game is getting better by the week, had the ball stripped twice last night by Mercer guards giving help because Gordon holds the ball too low.
Still, the Bruins are getting better and Mercer is better than at least three teams that the Bruins will face in the Pac-10 this season, (Oregon State, Stanford and yes, Cal), and being able to somewhat coast to a win over a team that already defeated two SEC schools is a solid accomplishment. UCLA has consistently gotten better as each season has progressed under Howland, although some years have seen more improvement than others, and fans can expect that UCLA will do the same this year. On offense, UCLA continues to grow in its ability to move the ball against any type of defense and get balance on the floor in the half court. It's getting to the point where the Bruins need to recognize who are their shooters, (Roll, Collison and to a lesser extent Holiday), in order for the good passing to translate into made buckets.
With Wyoming and Louisiana Tech still to come in the next week, the Bruins have two more chances to increase the learning curve at both ends of the floor before the beginning of Pac-10 play. That means two more chances (three if you count the conference opener at Oregon State), that the Bruins have to alleviate the concerns...