UCLA beat Louisiana Tech Sunday, 78-55, in a game in which the players and fans all collectively were taking naps. It could be that the temperature in Pauley Pavilion is about 80 degrees.
Whatever it was, UCLA coasted for at least half of this game, building a 30-point lead and then putting it on auto-pilot to take ‘er home from there.
Overall, it wasn't a well-played game by the Bruins, not only looking like they weren't into it for a good portion of it, but even in the portions when they did display some effort they looked out-of-sync. There were some offensive possessions and defensive trips where UCLA executed fairly well, but then there quite a few where they didn't.
Again, though, since it was another cupcake there isn't much you can take from it. While you would have liked to have seen the Bruins display some killer instinct and limit Louisiana Tech to about 35 points and run up about 90 on them, you have to think that it must have been hard for UCLA to get up for this game – the last of the non-conference cupcakes – and that they were looking ahead somewhat to the start of conference play on Friday.
Even the big drama leading up to the game concerning how Ben Howland would dole out playing time among his wings was deflected to a great degree since freshman Malcolm Lee sat out the game with a knee injury. Howland, to get Mike Roll more playing time, basically gave him Lee's minutes.
Again, as it's been for most of the season, the offense isn't as much of a worry as UCLA's defense. The Bruins have only been able to sustain good defensive effort in limited spurts throughout the season, and have been poor in their defensive rotations and help defense. In this game, the rotations and the help defense looked markedly improved (even though, again, you have to take it with a grain of salt considering the opponent), while it seemed UCLA sustained good defensive effort for about 15 total minutes. When they put both together, like they did in the first half of this game, the defense can look particularly good. UCLA was pressuring the ball with vigor, and then cutting off passing options for the Louisiana Tech player that was trapped. As UCLA has learned this season, if you're going to trap – out of screens, on double teams, etc. – you have to be able to rotate quickly with your help defense to pick up the opponent's open man. The Bruins, in the first half, did this beautifully at times. The 11 turnovers Louisiana Tech committed in the first half came mostly off UCLA's trapping D.
But UCLA's defense was sporadic. The 24% the Bulldogs shot for the first half came somewhat off hurried shots because of UCLA's defense, but also merely because Lousiana Tech missed a number of open looks. When UCLA lost effort on defense, there were Bulldogs open. I counted five clear open looks that Louisiana Tech shooters missed in the first half, with two of them being three-pointers. If Lousiana Tech makes those open jumpers, it shoots 41% on the half, the score is 39-29 at halftime, and Howland ain't as pleased with his first-half defense as he said he was in the post-game press conference.
The open looks came off purely a lack of effort. A UCLA defender not keeping a player in front of him well, another showing a lack of effort in pushing through a screen, another being very slow to rotate over to the open shooter, etc.
Then, in the second half, the defense went to sleep for almost the entire half. Louisiana Tech shot 50% in the second half, mostly because of a good amount of lay-ups created by UCLA's step-slow defense.
You can say that we're nitpicking when you criticize a defense that allowed a team just 55 points and to shoot just 37% from the field, but that's why you don't do analysis purely by statistics. UCLA's defense clearly isn't what it has been in recent years; it's been excellent in spurts, like it was Sunday afternoon, but those spurts are far too short-lived. Perhaps the most encouraging defensive aspect for the Bruins was their improvement on defensive rotation, but again, it wasn't sustained throughout the game.
You never know, this could be a year where UCLA's offense actually carries the team. But call me pessimistic, you have to anticipate there are going to be games this season when UCLA's offense bogs down and it will need its defense to carry it through. So far, it's uncertain if UCLA's defense has that kind of carry-the-team quality this season.
Offensively, UCLA switched pretty seamlessly when facing the man and zone of Louisiana Tech. To its credit, UCLA doesn't look like a deer-in-the-headlights like it did in years past when it faced a zone. It's probably the one thing that UCLA really got out of facing so many non-conference cupcakes – so many of them ran a lot of zone against the Bruins and it's made them very confident when facing it.
It might also be that Jrue Holiday contributes another dimension to breaking down a zone with his ability to find seams and pass the ball. Darren Collison, too, has improved dramatically in his ability to find teammates in the half-court offense, be it against a zone or man D.
Holiday had a double-double, with 12 points and 10 rebounds, adding 5 assists and three steals, against just one turnover. While he's still not shooting the ball really well from three (going 1 for 3 in this one, and now 2 for 17 in his last four games), he does so many other things particularly well offensively that make the offense that much more fluid. His ability to find teammates for a lay-up in transition with his vision and passing is seemingly effortless.
Collison scored just 2 points, didn't look for his shot much, but had 10 assists, three steals and just one turnover. Collison, offensively, has been a curious offensive player over his four years at UCLA; it's almost, at times, like he can't be a distributor at the same time as he's a scorer. He's either/or. In this one he definitely deferred looking for his shot to pass the ball, and he passed it exceptionally well. It might very well have been his best passing game in a very long time, finding his teammates not only in transition, but finding seams to pass for easy lay-ups in the half-court. It has to be pointed out, though, that it's the first game that Collison didn't actually make a field goal since the national championship game against Florida in his freshman season. He's UCLA's leading scorer, and he's simply going to have to score for this team to succeed. It also has to be pointed out that Collison, by making his two free-throw attempts, has made 31 straight free throws since missing one in the first half of the first game of the season against Prairie View A&M. Henry Bibby holds the UCLA record of 36 straight made three throws in 1972, and Collison almost broke it last year when he made 32 in a row.
Josh Shipp, returning from an injured thumb that still appears to not be 100%, had a good game, being the game's high scorer with 16 points in just 22 minutes. Shipp took just one shot from three, which he missed, but he got most of his points with mid-rangers and by getting out in transition. In one possession, against Louisiana Tech's zone, Shipp found a wide-open seam which he drove to throw down a big dunk – with his injured left hand. There were some times when he was a bit selfish – when he over-dribbled into a turnover with Holiday wide open right next to him, and maybe when he hogged an alley-oop to J'mison Morgan on the last play of the first half, but generally Shipp, again, played more within himself, doing the things he can do well – like mid-range jumpers and finishing in transition.
Mike Roll, after scoring 25 against Wyoming, scored just five Sunday. He went 2 for 7 from the field, making 1 for 3 from three, and generally looked tentative shooting the ball. He and Holiday had 26 and 29 minutes, respectively, so it was clear that Howland was trying to get his other wings besides Shipp some time in this one, with Shipp's injury perhaps limiting his minutes and Lee out. If there's a knock on Roll it would be that he can have a big game and then follow it with a tentative game – that his confidence isn't quite there completely for him to play consistently from game to game.
Probably the player who had a particularly "off" game would be James Keefe. In 20 minutes, Keefe had just two rebounds, which is what he's in the game to primarily do, scored 0 points, missed all three shots pretty badly, had three careless personal fouls and went 0 for 4 from the three-point line. We believe Keefe is a player that Howland will need to have performing at his optimum level for UCLA to be any kind of contender in March, but he's in an all-around performance slump right now. In the last two games he's scored 2 points, and had just seven rebounds. While most everyone knows we think that Keefe has more positives than Nikola Dragovic, since he's inherently a better rebounder and defender, Dragovic is now starting to make the consistent playing time he's received from Howland more valid. Dragovic's defense has continued to improve, and he's been far more active on the boards, pulling down 21 rebounds in the last five games, compared to Keefe's 22. Dragovic, even if he isn't shooting the three very well, is much more of a threat to score, getting nine points against Louisiana Tech. And the one clear advantage Dragovic has over Keefe is his passing. The argument about playing time between Keefe and Dragovic used to be: "If Dragovic can't shoot the three, which is what he's supposed to do, there's no reason for him to cut into Keefe's minutes." But now, with Dragovic's rebounding and defense improving, even without him being able to shoot the three, his playing time is looking more justified as Keefe struggles. I still think Keefe will be the better option down the line, since he's a better defender and rebounder, but it's a very positive development that Dragovic is legitimizing his playing time with improved defense and rebounding.
Despite that embarrassing missed dunk, Drew Gordon had another good performance, in just 12 minutes getting 4 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks. Every time he's on the floor he looks more comfortable and settled, particularly defensively.
We're hoping that some of the readers who were second-guessing Jerime Anderson's ability – and capability in the future – to be UCLA's point guard will perhaps concede he has the potential to be very good. After a shaky start early in the season, which you have to concede to all freshman point guards, he's now giving Howland very good minutes off the bench. In this one, he hit a three, then made a floater in the lane, and then followed that up with another three after a sly fake pass to draw the defense away from him. He's shooting 78% from the free-throw line (6 for 6 in his last four games), and he's also playing solid defense.
Mr. Consistency, Alfred Aboya, turned in another typical performance – 12 points, 6 rebounds, 4 for 4 from the free-throw line, in just 19 minutes. While no one could, of course, replace Kevin Love's scoring in the post, you have to start recognizing that Aboya has become a scoring threat. In the last three games, as UCLA has tried to get the ball into him more often, he's averaging 12.6 points per game, and he's been getting to the line, where he's shooting 77%.
And if we're doing the "don't-look-now" thing, don't look now but UCLA is a fast-breaking team. Just about every team UCLA has faced this season – including Louisiana Tech on Sunday – is doing everything they can to keep the Bruins from getting out in transition. UCLA ran Wyoming into the ground Tuesday, and they got 24 fast-break points against Lousiana Tech. If you might notice, opposing teams now are making adjustments defensively to keep the Runnin' Bruins from getting out on the break. After a few quick transition baskets by UCLA early on, Louisiana Tech's head coach Kerry Rupp called a timeout to get his transition defense beefed up, and he started dropping another man back as soon as Louisiana Tech took a shot.
Under Howland, UCLA has clearly evolved into a fast-break team. It's undeniable now, with how every opposing team has to make concessions to keep the Bruins out of transition. So, let's all note how many national college basketball pundits don't recognize it and still drone on about how Howland slows it down and grinds it out offensively.
While Howland hasn't received much credit for being a good offensive coach, he's doing some things this season that are noteworthy. It's clear he's trying to find Collison more looks, and running plays for him, as well as Roll. It's clear he's recognized that Holiday needs the ball in his hands to create. He's limiting Shipp to what he does best. The offense is flowing better this season than it has in recent years. Also, this season, he's consistently throwing in more offensive wrinkles. Against Louisiana Tech we saw a set where two players spread out into the corners to take themselves – and their defenders – out of the play, and create a three-on-three situation. It was effective twice, with Morgan, now with no threat of a double team, able to use his big body to convert down low as a result.
UCLA now will continue its cupcake schedule for its first game of the conference -- taking on Oregon State Friday in Corvallis. Hopefully, UCLA will bite down on this cupcake and play with more consistent focus and energy defensively.