The Ducks were clearly enlivened by their big loss to USC Thursday, looking like a completely different defensive team than against the Trojans. Add to that a much more aggressive effort by the Ducks in rebounding (out-boarding the Bruins 31-24), from a team that has been a poor rebounding squad, and you have your reason why this game was tighter than expected.
You have to give the Bruins a great deal of credit for not being rattled at notoriously rude Mac Arthur Court, and retaining their composure in a possession-by-possession second half to win it.
Senior point guard Darren Collison was almost flawless. We can't say he was completely flawless since there were a few times he got beat defensively, but other than that Collison was truly fantastic. His spectacular stat line of 22 points and 9 assists against just one turnover doesn't even tell the story. Collison's ability to score, combined with his flawless (we can probably use the word here) decision-making and vastly improved vision have made him one of the best offensive players in the college game. In the second half, when Oregon came within five points a couple of times, he had the two offensive plays of the game. On one, with about two minutes left and UCLA up by 8, Oregon had forced a turnover and was energized. With the shot clock about to expire, and after a mad scramble for the ball, Collison calmly drove the lane, pulled up and sunk a midranger. A couple of minutes before, with the shot clock running down on a critical possession, he made a basket on a drive, was fouled and converted it.
Collison also calmly set the UCLA record for consecutive free-throws made at 40, beating Henry Bibby's record of 36.
It's a beautiful thing to see how Collison's game hasn't stagnated and continued to develop. He came to UCLA without a great natural feel for point guard, but vastly improved in seeing the court and finding his teammates. He is now exceptional at finding his bigs on the baseline off a drive. There are just so many little details that he's doing so well – like knowing how to draw a foul on a hedge – that have elevated his game. Collison, in the last few weeks, has taken his game to a new level, playing the best basketball of his UCLA career, and he deserves a huge amount of credit.
With Collison leading the offense, and with Ben Howland having probably his best passing team in a while, UCLA's offense isn't the worry this year. At least, so far. The offense, even when its transition scoring is taken away due to a lack of defensive rebounding, still produced in the halfcourt. It did it against Oregon's energized man defense and against its match-up zone. There were very few possessions where UCLA didn't get a good look or didn't convert in this game.
As it's been so far this season, the question for UCLA going forward is going to be its defense. Compared to recent seasons, UCLA's defenders have struggled to stay in front of their man and in its rotations and help defense. It did so again in the Oregon game. In the second half, in particular, the only stops UCLA could get were from lazy, errant Duck passes. Oregon ran some different plays out of its same sets, using curls off screens, and UCLA's defender struggled to rotate over and pick it up. As we said, even Collison's defense started to degrade, but the defense of Josh Shipp and Jrue Holiday was overall poor. Shipp got beat many times off the dribble and fell asleep on many rotations. Holiday is undisciplined, floating around the perimeter instead of staying focused and picking up the right man on a rotation, and he struggled to keep Oregon's quick little guard Tajuan Porter in front of him. UCLA's bigs were just average defensively, with even excellent defender Alfred Aboya missing on help defense a couple of times. We recognize that UCLA, with its double-teaming and trapping D, is going to vulnerable sometimes to a slow rotation, but this was too vulnerable, with too many guys late in their rotation to pick up a man.
Not having freshman Malcolm Lee as another option defensively is a bit of a blow.
Holiday is clearly going through a period of some struggle. He had 4 turnovers in this one, against three assists, and 8 points, hitting one three. Like we said above, he struggled defensively; We'll let him somewhat off the hook in trying to stay in front of Porter, but he is one of the guys who is slow on rotations. There are many little things, however, that Holiday does very well, making the extra pass, being able to drive in the lane and draw a foul, stepping into passing lanes, etc. That, combined with the fact that Holiday clearly is so talented, you have to hope that the light clicks on sometime soon for him.
Shipp's three-point shooting was huge in this one, and very timely, going 5 for 6, and hitting 4 big ones in the second half. Against Oregon's match-up zone, someone on the squad needed to step up and hit threes, and Shipp did so with confidence and rhythm. It's a credit to him that, after shooting 20% from three coming into this game, he didn't hesitate in a pressure situation late in a game like this. Up until that point in the game he had played fairly poorly – not good defensively and with two careless turnovers in the first half. But Shipp is certainly steely, remaining confident thought it all when another player might not have the self-assuredness to take the shots he did. There is something about Shipp where he tends to play better in clutch situations, when the game is on the line, and it's something every championship team needs.
Nikola Dragovic showed possible signs of coming out of his three-point shooting slump, too, hitting 3 of 6, finishing with 12 points and 5 rebounds.
It's good those two hit their threes, since Roll went just 1 for 3 in this one from behind the line. He did do quite a few things well, however, and is one of the best on the team at rotating defensively.
With Roll, Collison and Holiday, the better three-point shooters coming into the game, going 3 for seven against Oregon, UCLA still shot 13 of 22 (59.1% from behind the line). Against Oregon State, with Shipp and Dragovic combining for 2 for 10 from three, UCLA shot 37.5%. That's a combined 47% form three on this road trip without everyone shooting well. Again, if UCLA can put it together where just Roll, Shipp, Dragovic, and Collison all shoot well from three, UCLA's offense might be good enough to roll over teams even with a spotty defense.
It looks like Howland has his rotation – consisting of the starting five along with Roll and Dragovic getting about 15-20 minutes, and then Jerime Anderson and Drew Gordon about 10ish. It will be interesting to see how Lee's return will affect that. Without him, Anderson has been getting a few more minutes with Lee out, sometimes playing alongside Collison in this game, which moved Collison over to the two spot.
As we said in the Oregon State review, if UCLA can get solid three-point shooting from Dragovic and Shipp, then UCLA has a chance to be a very good team.
It's going to take some improved defense. As of right now, UCLA isn't a great rebounding team and it probably doesn't have the capacity to improve drastically in that area. Much of the time, when it comes to rebounding, you are what you are. Defensively, however, UCLA has the capacity to improve. Right now, compared to Howland's team of recent years, this Bruin squad isn't close defensively. It's ironic then, that with probably Howland's best offense since he's been at UCLA, led by a stellar Collison, the success of the season will again come down to how good UCLA's defense can be.