Semi-Revelations in Arizona Win

With UCLA handily beating Arizona Thursday, 83-60, for the eighth time in a row, the streak going back four years, it makes you realize some things. And even though Arizona is officially in the cupcake category, you can still take away that this UCLA team is improving...

UCLA beat Arizona, 83-60, Thursday at Pauley Pavilion, and the game was revelatory in a few different ways.

First, there was the revelation that UCLA has beaten Arizona eight straight times. If you could hop in your time machine and go back to the late 1990s, would you believe it if someone told you UCLA would beat Arizona eight straight times?

UCLA hasn't lost to Arizona since February of 2005. That's four years.

It was a revelation that the Arizona game was, in fact, a relapse back into UCLA's Cupcake schedule. It made you realize just how poor this Arizona team is, how far Arizona has fallen, and how difficult it's going to be for the program to come back.

It was maybe not a revelation, but there was some recognition that this UCLA team is improving. There is some coming-together. Early in the season many UCLA observers were expecting this team to improve, since it had some new players taking on new roles, and it looks like that growth is actually coming to fruition.

But again, we have to caution you, as we did with each game on UCLA's non-conference Cupcake schedule: UCLA is better than it appears when it plays against a team that is worse than you could have imagined.

I've watched Arizona play a number of times on TV so far this season. But I still wasn't prepared for their lack of effort, or lack of caring. Arizona's zone defense was among the worst UCLA has faced this season, with holes in it that ocean liners could cruise through. Most of the time, Arizona players' look like they were moving in slow motion, lacking any sustained intensity. I thought, at the very least, that Arizona would get up for coming into Pauley Pavilion to try to knock off their one-time rival Bruins, but they couldn't even get it up for that.

It doesn't even appear that Viagra would help at this point. I guess Viagra wouldn't have any effect on a dead guy.

UCLA started working the clock with about 10 minutes left. They held the ball for most of the 35-second shot clock. If they hadn't done that, they very well could have scored 100 points against Arizona's defense.

It's funny, too, because if you look at the talent on both teams, there shouldn't be 20-30 point disparity. Yeah, UCLA does have more talent – more depth – but Arizona isn't talentless, with a nucleus of Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger and Nic Wise. But when you throw in the difference in desire, the difference in mentality between a program on its way up and one on its way down, that supplies the rest of the disparity.

It's too bad, too, because the UCLA-Arizona games used to be glorious battles.

But this one was over pretty quickly. UCLA came out in a blaze of glory like it did against USC, making six of its first eight shots, and its first six free-throws, to go up 21-13, and then basically never looked back from there. Once UCLA built a double-digit lead, it never dipped to below 14, and ballooned up to 26. You never felt at anytime in this game that UCLA would be threatened.

It was mostly because UCLA so easily took advantage of Arizona's lackluster zone defense. The obvious hole was the one at the top of the key, and UCLA would flash players into the space – Mike Roll, Nikola Dragovic and James Keefe – to catch, turn and shoot easy 15 footers. Why not, when there isn't a defender closer than five feet from you. It looked like a shooting drill in practice without a defense. It was very good scouting on UCLA's part that they obviously recognized that hole coming into the game, because the Bruins were exploiting it from the outset.

The Bruins also got many open looks from the outside against Arizona's zone, and shot 7 for 17 from three (41.2%). The stat actually should have been a bit better than that since among those numbers are a few last-second, long-distance attempts at the end of the shot clock when UCLA was running time off the game. UCLA had great ball movement in finding the open man, and with Josh Shipp and Nikola Dragovic now shooting well from the outside, it gave UCLA too many options for Arizona's lackluster defense to cover. As we said before, if Shipp and Dragovic shoot 40% from three, it makes defenses have to come off Darren Collison and Mike Roll, and that's just too many good-shooting bodies to keep track of. Shipp and Dragovic were 3-for-5 and 2-for-3 from three, and everyone on the team benefited from the resulting open looks. You know you're shooting well when the team shoots 41% from three and Collison, one of the best three-point shooters in the Pac-10, misses his two attempts.

Again, a word of caution. Against a good team, UCLA might not get so many open looks. Against a good zone defense, like the one they'll see against Arizona State Saturday, it's going to be different.

But this was another good step in perhaps building the shooting confidence in Dragovic and Shipp. Hopefully it will carry over. Hopefully, ASU will now feel they have to cover both of them when they catch the ball on the perimeter, perhaps opening up looks for Collison and Roll.

So, it's all good.

Dragovic has certainly developed into an asset and rightfully earned the starting power forward spot. Not only is he shooting better, but his defense has improved to the point where he's not a defensive liability, and his passing is one more force within the offense that facilitates open looks. He's also asserting himself offensively more, recognizing an open lane to the basket, and getting fouled on a lay-in for a three-point play. He was the game's leading scorer with 15 points.

Shipp had one of his better games of the season, hitting his shots, playing within himself, not doing what he can't do offensively, and playing solid defense, ending up with 13 points. He defended Budinger when Jrue Holiday was spending time on the bench in foul trouble, and did a good job against him, staying with him when he comes off screens, even stripping him of the ball one time. Budinger isn't the quickest player off the dribble, so Shipp was able to stay with him, but Budinger is good at finding enough space behind the screens to get off a shot, and Shipp was good in limiting that. Holiday was originally assigned to Budinger and did an exceptional job on him also.

Collison had had such a spectacular run recently, and he came back to Earth a bit in this one. While his stat line looks good – 12 points, 6 assists and 3 steals with only two turnovers – there were more lapses in this game than in Collison's recent games. Of course, it's probably not fair to hold up Collison to the standard of the last couple of weeks, since he's been close to flawless. But in this game he missed some passes to open shooters, missed a couple of open lanes to the basket, and didn't shoot when he had open looks himself. Collison generally did a good job defending Nic Wise, as did the rest of the team when they were switched onto him. Wise had just five points on 1-of-8 shooting.

Mike Roll played well, with 12 points on two-of-five from the three-point line. He did well in executing the offense, making a nice post feed to Aboya, and moving the ball around the perimeter of the zone to find the open man. He also played good defense.

If you look at the stat sheet, and see that Arizona's center Jordan Hill had 22 points, you might not think Alfred Aboya played well, but you'd be wrong. Aboya had a double-double of 12 points and 12 rebounds, and generally played good defense against Hill. Hill, in Arizona's offense, likes to catch the ball about 15 feet away from the basket along the baseline, facing up, and then take the usually bigger, slower opposing center with his quickness. But Hill couldn't do that against Aboya's quickness. Aboya is rebounding well, getting four critical offensive rebounds that kept alive a few important UCLA possessions. Aboya will, actually, probably see his rebounding numbers go up with James Keefe getting less minutes.

Holiday got in foul trouble, picking up two by halftime and not starting the second half. In a total of 16 minutes, he never really got in the flow, and actually, with UCLA up by 20 or more, only played five minutes in the second half.

In terms of revelations, there was probably a mini-one when UCLA had Aboya, Collison, Shipp, Roll and Dragovic on the court for the first 5 minutes of the second half. It hasn't been often under Howland when UCLA has been able to play all juniors and seniors. In fact, it's not very typical in college basketball anymore, with so many younger players getting more time early on in their college careers. Those five on the court gave UCLA some considerable experience and savvy, and it really made an impact. The ball moved effortlessly, and the open shooter was found. The ball went into Aboya for a low-post score. It was pretty flawless basketball – with five players who have been in Howland's system anywhere from three to five years -- knowing what they're doing, knowing their strengths and weaknesses, and their teammates'. It definitely gives Howland a lineup he can go to when he needs to be more mistake-free.

Jerime Anderson is seeing his playing time incrementally increase, getting 12 minutes in this game. Howland, obviously, is gaining confidence in him, and feels more comfortable putting him in to give Collison longer rests. Anderson, if you hadn't noticed, is going to be an excellent point guard for UCLA in the future. He has picked up on what Howland wants very quickly, and he's just starting to show his talent within that framework. He drove into Arizona's zone and swished a pull-up. And then, on the last possession of the first half, he again penetrated and dished to a dunking Aboya as the clock expired. He played excellent defense on Wise, staying in front of the ball and not gambling, frustrating Wise into a turnover.

Drew Gordon had four rebounds off the bench, and a nice baseline jump hook. Malcolm Lee saw his first action since his injury, and hit a runner in the lane. As Howland said in his post-game comments, Lee is going to be very good, with his length and quickness. Howland likened him to Russell Westbrook.

It's just about what every coach would want: double-digit, balanced scoring among five players; veterans playing within themselves; your All-American senior playing pretty much flawlessly; youngsters starting to learn what it takes to get on the floor, and a couple of guys who are supposed to be good three-point shooters starting to do it in the games.

That's definitely progress and improvement.

Again, there's the Grain of Salt: It was against a crashing Arizona program. UCLA's zone offense would look great if it could play against Arizona's zone defense in every game. UCLA's issues so far this season have been defense and rebounding, and Arizona is struggling so much at this point that neither were detracting factors for the Bruins. So, it's impossible, again, to assert if UCLA's rebounding or defense made strides in this one. You'd have to think that, against good rebounding teams, UCLA will struggle to rebound, especially with Dragovic now playing 2/3s of the minutes at the four over the better-rebounding Keefe. There will probably still be breakdowns defensively against good executing offenses that exploit UCLA's slow defensive rotation.

But all in all, there were still some things to come away with from this game, some revelations and mini-revelations – namely that, in comparing and contrasting the two programs, one is on the right track and one is off the track.

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