UCLA Hangs On For Road Win

UCLA gets a road win in Pullman behind the hot shooting of Nikola Dragovic and some clutch plays late by Darren Collison, but some concerns remain about the identity of this Bruin team...

UCLA's 61-59 win over Washington State Thursday night can be viewed from a couple different perspectives. In terms of bouncing back from a tough loss, and competing for the Pac-10 title, this was a good win for the Bruins. Any win on the road in the Pac-10 is a good win and the Bruins ultimately did what they had to do in order to get the victory. However, if you look at the manner in which UCLA won the game, and the big picture implications (namely, winning NCAA tournament games in March), this game was not encouraging.

The staples of Ben Howland basketball at UCLA have been defense and rebounding. Washington State was shooting 35% from the field at halftime and ended up shooting 48% for the game. So the Bruin defense broke down badly in the second half. Washington State also out-rebounded the Bruins 28-21. That's a scary statistic for a UCLA team that now heads to Washington to face Jon Brockman and company.

Washington State head coach Tony Bennett obviously isn't happy with the loss, but he's probably fairly satisfied with how his team executed its defensive game plan. The Cougars did a great job of defending Darren Collison, Josh Shipp and Jrue Holiday, holding all three below their season averages. Were it not for an uncharacteristically hot shooting night from Nikola Dragovic, Washington State probably wins the game. Entering the game, Dragovic was shooting 29% from three-point range. The fact that he made six of ten from the stripe for the game was surprising and the six out of seven in the first half was astonishing. Dragovic deserves huge credit for stepping up and making the Cougars pay for leaving him alone. He's clearly a much more confident shooter than he was a month ago. However, you have to be a little concerned as a Bruin fan that it took a surprisingly hot night from Dragovic for UCLA to beat a mediocre Washington State team.

Darren Collison had a mixed game. On the one hand, you had six assists with no turnovers, as well as the clutch six straight points late in the game when nobody else could seemingly make a play for the Bruins. On the other hand, you had Collison with only two points heading into the last five minutes of the game, as well as some pretty mediocre defense. Collison has a reputation as a great on the ball defender, but it's been awhile since that reputation was deserved. Throughout the game, you could hear Howland yelling "ball pressure Darren!" as Taylor Rochestie ran the Cougar offense with very little interference from Collison. If UCLA is going to improve its defense, Collison needs to be better at disrupting the other team's point guard and getting the opponent out of an offensive rhythm.

The two other UCLA seniors, Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya, also had somewhat disappointing nights. Aboya did hit a couple big shots in the second half, but he ended up 3-8 from the field and he had only one rebound in 30 minutes. Shipp also played 30 minutes and he was a non-factor for much of the game, finishing with four points, three rebounds and one assist.

Freshman guard Jrue Holiday had a solid game overall, but it was a bit frustrating to watch him get five points in the first couple minutes of the game and end up taking only three more shots the rest of the way. Holiday did do a good job defensively on fellow freshman Klay Thompson, holding Thompson to seven points. And Holiday made a couple of very good passes to Dragovic in the first half when Nikola was on fire. But Jrue needs to find a way to impact the game throughout the forty minutes. He'll show you flashes of his ability, but he needs to learn to do it on a more consistent basis.

With several of the starters having mediocre performances, it was important that the Bruin bench contribute and they definitely came through with some clutch play. James Keeefe had his best game in some time, as he had seven points and five rebounds in only 11 minutes of action. Keefe was easily the Bruins' most active and physical presence inside and he hit a huge three in the second half to stem a Cougar run. Junior guard Mike Roll had six points in only 13 minutes of action and Drew Gordon managed to grab four rebounds during his 10 minutes on the court.

This was an important win for the Bruins, coming on the heels of the ASU loss and right before a very big game at Washington. It keeps UCLA firmly in the thick of things for the Pac-10 title, as well as a potential good seed for the NCAA tournament. However, in looking at the bigger picture, this game illustrates some serious concerns for UCLA.

The biggest concern is the lack of an identity. In years past, you knew exactly what UCLA basketball was all about. It was defense and rebounding, taking care of the ball, and a tough, physical, grind-you-down approach that wore other teams out. Other than the taking care of the ball part, I don't see any of those components with this team. This team is not particularly tough or physical, its not a good rebounding team and the defense is sporadic at best. This team does shoot the ball better from the perimeter, but do you really want to depend on hot three-point shooting to win multiple games in March? Put another way – what does it say about this team that it needed a career night from Nikola Dragovic to win at Washington State? The Cougars are a decent team, but they already have home losses to Baylor by six, to Gonzaga by 22, to Cal by seven and to Washington by 20. I guess if you could tell me Dragovic would shoot 60% from the arc the rest of the way, I might feel differently. But my guess is that won't be the case.

So how is this Bruin team going to win against good teams? So far, the formula seems to be to hope for good perimeter shooting, defend and rebound well enough to stay in the game, and hope Darren Collison can make enough plays at the end to win the game. Collison came through last night with three straight clutch possessions and for that he deserves big props. But I'm not sure Darren going one on five against teams that are more athletic/bigger than the Cougars is going to work too often.

This may all sound like a criticism of coach Ben Howland, but it's really not. The truth is he's working with a team full of incomplete players. Alfred Aboya is a warrior, a fairly good face-up shooter and he plays great team defense, but he lacks the rebounding ability of Drew Gordon. But Gordon, at this time, is really only good at that one aspect of the game – rebounding. As a defender, he's still learning and he's not an offensive threat. He also showed his inexperience in the second half last night on two consecutive possessions. First, he took an ill-advised ten-foot jumper and then he turned the ball over while trying to make a difficult pass in traffic. For now, Gordon needs to focus on defending and rebounding, while leaving the offensive plays to others.

At the four, you've got Dragovic and Keefe. Dragovic is the better offensive player, while Keefe is the superior defender and rebounder. Last night was a perfect illustration of the dilemma facing Howland. Early in the game, Dragovic was struggling with defensive rebounding and Howland put Keefe in the game. Keefe gives the Bruins a presence inside, but the Bruins are struggling to score. Then Dragovic comes back in the game, gets hot and almost single-handedly helps UCLA to a big lead. But in the second half, Nikola goes 0-4 from three and his defense/rebounding are mediocre at best. I think it's interesting that Howland has chosen to go with the better offensive player at the four, given that the staples of his basketball philosophy are defense and rebounding. Dragovic's offensive contributions have been huge in couple games, but I do wonder about the ultimate identity of a Bruin team that features a three-point shooting four-man with limited defensive and rebounding abilities.

At the wings, it's more of the same. Josh Shipp, Jrue Holiday, Mike Roll and Malcolm Lee all have individual things they do well, but none of them are complete players at the moment. The two guys who will likely end up in the NBA – Holiday and Lee – are the clearly the best athletes with the most talent and the highest upside. But they lack the experience of Shipp and the shooting ability of Roll. When you talk about the identity of the team, though, and where the team has the potential to get better, I still go back to Holiday and Lee. Those two guys, along with Collison, give the Bruins the potential to be a good defensive team on the perimeter. They have the quickness and length to pressure opponents and disrupt an offense. But we're more than halfway through the season and Lee only played three minutes last night, so I'm not sure he's going to be a huge part of the equation going forward. The timing of his injury really was unfortunate, as he was playing his best basketball of the season and Howland was gaining more confidence in him.

The closest thing the Bruins have to a complete player is Collison and he's the only guy that currently projects as an all-conference player. It's hard to be too critical of Darren when he's had to carry so much of the load this season, but the Bruins do need more from him at the defensive end. It's not just the lack of ball pressure – he's also been beaten a surprising number of times off the dribble this year. In order for the Bruins to have any real chance at a deep run in March, they need to improve their defense. Collison is the first line of that defense and he needs to improve in that area.

It's true that any road win in the Pac-10 is a good win, but the Bruins need to start showing some progress in terms of developing a winning identity. Right now, the formula isn't real clear or encouraging. However, it was about this time in the season that the first Final Four team started to figure out what it needed to do in order to win consistently. Hopefully, this group can grow as much as that team did in the last two months of the season and be ready to make a run in March.


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