In any event, there were a lot of things to be pleased about Saturday if you're a Bruin fan. After a somewhat shaky start early, the defense improved as the game went on and it was especially good at the start of the second half when UCLA blew the game open. Darren Collison is obviously a huge part of the Bruin defense, as he sets the tone with his ball pressure on the opposing point guard. At the start of the game, Collison wasn't quite as aggressive as he was on Thursday and Stanford's Mitch Johnson was able to get the Cardinal into their offense fairly easily. But when Collison turned up the heat, Johnson wilted and finished the game with six turnovers.
But it wasn't just Collison applying the defensive pressure. Jrue Holiday was seemingly all over the court and he was very disruptive to the Stanford offense. He did get a little too aggressive at times and allowed Anthony Goods to get some good looks. Holiday needs to find a balance between looking to create turnovers and staying with his man. He'll sometimes roam a little too far and good shooters will sometimes make him pay. But it's hard to fault his energy at the defensive end of the court.
Alfred Aboya was a man this weekend and one had the feeling that none of the Cal or Stanford big men wanted much to do with him. I was talking with a UCLA assistant last night and he said, "forget the points, or rebounds, or stats – Alfred changes the game just by how hard he plays." I think that's very true. Aboya's energy is unique and he brings a component to the team that will be difficult to replace.
The one notable exception to the Bruins' stellar effort on defense was Josh Shipp. Landry Fields scored nine of Stanford's first 23 points as Shipp did a poor job of defending him. If the Bruins hope to get back to consistently playing excellent defense, Shipp needs to give a much more consistent effort at that end of the court. Josh can't just pick and choose his spots for when he's going to go all out on defense. This team isn't talented enough for any weak links defensively. In the second half, Coach Howland switched Nikola Dragovic to defending Fields and Fields didn't score again.
As Coach Howland told the media after the game, it's all about the defense. The running game, the improved offense, the opportunities to attack the basket – it's all keyed by the defense. Where this team might be different than the previous three, though, is in its ability to create quality shots – especially open three-pointers – after getting stops at the defensive end. With Holiday on the court, the Bruins essentially have two point guards and then guys like Shipp, Dragovic and Roll who can knock down shots. The Bruins made a ridiculous eleven of fifteen three-pointers against Stanford and that's a testament to the quality of the shots taken. They were almost all in rhythm and several were wide open. Good shooters will make a high percentage of those type of shots and, after some early season struggles, the Bruin perimeter players are proving to be good shooters.
But for the past two games, though, it hasn't just been three-pointers that the Bruins have been knocking down. They shot an astounding 63% from the field against Stanford. They clearly are looking to take the ball to the basket more frequently, especially Holiday and Collison. Playing transition, or semi-transition, basketball makes that an easier task. We'll see if the Bruins can continue this attacking philosophy when the games bog down into halfcourt affairs.
In addition to the improved defensive effort, and resulting easy baskets in transition, I thought the play of Jrue Holiday was the most encouraging part of the weekend. As we've said all along, Holiday is a special talent. He's shown flashes of that talent in the first couple months, but this was the first two-game stretch where he seemed to put it all together. Coach Howland was quoted yesterday as saying good things happen when Jrue has the ball. I couldn't agree more. The question I have, though, is this: if good things happen when Jrue has the ball, how come he has the ball in his hands less than Josh Shipp does? Or at least he did until this weekend. Shipp has improved as a shooter, but he's nowhere close to Holiday's league as a playmaker. Collison and Holiday are the playmakers on this team and they should have the ball in their hands the vast majority of the time. Hopefully, this weekend will signal a shift in the offensive philosophy and we'll see more plays run for Holiday. They don't have to be plays specifically to get him shots. Just get the ball in his hands and good things will happen. His vision and passing ability are outstanding, and that's one reason why he'll eventually be a terrific NBA point guard.
The play of the UCLA reserves was another key factor in this weekend's wins. Jerime Anderson is eventually going to be one of the elite point guards in the Pac-10 and I have no doubt he'll eventually be all-conference. You can see him starting to figure things out at this level, as he gets more comfortable and adjusts to the pace of the game. As I've said before, Darren Collison is a better player than Anderson right now, but there's no comparison in terms of feel for the game. Anderson has a better feel/instincts for the position as a freshman than Collison does as a senior. And that's not really a knock on Darren, but more a comment on just how advanced Anderson's instincts are for the position of point guard.
Mike Roll had a very good game, knocking down three shots from the arc and doing his usual good job of facilitating the offense and working his butt off on defense. He's clearly making a concerted effort now to use the threat of his outside shot to set up forays into the heart of the defense. With his mid-range game, as well as his passing ability, that's a good thing for the Bruins.
Drew Gordon was very active in fourteen minutes of action, finishing with six points, three rebounds and a steal. Gordon's athleticism, energy and aggressiveness are all valuable attributes for this team. He still needs to improve his decision-making, as well as his offensive skill set. But you can see the potential there and he's already come a long way since October.
Malcolm Lee is another guy that gave the Bruins energy off the bench. He's still trying to get back to where he was prior to his injury and he's playing a little too fast at times. You can see him trying to make three plays out of one at times. He just needs to settle down and make the simple play. But that will almost certainly come as he gets more minutes and learns to just let the game come to him.
When the Bruins made their first Final Four run, their season changed with a loss at USC. After that game, the players finally bought into Howland's emphasis on defense and they started winning games because of it. While I'm not sure this team has Final Four potential, I do think they have room for growth. Perhaps the losses to ASU and Washington will serve the same kind of purpose as the USC loss did four years ago. This Bruin team does have some holes and their only real chance of March success is to play with the kind of defensive focus and effort they showed this past weekend.