Not only did UCLA get the #4-ranked recruiting class in the nation in football – besting USC, which finished at #7 – it also soundly beat the Trojans on the hardwood, 76-60.
Soundly is a very good word for it.
UCLA played its best half of the season, and one of the best in recent memory, to lead 44-21 at the intermission. It forced USC into 14 first-half turnovers, which led to 16 points, and the team shot 5-for-7 from three, led by Nikola Dragovic's four long bombs.
The Bruins then coasted in the second half to the win.
As we've been saying all season, UCLA will go as far as its defense will take it, and it took it for a nice ride Wednesday. UCLA's defense was stellar, forcing those turnovers through excellent ball pressure, denying entry passes and improved rotations.
It all starts with the defense by Darren Collison on the ball. If you look at his stat sheet, you might say Collison didn't have a great game, scoring just four points and having two assists against two turnovers. But Collison keyed the victory, actually, with his pesky on-ball defense against USC's point guards. Collison was so obtrusive that USC's point guards sometimes had to try to initiate their offense with their back to the basket, which is very difficult. With Collison applying so much ball pressure, UCLA's bigs were able to deny post feeds to USC's Taj Gibson, who didn't touch the ball much at all on the block.
USC's offensive game plan helped, too. There was a set the Trojans ran that had Gibson pop out to the key, which looked like one of those new wrinkles coaches throw into games. This wrinkle didn't work for Tim Floyd, and was effective for UCLA, pulling Gibson away from the basket, which further limited his post touches and his ability to get rebounds. Gibson had one of the worst games I've ever seen him have when he wasn't in foul trouble, finishing with just two points, shooting the ball just twice, and getting only four rebounds.
UCLA's perimeter pressure was effective to the point that USC was so rattled they were throwing the ball out of bounds even when they weren't getting pressured much. USC's Daniel Hackett scored just two points and fouled out of the game.
UCLA's defensive rotations have definitely improved, and they were very good against USC. UCLA defenders trapped and double-teamed, and USC didn't have many open men to pass to out of the trap.
The Bruins also hit the boards with intensity, out-rebounding the Trojans 35-30. They were particularly effective in not allowing USC many second chances; when USC shot it once it generally was the only chance they got.
So, while UCLA has continued its streak of three games of buckling down on defense and rebounding, which has clearly been the major force in their three-game resurgence, it also blossomed a bit offensively against the Trojans.
USC's defensive game plan was obviously to deny Collison the ball. Hackett face-guarded Collison wherever he went, overplaying him and it did, in fact, keep the ball out of Collison's hands.
Enter Jrue Holiday. What USC's defensive game plan really didn't take into consideration much is that, all in all, it might be preferable to have the ball in Holiday's hands. While he does tend to force things some times, or go for the home-run alley-oop, Holiday can absolutely be spectacular when he touches the ball as much as he did against USC. He finished with 13 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds, but the stat line only paints a fraction of the picture. Holiday simply had a few of the prettiest assists in recent memory. His bounce pass in the paint that split the defense and seemed to have eyes of its own finding its way into Alfred Aboya's hands on the block for a lay-in was a thing of beauty. There were probably four other assists that were comparable. Howland's staple play, the high-ball screen, has also found its best executor. Holiday's vision off the screen is fantastic, finding the screener as he rolls to the basket unlike any guard in Howland's system at UCLA. Howland conceded in his post-game comments that he's going to have to get that ball screen for Holiday more often.
Holiday's passing is, also, inefectious; when Holiday sets the precedent of looking for that extra pass or that assist, it catches fire on the team. There were a few trips down the court where he and Collison combined for a couple of nice passes to, again, get Aboya a lay-in. Then put Jerime Anderson in the game, which Howland did liberally in this one to keep Collison rested and out of foul trouble, and now you have another guard with excellent vision and passing ability. Balls are going into the post, being kicked out to UCLA's best shooters, etc. On one possession toward the end of the second half, Anderson had the ball on an outlet in semi-transition, looked up and saw Holiday down the court. Holiday wasn't open for a break-away, but he had some space, one-on-one with a defender, and Anderson quickly recognized that, got him the ball, and Holiday finished with a drive and a lay-in.
Whether Holiday initiated the offense and had the ball in his hands more because USC was denying Collison the ball or because UCLA was running more motion – or whatever – it definitely is something that has to be utilized more.
Aboya was also particularly impressive in this game, finishing with a double-double of 14 points and 12 rebounds, and doing so many things right. His interior defense was excellent, with energy and a physicality that is unparalleled, and it was perhaps his best rebounding performance. If someone in the NCAA had ever thought to keep a stat for charges taken, Aboya would clearly be setting the NCAA record for a season. The only thing you can say critically about Aboya is that, if he could make his six-foot jump hook, which he's getting more and more with UCLA's guards looking to him more often, he'd probably be averaging 14 points per game.
UCLA is going to miss Aboya more than anyone realizes when he's gone after next season.
Josh Shipp had a very characteristic game for him. He had defensive lapses, took a couple of questionable shots, drove into traffic a couple of times, and didn't make an outside shot – but overall was very effective, finishing the game with a team-leading 19 points. There aren't too many players who can't make a shot from the floor, but score 19 points. Shipp got all his points from dunks on fast breaks, lay-ins as a result of good movement and great passing from his teammates, and free throws, shooting 11-for-12 from the line. Shipp isn't a great shooter, and not even a great scorer, but he s a great manufacturer of points.
While Collison was the catalyst on defense, and Holiday was the offensive fire starter, Dragovic was the dagger. His long-bomb threes in the first half basically took all the breath out of USC's lungs. It's also a matter that Dragovic had guys like Holiday and Mike Roll looking for him, recognizing that he's hot, and trying to get him the ball.
And you have to love the upside of Drew Gordon. He plays above the rim, is the first choice as a recipient of alley-oops, hunts those offensive-rebound put-backs, and is improving his fundamentals on defense. He finished with 9 points.
Again, very significant was the fact that no UCLA player logged more than 27 minutes in this game. UCLA's bench totaled 69 minutes. Howland is clearly gaining confidence in his subs, particularly in Anderson, going to him and taking out Collison twice in the first half, something Howland hadn't done yet this season. The objective, now, is to get Malcolm Lee more time and back into the comfort zone he was feeling before his injury.
Perhaps most significant was that UCLA essentially blew out USC with the Bruins' leading scorer, Collison, only getting 4 points. Four Bruins were in double figures, and one of them wasn't Collison. UCLA's depth and talent is starting to pay dividends.
So, UCLA continued its improved play for a third-straight game. Now we'll see if they can take the act on the road (well, after one more home game against Notre Dame). As we've said before, so much of the season is in the hands of the freshmen, their development – and right now it's looking like a good proposition to get the ball into the hands of Holiday.