UCLA Pounds On the Irish

Yeah, the Bruins hit the Irish while they were down, trouncing them, 89-63, Saturday. But there were some things in this game -- continuing recent trends -- that you can't deny about UCLA. For one, UCLA did the best defensive job against an All-American in three years...

UCLA beat Notre Dame in impressive fashion Saturday, 89-63. It was UCLA's fourth-straight impressive win, and while you could say that UCLA really hasn't beaten anyone exceptional, there's enough combined evidence to start drawing a conclusion that the Bruins might actually be worthy of some of the recent accolades.

Notre Dame is a pretty talented team, but it was clear watching them on the Pauley Pavilion floor that they've packed it in. They played with little intensity, especially on defense.

But on the other hand, UCLA did some things in this game that can't be diminished by the lack of effort by the Irish.

Luke Harongody has scored in double figures in 50 straight games. Not since November of 2007 has he scored in single digits. To hold him to five points is a phenomenal achievement. Not since the first game of the 2007 NCAA tournament against Winthrop during his freshman season did he have a game with just one rebound.

He's been averaging 27 points and 14 rebounds in Big East play. UCLA held him to 5 and 1.

And forced him into four turnovers, which is quite a bit for a non-ball-handling player.

Harangody barely touched the ball in the post, with UCLA's post defenders denying the entry pass well. When he did catch it, he was double-teamed very effectivelt, getting harassed into bad passes.

Notre Dame is shooting 44% from the field for the season, and the Bruins held them to 39%. They're averaging 78 points per game -- and 75 points per game in the #1 conference in the country, the Big East – but UCLA held them to 63 points.

No matter how you want to argue that Notre Dame isn't very good because of their mental and emotional state, you can't deny that they're a good offensive team, and that the Bruin defense was phenomenal against them.

The UCLA D is really starting to gel, with much better on-ball defending, and vastly improved rotations and double-teams. The Bruins have forced 74 turnovers in the last four games.

UCLA also out-rebounded the Irish, who are a good rebounding team, 36-31.

So, when you're playing like that defensively, it might not take much to win, especially when you're facing a team that isn't playing with much intensity on defense themselves.

You might be able to make the point that UCLA's offensive performance could have an asterisk by it, but, over the last four games, there are some undeniable trends in UCLA's offense.

Darren Collison, in the post-game interview, said he believes UCLA's offense is flowing better than in any time during his four-year Bruin career.

He very well might be right. Even with Kevin Love last season, who gave the Bruins a legitimate inside scoring threat, the team this season might be better offensively.

For three reasons: UCLA has been getting some steady inside scoring from Alfred Aboya; he's averaging 14.5 points during UCLA's four-game impressive run. And the Bruins easily have their best outside shooting team they've ever had under Howland, and probably their best passing team.

That all adds up to some good offense. Notre Dame used a zone primarily in this one, mostly because when they went with a man, the Bruins cut them up. The zone, at least, slows down UCLA's offense and has a chance to keep the score (and deficit) down.

But when Aboya is providing offense like he did in this one, UCLA could very well could be one of the best teams in the country. He led all scorers with 19 points, on a phenomenal 9-for-12 shooting, and those weren't all lay-ins or dunks. In fact, the one lay-in that comes to mind, on UCLA's "X" play, when he gets a feed along the baseline, Aboya actually missed it. Aboya scored mostly on 10- to 17-foot jumpers. He'd either catch while facing, or even a couple of times caught it in the post, took a step out, faced the basket and shot. Notre Dame clearly was going with the strategy to allow Aboya to shoot, and it clearly was a misconceived strategy.

Aboya out-played the All-American candidate Harangody on both ends of the floor, being one of the big reasons defensively that Harangody was corralled. After this, you'd have to have confidence in Aboya being able to defend just about anyone in the nation in the post.

Especially when he's getting perfectly timed and executed double teams to help him.

The fact that Aboya is scoring and shooting so well recently isn't just a random phenomenon. If you remember, after the Washington game, he said emphatically in an interview with Bruin Report Online that he needed to touch the ball more. Since then he has, the results have been clear. Not only has Aboya scored 14.5 points per game, but it has given UCLA's offense so much more dimension. The ball now goes inside for a touch by Aboya, and there are opportunities that come out of that, like Aboya's back-door bounce-pass assist to Mike Roll today. It makes defenses have to collapse on him, creating more space for shooters.

And UCLA is certainly shooting the ball well. In the last four games the Bruins are shooting 49% from three.

Then, the third element of the offense that makes it flow better this season is the improved passing, and you have to give a great deal of the credit for that to Jrue Holiday. Holiday's passing is flat-out spectacular, and gives UCLA a far higher percentage of easy baskets than in any season under Howland at UCLA. He had 7 assists against Notre Dame – and that's 7 assists from a shooting guard. That's 23 assists in the last four games, for a 5.75 per-game average. There was a noted shift in UCLA's offensive philosophy after the Washington game – to get the ball into the hands of Holiday for him to create, and it's reaped huge dividends. He's miraculous on a break; the one assist to Dragovic for a dunk and foul was beautiful. And he's passing very well in the half-court, finding his teammates easy baskets with passes that, seemingly, only he can see.

Collison, with less responsibility to create on offense, looks far looser on the offensive side. He's looking for his shot more, which someone who shoots as well as he does from three and also 93% from the free-throw line needs to do.

Nikola Dragovic probably loves Holiday, since Holiday looks for him on the outside. And Dragovic's game continues to improve in most facets. First, his defense is dramatically better. Offensively, he's shooting the ball extremely well, and he's rebounding better. The question is: How long will opposing teams continue to allow him to get open looks from the outside? He's shooting 53% from three in Pac-10 play, and you'd think that someone is going to smarten up and not allow him to get all of those open looks.

But the problem is: if you deny Dragovic the shot, someone else -- perhaps Collison or Mike Roll -- is open. Josh Shipp, too, is someone whose shot they now have to honor, since he's shooting 55% from three in Pac-10 play.

It's intriguing how all of the elements play off each other offensively. More inside touches, and inside scoring, enhances passing, driving and shooting, and vice versa.

UCLA is currently an offensive vortex with many combustible elements mixing to make for an explosive offense.

Is there anyone out there who has watched Jerime Anderson in the last few weeks still doubtful about his talent and potential? He also contributes to the offensive vortex, with his vision and play-making ability. It's all frosting on the cake, too, when he nails two three-pointers, like he did in this one to finish with 10 points.

Then, throw in Malcolm Lee, who flashes that shocking talent at times – like on a explosive drive to the hoop, or a pull-up bank that looks automatic, and it's hard to imagine a deeper backcourt.

While we've maintained since the start of the season that developing UCLA's bench would be a key to the season, it definitely is coming to fruition. You have to give Howland a huge amount of credit; in the past he hasn't necessarily taken the risk of playing his subs down the stretch of the season, but he is doing it this year. And it's vastly paying off. Again, not one UCLA starter played over 27 minutes. The bench logged a combined 75 minutes, which is a huge amount – 35% of the total minutes played.

Just about the only criticism you can come up with of Howalnd is to question why Aboya is in the game with 5 minutes left and UCLA up by about 30.

But, when you give Howland time to prepare for a game (he had one more day than the usual Pac-10 Thursday-Saturday games), UCLA is probably the toughest team in the country over the last five years. UCLA was so well-prepared for this game; Notre Dame was scouted thoroughly.

And UCLA looked fresh and rested. Notre Dame's big three, Harangody, Kyle McAlarney and Tory Jackson, all played 35-plus minutes in this game, and have been averaging those kind of minutes for weeks. We've mentioned how all of UCLA's recent opponents – including the last four, not coincidentally – are all playing their starters excessive minutes. It could very well be that Howland's choice to develop his bench and keep his starters' minutes below 30 a game is one of the biggest contributors to UCLA's four-game flurry. UCLA has played harder the last four games because it can; it has gas in the tank because of its deep bench, while other teams are running on empty.

So, UCLA finished off a Great-Week-to-Be-a-Bruin by looking very impressive on national television blowing out a Big East opponent. It also came through for the Pac-10, trouncing a good out-of-conference opponent. Every Pac-10 team's RPI just went up because of UCLA.

Howland and Co. should be expecting thank-you cards.


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