Cosgrove: Reasons Behind the Rise

Our basketball columnist, Kennedy Cosgrove, offers more analysis behind UCLA's four-game surge, citing the improved defense, the further use of the bench, the fast starts, the quickened pace, the improved play of Jrue Holiday, Nikola Dragovic and Josh Shipp, and more...

There are perfect storms, and there are hoop dreams, and then there are weeks like UCLA just reveled in. Weeks where not only does everything mostly go right, but when one gets that peculiar and rare pleasure when that team you irrationally obsess and worry over just finds itself, something clicks, and you watch a real-time growth spurt.

And suddenly your perspective on what's possible just shifts a bit.

I know, I know, post-blowout hyperbole. I know, it's February, and there's a lot of season left. And screenwriter William Goldman might as well have been talking sports when he famously wrote, "Nobody knows anything."

But still, tell me that you didn't just see what I did, after watching this past fortnight of Bruin basketball, that:

1. This team just blew through its previous projected ceiling.

2. This season just got a whole lot more compelling.

3. Once again, if you did find yourself worrying even a little about Coach Ben Howland's plan and methods, you wonder, again, what the hell you were thinking.

"It's obvious we've been performing at a new level and just improving as a team," Howland said, in measured tones, after the Bruins' latest domination.

Onto the week that was. First off, how many days like last Wednesday does a college sports fan get? It was football's national Signing Day for high school seniors, which in recent years has resembled the Day of the Dead in Westwood, and even the biggest Bruin optimists were steeling themselves with rational expectations of let-downs and being runner-up for some crucial prospects. But Coach Rick Neuheisel pulled off several last-minute coups, at the expense of USC no less, thus vaulting the 4-8 Bruins' recruiting class into a top-five ranking. UCLA fans were stunned and giddy, to put it mildly.

And then, that same night at Pauley Pavilion, Howland's team administered, in the words of his Trojan hoops counterpart Tim Floyd, "a great spanking," in crushing USC, 76-60. (The final scoreline flattered the Trojans; UCLA led at the half, 44-21. And when Coach Neuheisel took the microphone at the half, and whipped the fans into a blue and gold frenzy, well, Bruin fan confidence was high.)

A great spanking against one's archrival is never to be taken for granted. But it didn't end there. Next spankee: Notre Dame.

In a nationally-televised game Saturday, UCLA -- in keeping with a season-long theme -- opened up a first-half can on the Irish. Up 14-2 barely four minutes into the game, it was over. Seriously. Over. Notre Dame had lost its previous six games, UCLA was playing out of its mind, and everyone knew it. The next 36 minutes served as the backdrop for a Clark Kellogg-announced, CBS homage to a dominant UCLA performance.

(And really, is there anyone this side of Gus Johnson that you'd rather hear wax poetic about your team's abilities? I've been a Clark Kellogg fan since way back in the day, when he yelled that some long-forgotten nice play was "a yogurt sundae with ALL the toppings!" without a trace of irony.)

Anyway, the Notre Dame demolition made four straight Great Spankings. Along with the previous weekend's decimations of Cal and Stanford, the Bruins' average margin of victory was 22 points. And barely two weeks after UCLA ended a listless three-game mini-slump with a question-begging loss to Washington in Seattle, the Bruins were suddenly everybody's darling.

USC's Floyd told reporters that not only was UCLA playing as well as anyone in the country, but that it was the best he's seen any team play since returning to college basketball four years ago -- and that includes last season's finalists, Kansas and Memphis.

But it didn't stop there: The Bruins shot up to number six in the coach's poll. UCLA's national title chances suddenly started being debated on ESPN. Speculation abounded on UCLA's tournament seeding if it won the rest of its games (and remember, there are still eight more, plus the Pac-10 tournament, to go). Writer John Gasaway at (the site for hoops wonks) saw UCLA projected as a #5 tourney seed on ESPN, which inflamed him enough to say he's "never seen the perception about a team be so wrong," calling the Bruins' recent, post-Love/Westbrook/Luc PR problems "perceptual violence," and backing it all up with cool stats like points-per-possession (highest in the Pac-10 in four years, by the way). Wow.

Howland's calmer comments about "a new level" and team improvement were a bit less dramatic, but still telling.

So what changed?

Defense. UCLA's aggressive perimeter defending and trapping, it's double-teaming of the post, it's hedging of all ball screens, got sharper, more energetic, and more automatic. This happens every year, but it's a pretty dramatic improvement this season. And while opponents see it on film, they can't really prepare for the reality of it. Like parenthood. Or Las Vegas. One constant in UCLA's recent revival has been the huge advantage it's had in "points off turnovers" in first halves, where it's built its big leads.

Against USC, it was 16 to 4. Notre Dame, 15 to 3. (The week before, it was 13-5 vs. Stanford and 16-9 vs. Cal). To a man -- and I believe this is a required agreement when UCLA players sign their National Letter of Intent to play for Howland -- the players publicly agreed that defense was keying their run.

Substitution pattern. Granted, both games were blowouts, but still -- no Bruin played more than 27 minutes in either game this week. That is literally unheard of for Howland, who has routinely played his starters major minutes (think mid-30s) the entire times he's been at UCLA. The three dynamic freshman subs, Drew Gordon, Jerime Anderson, and Malcolm Lee, combined for 37 minutes against USC, and 33 minutes against Notre Dame. In UCLA's loss to Arizona State a few weeks ago, the trio combined for six minutes of playing time.

Not coincidentally, the starters, particularly star point guard Darren Collison, have looked better rested, more energized, and more intense.

Fast starts. I haven't seen this mentioned much, but the 2009 Bruins are ridiculously good at the beginning of games. Look at their leads in the first four to six minutes of every game since Pac-10 play started:

14-2, 9-2, 8-2, 12-6, 9-1, 10-4, 2-9 (this was against ASU, the only time they've fallen behind early in a game during this stretch and, of course, they lost). 9-2, 15-8, 7-3, 10-2.

Think about that. In every game but one, they've opened up a significant, and sometimes insurmountable, lead within the first few minutes. Many games this season, in fact, the Bruins have never trailed. It's a big, and underrated, advantage.

The forwards. Yes, the emergence of Jrue Holiday has been big. But the play of Josh Shipp and Nikola Dragovic -- a major weakness earlier in the season -- has been huge. Dragovic is easily the biggest surprise: the most improved player on the team. Since winning the starting job nine games ago, he's averaged 11.5 points per game, shot 51% on three-pointers, and made nearly three per game, but also rebounded well, made a number of nifty assists, and played surprisingly good defense. Against USC, he hit all four treys that he took in the first half, and just demoralized the Trojan defense. Against Notre Dame, he set the defensive tone early by stuffing a slam dunk attempt by Irish All-American Luke Harangody, and made all three of his first-half jumpers. Shipp has been a model of restraint and efficiency since Pac-10 play has started. Yes, I just re-read that and that's what I meant to type: restraint and efficiency. Gone are the off-balance 23-foot jumpers of the past, and most of the dribble drives to nowhere. Against USC, he scored 19 points without attempting a three-point shot. And when he was the recipient of two hard fouls (borderline cheap shots) by Trojan Daniel Hackett, Shipp didn't react other than to sink his free throws. Since conference play started, he is making 52% of his three-pointers, 87% of his free throws, is driving to the basket aggressively and scoring 12.8 points per game -- but much more importantly, doing that while scoring 1.51 points per shot. Trust me when I tell you that that is an excellent clip. For comparison' sake, the past two seasons, Shipp scored at a much more pedestrian 1.25 points per shot. And numbers aside, it's hit me that he's just not making many bad plays lately; his game has matured.

The reality, of course, is that you'd figure Shipp's and Dragovic's shooting has to come back to earth a little, and it probably will. But still, the shots they're taking are in rhythm, in the flow of the offense, and they're not hesitating. So, we'll see. 10 games isn't really a blip, after all. Has more of the look of a pattern.

Jrue Holiday. He's had the ball in his hands more lately, and good things are happening. His coast-to-coast dribble drive, no-look dish to Dragovic for a dunk was the type of play that hasn't been seen at UCLA in a looooonnnggg time. He followed that up the next possession by breaking down his man with a series of moves that culminated in a lefty scoop layup; the whole two-play sequence looked so easy for him that -- maybe for the first time this season -- it just kind of screamed I'm the best player on the court and maybe it's time we all acknowledge that. I don't know, maybe it's just me.

A quick glance at Holiday's numbers during this four-game streak: 12.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, 5.7 assists against 2.2 turnovers per game; 65% shooting from the field, and made all 12 free throws he's taken.

Basically, the supposition that he could be a one-and-done, lottery-pick-this-year type of player looks a lot more real than it did a few weeks ago.

Pace. The last four games, UCLA has averaged 72 possessions per 40 minute game, up from their previous average of 57 possessions per game. A huge jump. It seems by design; maybe it signals a loosening of the reins a bit? A long-awaited penchant for looking for offense early in the shot clock? Whatever, the Bruins are averaging 85 points per game during this four-game explosion. The offense looks fluid. And the hoped-for evolution of the team seems to be taking place.

Of course, it's all well and good to be doing this at home. Two more road trips await, starting this Thursday in Tempe at Arizona State. I opined a few weeks ago that along with the USC game at Pauley the game at ASU was the key for the season. Win both, and the Pac-10 title seemed a pretty sure bet. I still feel that way.

And given that since 2005, Coach Howland's Bruins are 28-0 (no misprint) in the first game of a two-game Pac-10 weekend, given Howland's penchant for exacting revenge on early conference losses the next time around, and given the Bruins' recent surge, well, that's a lot of signs all pointing the same direction.

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