They showed just about all of their strengths and weaknesses in this one:
-- UCLA struggles on the road.
-- UCLA's primary problem has been defense, and it certainly was in the first 15 minutes of this game.
-- UCLA's offense is pretty good, and plenty efficient.
-- UCLA's rebounding isn't fantastic.
-- The Bruins have a habit of going through potentially devastating periods of low effort and focus.
-- Josh Shipp continues to play the best basketball of his career.
-- Alfred Aboya is a stud.
-- UCLA just isn't nearly as talented or athletic as it's been in recent years.
That just about sums it up.
First, on being on the road:
This was a close game for UCLA, playing against a team that they blew out by 34 in Pauley Pavilion. Every team plays worse on the road, but, of course, great teams play better on the road. The fact that UCLA has really struggled away from Pauley Pavilion is the #1 indication that this isn't a great team. There can be times – at home – where you can get deluded into thinking this team is pretty good, especially during that four-game homestand where they beat their opponents by an average of 24 points or so. But for future reference: When we're trying to evaluate how good a Bruin team is, let's throw out how they do at home and analyze their performance on the road. Last season's team finished the regular season 12-1 away from Pauley Pavilion. In 2006-2007, they were 9-4. In 2005-2006, 9-3. So far this team away from Pauley Pavilion this team is 7-5. How you play away from your home court is now the supreme measuring stick of how good a college team is.
Wow, that was an ugly defensive first 15 minutes. UCLA's defense was bad on the ball, bad away from the ball and horrible at switches and rotations. It's mind-boggling that, after last Saturday's game when the huge issue in their loss to Washington State was defense that they would come out this flat defensively to start the Stanford game. Stanford did exploit it in an uncommon way, hitting 10 of its first 12 shots. But again, many of those shots were uncontested, or created because of a lack of defensive effort and focus, or basic boneheadedness on the part of UCLA's defense.
Malcolm Lee was about the only one who would get better than a B grade for his defense. Just about about everyone else – for the entire game – would be graded about a C.
Nikola Dragovic might have had his worst defensive game of recent memory, looking completely unfocused and lost at times. On one Stanford transition, he looked so in the clouds when he picked up a Stanford guard and allowed his man, Kenny Brown, a three-point shooter, wide open for a three that Brown buried.
Aboya didn't have a great defensive game. It wasn't as bad as most of the team, but he did allow the Stanford post, Josh Owens, to score pretty easily in the post (Owens finished with 14). In defense of Aboya, UCLA is not doubling the post nearly as they've done in the past few seasons, namely because their post players aren't executing it nearly as well and their perimeter players aren't rotating away from it effectively at all.
Shipp actually played okay defensively in this game. During the game, while writing notes, I was about to write that he was playing fairly well defensively – until he had a couple of bad defensive sequences in the second half – one when he was backdoored by Brown out of pure laziness.
Lee impacts the game so much because of his defense – especially since UCLA isn't generally getting good defense consistently from any other perimeter player. UCLA started to build a lead in the second half with Lee in the game, because of his defense and rebounding (he finished with 5 for the game), including a couple of excellent offensive rebounds that kept alive critical offensive possessions.
Jerime Anderson gives you a hint of how things might execute better on offense in the future. UCLA uses a ball screen probably 40 times a game, but how many times does a pick-and-roll result from it? In this game, Dragovic provided the pick for Anderson, Dragovic rolled off it and Anderson found him for a wide-open three.
Is there a solution to the poor defense? Not really. Playing with more intensity all the time would greatly enhance it, and prevent a recurrence of the first 15 minutes of this game. While you think that could improve, it's not as if this is the beginning of the season; we're getting down to it here, and if this UCLA team had something left in it in terms of effort and intensity you would think we would have seen it by now.
The defensive issues also are clearly because of the lack of athleticism among guys who get a majority of the minutes. Dragovic lacks great quickness to defend his position, as does Shipp. Collison and Holiday have it, but tend to squander it. Holiday at moments in this game would allow someone to get around him fairly easily, then a few minutes later would play superior on-ball defense, smothering his opponent and beating him to the spot. I guess we have to chalk it up to freshman immaturity.
We've said recently that Shipp has had some games that would rank among the best of his UCLA career, but this one clearly was in the top two or three. He had 7 rebounds, and tied his career high with 24 points, doing it by shooting very well from the field (9 for 12) and from three (4 for 5), but also by more often than not dribbling with more strength to the basket than he has in the past. A huge difference in Shipp is in his outside shot; he not only has more confidence in it, but he's now shooting with a much quicker release, and both are probably feeding into each other. The better you shoot the less you measure your shot. And at this point, Shipp is so confident in his outside shot that he's getting it off very quickly, which makes it that much more effective.
You could also make the point that this team is showing some resiliency and ability to bounce back. Down by 14 in the second-half, they surged back by getting defensive stops. While Bruin fans are used to an almost-bizarre degree of heart and character, as evidenced by the Bruin teams of the last three years, this team, while it might not have it to the same degree, still has an above average amount of it.
After this game, everything about Saturday's game against California doesn't bode well. It's on the road, against a better team than Stanford that will exploit a lack of focus on defense and an inability to stay in front of your man far more. It's the second game of the weekend. Under Howland, UCLA is 40-7 on Thursdays, and 25-21 on Saturday. There was a 29-point difference between UCLA playing Stanford at Pauley or in Palo Alto. If UCLA does the equivalent against Cal, they'll lose by 14. With road games the measuring stick of a team's worth, this is the ultimate one for this season.