Was Cal a Watershed Game?

UCLA finally won a big game away from Pauley Pavilion, beating Cal in Berkeley, 72-68, led by a miraculous Darren Collison. The issue, though, is whether the Bruins can sustain the type of energy and toughness they displayed in this game for the remainder of the season...

UCLA, by beating California in Berkeley Saturday, 72-68, has certainly made the rest of the season more interesting.

It not only gives UCLA a chance to share the Pac-10 conference title after it looked like it had put itself in a considerable hole to do so.

It also might very well be that major milestone this team has been trying to accomplish all season. We wrote in our preview that, if UCLA beat Cal, it would break new ground for the team, and the win certainly did, being the first win away from Pauley Pavilion this season with any real significance. As we said previously, a team's worth is measured by how well they do on the road, and you could make a case that this win gives the Bruins some legitimacy for the first time this season.

Ben Howland said that "good teams win on the road." His "good teams" of the last three years did. This year's team, however, hadn't. But the Bruins went to the Bay Area and pulled out two gutsy wins against Stanford and Cal, perhaps earning them their on-the-road stripes.

You can't say for sure if this road trip will have a lasting impact on how UCLA plays the rest of the season. But if UCLA does finish off the Pac-10 season (next weekend and the Pac-10 tournament) and the NCAA tournament with quality play, you very well might look back and point to this weekend as the watershed.

I had a couple of friends call me – separately -- after the game and leave messages. I'm pretty certain they didn't consult each other, but both of them in their message used the phrase: "That's what I'm talking about." And both went on to say that that game was the kind of gutsy, hard-fought game they had been looking for all year.

I think all UCLA fans are saying to themselves: "That's what I'm talking about."

Because that game was what we've been talking about all year here at Bruin Report Online. This UCLA team hadn't shown a dig-deep, warrior heart yet this season as past Howland teams had. It was entirely warranted to question their heart and toughness and the senior leadership.

But it's tough to question it after this game.

Darren Collison, to be flatly candid, hadn't shown near enough of it this season. There were games this year where you might have thought that Collison needed to step and push himself more – and to lead this team over the threshold of what it takes to be a good team.

He certainly did it in this game. He was the game's high scorer at 22 points, and he had six assists against one turnover. But this was a game for him that goes so far beyond stats. Collison made some truly miraculous plays in this game – not only inherently miraculous by what he did on the court, but by doing it at such critical junctures in the game. Every time he made a huge offensive play on a vastly important possession, you'd say to yourself, "Okay, that was one of the biggest plays he's ever made." But then he'd come back a couple of minutes later and do it again. When ESPN ran a series of highlights edited together of Collison going to the basket in this game and scoring with the use of some super-human body control, it was truly one of the most impressive spliced-together highlights I've ever seen of any player's one-game performance, especially if you take into consideration that three or four of those highlights were of baskets that Collison made when the shot clock was about to expire during a possession when the game was on the line.

Cal coach Mike Montgomery said, "That's why Collison is what he is. He is such a clutch player, and he makes plays in critical situations. In late clock, he's as good as there is."

In fact, you have to give it up for all three of the seniors in their show of perserverance and toughness in this one.

Howland almost cries when he talks about Alfred Aboya, and understandably so. There hasn't been another Bruin that I can think of that plays with more desire and toughness, and gets more out of his talent than Aboya. Aboya had 12 points and 9 rebounds, and some truly great defensive stops in this game. He made baskets and pulled down rebounds that were repeatedly critical to the win. Many UCLA fans keep insisting that UCLA needs to upgrade its talent to win a national championship; but if Howland had the equivalent of five Aboyas at the five starting positions, they'd probably hang banner #12.

Josh Shipp has really come on offensively and he has continued to have less and less defensive lapses, which makes him so much more valuable on the offensive end. In this game, you could see that he was mentally focused and playing with intensity, which sometimes he hasn't done in the past. But he's been a huge part of the three-pronged senior stepping-up force, which really was the aspect of this game that made the difference. This was a game where the three seniors did, in fact, take the team on its shoulders and carry it past that threshold.

It's getting a bit monotonous, but again this game reinforced that it's all about defense. UCLA plays with intensity on defense, it gets stops and it builds a lead. It lapses defensively, the opposing team makes runs. This isn't hard stuff. This game, was almost a training film for "The Impact of Defense on Basketball." UCLA was trailing in this game with about 10 minutes left, 53-49, but then kept Cal from scoring a field goal for about five and a half minutes, and when they looked up they had built the game-winning nine-point lead, 64-55. Yes, admittedly, that wasn't all done with good defense; Cal's ineptitude helped. But you could argue that UCLA's increased intensity on defense contributed to that ineptitude. There were a few Cal possessions during that run when UCLA's defense was a swarming mass of energy and quickness.

While you have to say that Collison was a huge factor in this game and should get any game ball given out for it, the defense during that five-and-a-half minute stretch also deserves a game ball.

Nikola Dragovic finished with 12 points and 7 rebounds, but it was a game that clearly illustrated the Dragovic Dilemma. We have been the first to acknowledge what Dragovic brings to the court since he's been starting and getting increased minutes, and we're not advocating an opinion of Dragovic either way, but just presenting the question for you to ponder: Is Dragovic's offense worth his defense? He was the primary culprit in this one in terms of defensive lapses, missing or being slow on rotations or being very lazy in blocking out on rebounds. He was the primary defensive culprit Thursday against Stanford. Perhaps as the season has gotten down to it, in big games, Dragovic's defense has regressed. But this is the thing: In this game, he'd have a bad moment on defense that would lead to a Cal basket, then he'd come back on the offensive end and hit a big three. They almost balanced each other in this game – or you could say (if you're a half-empty kind of person) that his defense cancelled out his offense. Is Dragovic's game a zero-sum game? Howland obviously feels that it's not, that Dragovic's positives out-weigh his negatives. Or perhaps he feels that there just simply isn't a better option at the power forward position. But it's very interesting that Howland – a guy who has made a very successful basketball coaching career on defense and rebounding – has opted for offense over both. Again, we're not advocating an opinion either way, just presenting the Dilemma.

Jrue Holiday also has defensive issues, and many are criticizing him for not finishing the many drives to the basket that he missed in this game. First, let's deal with the lay-ups. Judging him right now on missed lay-ups is a mistake. The fact that he missed those lay-ups is what many fans will point to; but if he makes the lay-ups all the fans are singing praises. The real issue with the lay-ups is not really whether he made or missed them, but the fact that he has the talent to get to the spot on the floor where he has a lay-up. That's what makes him special, and he'll almost certainly make those lay-ups in his career and the fans that only look at the end result will forget the lay-ups he missed. He will, at some point, be a very productive player – with the kind of productivity that shows up on stat sheets and makes fans happy. But all of that is irrelevant anyway. Having seen Holiday play since he was a sophomore in high school, I'm going to presume to take a guess at what is really happening with the freshman. Holiday is just as talented as he was hyped to be. He shows it in athleticism, his vision and passing and his ability to get to the basket. The real issue with Holiday that is holding him back is his mental immaturity. It's very hard to scout in a high school prospect, especially with someone like Holiday who generally played against poor high school competition and then could overcome it in AAU ball when everyone is playing like mental midgets. This season, he is right there with Dragovic in terms of committing some huge mental lapses on defense, and it's clear that he just isn't mentally ready to sustain focus, on either defense or offense. He is, I would say, as talented a player as Kevin Love; he very well could end up a better player five or six years from now. But Love came to UCLA with a unique amount of maturity, one that enabled him to focus mentally and sustain it far better than Holiday, and thus be more immediately productive. Of course, there's a question whether Holiday will ever mature enough mentally. You can't say for sure it will happen. But it's a good bet it will.

With a little help from Washington State next Saturday, and a couple of wins at home against the Oregon schools, UCLA would share the Pac-10 title with Washington. It would certainly be a powerful mental edge for this team, knowing that you gutted up and won another Pac-10 title when it looked unlikely. It's the kind of edge UCLA could certainly build on heading into the Pac-10 tournament, which could very well decide the difference between, say, a 4 seed or a 6 or 7 seed.

The biggest factor of how UCLA finishes this season isn't the NCAA seed, however, but whether UCLA can sustain the type of toughness and intensity they exhibited at times in this game. This year's Bruins, led by Collison, got over the hump and won a tough game away from Pauley, but they seemingly have gotten over humps before, and couldn't sustain intensity or play with consistency once they got on the other side of the hump. We'll see if this was the watershed game that enables them to do it.

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