With that said, UCLA's performance against Washington State Thursday in the Pac-10 Tournament, beating the Cougars, 64-53, was perhaps one to get encouraged by if you're a UCLA fan.
The defense had maybe its best defensive performance of the season. It held Washington State to 30% shooting on the night. It held Taylor Rochestie, a guy who torched UCLA for 33 points the last time out, to just 8. It held Klay Thompson, a guy who scored 15 points in one half in the last meeting, to just 5 points. The two of them combined to shoot 3 of 22.
You could easily see the difference in UCLA's defensive intensity. The Bruins were fired up and exhausting themselves in their defensive effort.
The half-full Bruin fan says: "Great! Let's keep it up! The team now has shown it can play the type of defense that carried the last three UCLA teams to the Final Four. It's great timing to put it together. "
The half-empty Bruin fans says: "Where the hell was that all season? If they had played with that kind of defensive effort all season UCLA would have won the Pac-10 and be playing for a 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament."
Such is the schizophrenic life of a sports fan.
The entire team played with increased defensive intensity and focus, but there was a marked difference particularly in Jrue Holiday. He had shown flashes of great defensive effort throughout the year, but this was the first time he sustained it throughout a game. He's had better offensive games, better games passing the ball, but all in all, with the impact his defense had on this game, it might have been his best performance of the season. He trailed Thompson like he had money leaking out of his shorts. When Thompson drove, Holiday beat him to the spot. No one now should ever doubt whether Holiday has the quickness or athleticism to be a defensive stopper. You can legitimately doubt, however, if he has the drive and heart to do it consistently since he hadn't shown this much sustained defensive effort all season.
Seriously, sitting on the floor of the Staples Center, you could see that the Bruins were winded playing defense within the first 10 minutes of this game. And that's the way it's supposed to be.
I have no problem, either, with Aron Baynes, Washington State's burly center, having a good scoring night, getting 22 points. It's a smart trade-off if Baynes gets his points but UCLA's defense shuts down the Cougars on the perimeter. You'd much rather Baynes get 22 than Rochestie and Thompson combine for 50. UCLA did double Baynes at times and it was effective, actually; he only passed out of the double team to an open shooter one time. Many times UCLA didn't double him, however, choosing to not risk losing WSU's perimeter players on rotations.
Give a great deal of credit to the UCLA coaching staff for recognizing the best times, and situations on the floor, to double Baynes – and not to double Baynes.
It also helps when you get a defensive boost from your back-up four man in James Keefe. With Nikola Dragovic in foul trouble, Keefe played 16 very good minutes. He provides an improvement in many aspects of playing defense at the four that it reverberates throughout UCLA's team defense. Knowing better when to double, taking a better angle on it, better post defense, better rotations – all of it contributes to an improved UCLA defense. Dragovic clearly has his offensive advantages and UCLA definitely benefitted from them in this one, with Dragovic scoring 12 points, all within the three-point line, and getting six rebounds. Dragovic posted up and looked good in a spin move to the basket, in fact. But when UCLA needs to bolster its defense, Keefe needs to be utilized, especially if he's playing with the aggressiveness he showed in this game. Keefe also hit a clutch three-pointer with the shot clock ticking down on a big second-half possession.
Offensively, you can generally rely on UCLA to be efficient scoring. There haven't been too many games this season where you pointed to UCLA's offense as the reason for a defeat (really, only ASU at home comes to mind). The offense wasn't nearly as productive as it usually is, mostly because it was going up against the best defense in the conference in Washington State's. UCLA shot 39.6% for the game, and that's over Washington State's average field goal percentage defense (they allow 39% for the season, which gets them ranked 16th in the country). The Cougars had a good defensive game plan against UCLA – put long athlete Marcus Capers on Collison to keep steady pressure on the ball, and then collapse when Collison gets into the paint and take away Collison's drives. It generally worked, with Collison shooting 3 for 9, missing some shots in and around the basket because he was challenged by a number of Cougars (and fouled). To Collison's credit, he kept driving the lane, to at least draw fouls, which he did – going 8 of 10 from the line to give him the bulk of his team-high 15 points.
UCLA, though, anticipated that WSU would try to first and foremost limit Collison, so it put the ball in the hands of Holiday more often. He did force some things, but he also had a few beautiful passes, and he hit two three-pointers , something he's only done in seven games this season.
Overall, it was an excellent game plan offensively, and a good offensive performance given the opponent's defense, combined with perhaps the best collective perimeter defensive effort of the season.
It's funny, though, how UCLA was up by double digits for a majority of the game, and even leading by 16 points or more for long stretches, but it still had the feel of a close game. Perhaps because you knew Washington State could go on a shooting spree and put them right back in it. Or maybe it was because of the urgency UCLA played on defense – the type of urgency you've only seen out of them this season at the end of games when they were trying to make a frenzied comeback.
If UCLA can continue to play with that defensive urgency, you're not going to want to face them in the NCAA Tournament.
But maybe that's the over-reactive fan's reaction. We shouldn't get ahead of ourselves; let's see if they can sustain it for a second consecutive game tonight against USC.