If would have been hard not to look better.
But there was definitely something that resembled an offense. With the return of point guard Jerime Anderson and shooting guard Mike Roll, the Bruins looked more like what we've been accustomed to offensively in recent years.
But here's the irony: Ben Howland has always emphasized defense and rebounding as the elements that make you a good team.
If the Humboldt State game is an indication, UCLA ain't a good team.
UCLA was out-rebounded -- out-rebounded -- by a D-2 team. I don't care if it's the best D-2 team in the history of college basketball, UCLA shouldn't be out-rebounded by them. And for a big portion of the game, it wasn't even close; in the first half, the rebounding difference was 24-11. UCLA made a comeback in the second half, holding a 26-22 edge, but still ended up on the downside of the stat, 46-38.
Defense was a bit better than against Concordia (again, can't get much worse) but it wasn't by any means good.
Right now there isn't a good defender on UCLA's team. Not one.
None of the perimeter players can seemingly stay in front of their man (and, again, these have been NAIA and D-2 players), and the UCLA post defenders are undisciplined, slow and seemingly clueless.
There doesn't seem to be any kind of energy defensively, the kind that epitomized Howland's UCLA teams in the past. And it seems a bit odd that Howland doesn't seem to be losing it over how badly UCLA is playing defense – or yanking players off the court when they individually play horrible defense.
The best thing about this game – easily – wasn't the return of Anderson and Roll. It was pretty certain they'd have the kind of impact they did.
The best aspect was the change in defensive effectiveness from the first half to the second half by Drew Gordon.
Gordon, it seems, is going to be a significant scorer for the Bruins. And he's just about the only big on the team who can rebound.
In the first half he scored 11 points, with a running jump hook, a baseline hook, and some good footwork around the basket. It's obvious Gordon has worked on his scoring over the off-season.
He had four rebounds for the night, and finished with 10, and is the only guy seemingly going after rebounds in a UCLA uniform.
But while he was looking good offensively in the first half, his defense was atrocious. The guy on HSU he was guarding, Brian Morris, had 14 points and 9 rebounds – in the first half. Gordon was out of control defensively and poor fundamentally. He couldn't keep Morris in front of him positionally, and anyone could get Gordon in the air with a simple pump fake. Howland did yank Gordon after he ran out at a HSU player not in a close-out stance and the Lumberjack just stepped by him, drove to the basket and laid it in.
But, to his vast credit, Gordon settled down defensively in the second half. He stayed on his feet, and moved his feet in defending Morris and others. Morris was held to five points in the second half.
Now, if Gordon can just put those two halves together, play like he did offensively in the first half and defensively in the second half, I think we might have something.
The bigger problem right now is probably Nikola Dragovic. Dragovic needs to conjure up the 2008-2009 Dragovic, not the 2007-2008 version. He's never been a very good rebounder, but he's been especially poor in the two exhibition games, and it's going to really hurt UCLA's rebounding efforts if UCLA can't get, say, six or seven rebounds out of the starting four (he had 3 in this game). But you know that you're not going to get rebounding out of Dragovic, but, then, last season he started to play better defense. Not great, but better than he had previously at UCLA. We didn't see any kind of similar defensive effort in the two exhibitions. Even given all of this, Howland conceded that he possibly might be giving up rebounding and defense in Dragovic for scoring – but Dragovic shot 3 for 10 overall and 2 for 7 from three against HSU. He's sloppy in his mechanics, falling away in his shot, or floating to one side.
To get improved rebounding, it might be an option that Dragovic play the three some (heck, if he's playing slack defense, doesn't matter if it's against opposing threes or fours), so Howland can play James Keefe at the four. Keefe played just 16 minutes in this one, but he's going to be needed to come in and rebound if UCLA continues to do it so poorly. It might also behoove UCLA to get J'mison Morgan more minutes (he played 7).
Reeves Nelson might also help on the boards, even though he didn't last night. Nelson started out having problems, turning over the ball the first two times he touched it, but he settled in and provided some solid back-up minutes. He has a chance to be a mismatch with how physically strong he is, and he showed it in this game, backing down his defender in the post.
Mike Roll led UCLA with 17 points, and it wasn't particularly a great shooting night for him, even though his stats were 6 for 12 and 2 for 5 from three. You can see that he's shortened up his stroke even more, that he's getting it off quicker, and any open look within 18 feet he'll have the green light to shoot. It's nice to also see Howland running picks for him to get his three-point shot freed up.
Malcolm Lee is much better off the ball, when he doesn't have ball-handling chores to weigh him down. When he's catching the ball and able to keep it to three dribbles he's the most effective. He still hasn't learned one of Howland's staples – the jump stop. He finished with 11 points and 6 rebounds. His rebounding ability will make him the rebounding win, the one that crashes the boards rather than the one that rotates back to stop transition.
Anderson was visibly bothered physically, and it was a relief to discover later it was cramps and not a flare-up of his groin injury. He looked fine in his debut, running the offense well. He made some poor decisions, which he'll be prone to do for a while, perhaps this entire season, but it will be exciting to see him by the end of the season when he's comfortable.
Mike Moser played 5 minutes, and Brendan Lane 3. Moser is going to be used primarily as a defensive specialist, at least early on in his career while he hones his offensive skills. He looked better defensively against HSU than Concordia. It's clear that Lane, in his first minutes as a Bruin, has good mobility for his size and knows how to play.
Anthony Stover got in for one minute, looked long and lanky, and got a rebound. He can play in an exhibition and still redshirt, so we're not expecting to see him again the rest of the season.
Defensively, overall, though, UCLA was very poor. As I said, no one could stay in front of the ball in HSU's spread-penetrate-and-kick offense. Imagine how poorly UCLA will do defensively when it faces that same offensive approach with D-1 athletes running it? In the paint, there was slow to no rotation. Howland, up to this point, hadn't been double-teaming the post because I'm sure he didn't think his young team could handle the rotations from it, but in his post-game interview he said he thought they might start double-teaming the post, after the damage that Morris did to them. It looked like the bigger problem in his interior defense was poor help defense in picking up penetrators, though. Are we going to get to double-digits in taking charges as a team this year? Alfred Aboya could take more charges in one game than the rest of this team will take in a month.
Howland, clearly, is going to have to use his bench this season, so it was curious that he used it sparingly in this game. Only Keefe and Nelson got double-digit minutes off the bench, and Roll, Gordon and Lee all played over 30 minutes.
In Howland's post-game comments, when asked if he's ready to start the season against Cal State Fullerton next Monday, he said his team would have to be ready. That pretty much is an indication that it isn't.