Of course, UCLA's progress this season isn't going to be a bar graph with a line going up diagonally. You can probably expect it be pretty jagged. A kind of thing where you see a step forward, a step back, two steps forward. There are probably going to be some pretty ugly steps back, in fact.
And, you have to maybe put a bit of an asterisk next to the step forward against Pepperdine since, as we said in the season preview, the Waves simply aren't very good.
But all in all, UCLA played significantly better than their first two outings. And they did it with their point guard, Jerime Anderson, sitting for pretty much the entire second half with severe cramps, and shooting guard, Malcolm Lee, sitting because of foul trouble.
It was a bit of a shame that Anderson wasn't able to play, because up until that point he was easily having his best game of the season. In the first half he had 5 points and 2 assists against one turnover, and looked like he was starting to get comfortable. He drove the lane and hit a left hander, and then a few minutes later hit a floater in the lane, combined with a couple of nice assists, and it looked like he was getting his groove before going out late in the first half with cramps. He tried to return in the second half but made it through about 20 seconds before having to come out again.
Mustafa Abdul-Hamid had subbed in and was being used by Ben Howland as the first perimeter sub off the bench before Anderson went out, but then Abdul-Hamid got even more minutes as a result of Anderson not being able to play. And Abdul-Hamid took advantage of the opportunity, playing how he's capable of playing, being solid defensively, not making mistakes offensively and hitting open shots. He's a good shooter and when Pepperdine left him open he made them pay, making 2 of 4 three-point attempts. He finished with 10 points and three assists against 2 turnovers.
If we're talking steps forward, individually Drew Gordon took the biggest. It was perhaps his best and most complete game as a Bruin, and even his impressive stat line (18 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks and no turnovers) probably doesn't do it justice. Add in a couple of charges taken, improved defense and a general sense of not playing out of control and that gives you the more complete picture. Gordon is going to get a lot of rebounds this year since there just aren't many guys on the UCLA roster who can do it, and he looked like the only one Monday who could get up and grab one above the rim (UCLA ended up even with Pepperdine with 26 boards each.) It's clear that his offensive game has developed, but what was most impressive about it in this game was how under-control he was. In one possession in the second half, he caught the ball in the block, didn't put it on the floor, which he's been prone to do, and went up with good quickness but under control for a nice turnaround bank. In the second half, with Anderson and Lee on the bench, Pepperdine had cut the lead to 46-41 with just about 10 minutes remaining. For whatever reason, the Waves dropped their zone defense, which was fairly effective, and went back to a man, and UCLA took advantage, particularly with Gordon. Howland, recognizing Gordon's scoring advantage inside, called a number of successive plays that got Gordon the ball in the low block and he converted. UCLA's good execution on the offensive end inspired a stronger defensive effort, and the Bruins went on a 16-4 run over the next five minutes or so that iced the game. It was not only because UCLA settled down, executed its offense, and played strong defense, it was because they actually had a good low-post scoring option; Gordon scored 9 points in that run.
What's really benefitting Gordon's scoring is a team-wide capability of feeding the low post. Roll is perhaps one of the best post-feeders around, but Anderson is very good, as is Lee, Abdul-Hamid, Keefe and even Mike Moser, who got in on the post-feed act in this game.
Lee also played a more under-control game, only taking one ill-advised shot, shooting 4 for 8 for 13 points, and leading the charge at the free-throw line, going 4 for 4. Defensively, he truly limited Pepperdine's quick, scoring guard, Keion Bell, in the first half, when Bell had just 3 points on 1-of-5 shooting. With Lee playing less minutes in the second half, and Pepperdine doing everything it could to switch defenders on Bell, he found his scoring groove. But Lee played well overall, with no turnovers and a few jump stops mixed in.
Roll started off a bit shaky, with some turnovers and missed open looks, but then righted the ship and played well. After missing those two initial three-pointers, he then went 5 for 7 the rest of the way from behind the three-point arc, ending with 17 points and five assists against 2 turnovers. He hit a very big three with 6:34 left and UCLA up by just 7 that seemed to deflate the Wave.
James Keefe was solid, but still not asserting himself offensively enough. He turned down a couple of open looks against the zone, and finally shot the ball and swished it from the top of the key. UCLA is going to need scoring from him, especially while it's without Nikola Dragovic.
Subbing in for Keefe was Brendan Lane, who had a promising nine minutes. It was interesting to so vividly see the freshman's learning process: On one possession against the zone, Roll caught the ball at the top of the key and was looking for a back-door on the baseline to Lane, but Lane didn't make the cut. A few possessions later, the same exact thing – but this time Lane made the cut and got the dunk. Lane also made a nice entry from the top of the key to Gordon for an easy basket during UCLA's run that put away the game.
UCLA struggled a bit against the zone, again, but (again) once it perceived the weaknesses in Pepperdine's version it started to execute against it better. UCLA made its run mostly against Pepperdine's man, executing Howland's sets very well. It's interesting that Howland has continued to call for motion many times this season when it seems that this team is better offensively when it's executing his sets.
The fact that UCLA executed the sets so well will probably further encourage future opponents to use a zone predominantly.
It's interesting that UCLA held its first two opponents to 40% shooting, and held Pepperdine to 41%. Those are stats that show an effective defense, even though, on the court, it doesn't look nearly as effective as the defensive field goal stats indicate. UCLA's on-ball defense has seemingly improved, but is still not great. Again, UCLA hasn't exactly faced an offensive powerhouse yet, so it is yet to be seen how this defense will fare against a team-full of guys who can take you off the dribble.
A very encouraging aspect of this team is how it takes care of the ball pretty well. It committed just 11 turnovers in this game, and is averaging just 12.6 on the season, which would put it right in line with Howland's recent teams. That's a very good sign, that a team made up of so many freshmen and sophomores could limit its turnovers to about the same amount as Howland's Final Four teams.
Where this team definitely needs to develop is in its transition scoring. It got 13 fast-break points against Pepperdine, which was considerably more than it got against Bakersfield or Fullerton. But it's still not getting as many opportunities in transition, seemingly needing a guy to leak out more and get behind the defense (Malcolm Lee?). If UCLA is going to continue to struggle in its halfcourt, against all the zone variations it's going to see, it has to be able to get more easy baskets in transition.
Another step forward: UCLA shot 86% from the free-throw line, led by Gordon's 6-of-7.
We'll see if the line on the graph continues to move upward Thursday in the first round of the loaded 76 Classic against a very good and experienced Portland team.