We've said there would be steps backward and steps forward this season. The loss to Portland was, obviously, a considerable step backward, but it very well might have contributed to the step forward against the Bulldogs.
UCLA improved Friday on many of the things it did very poorly against Portland Thursday.
It didn't, of course, improve enough, but it was significant that this developing UCLA team didn't suffer a second blow-out, humiliating loss but hung in and had a chance to beat the #10-ranked team in the country.
Like the loss to Portland was a bit surprising for how bad of a step backward it was, the close loss to Butler was, just a day later, surprising for how quickly the team showed improvement.
Perhaps the biggest advancement was how much harder the Bruins played in this one. After a fairly lackluster first 12 minutes, which looked like it'd be a repeat of the uninspired performance against Portland, the Bruins fell behind 30-16. It was pretty much more of the same – a very porous, slow-moving defense and an ineffective offense, and not much energy on either side of the court.
The only difference was that UCLA's ineffective offense was entirely against a man defense, as opposed to the zone it had faced the majority of the time in its other 4 games.
Howland called a timeout at 7:35, down 14. But for that remaining 7:35 of the first half, UCLA out-scored Butler 19-12, mostly due to a much better defensive effort.
Butler's offense is a spread-you-out type, based on, first, dribble penetration created most of the time by ball screens. The penetration is intended to draw help in the lane, which opens up the shooters who are spotting up on the perimeter. It was very effective for the first 12 minutes, with UCLA's defense a bit befuddled and slow-reacting. Just about every UCLA defender lost his man, collapsed inside when they probably weren't supposed to, and then closed out really slowly and poorly.
It was pretty frustrating to watch a Howland-coached team get beaten by this tactic. Howland's defenses are predicated on playing hard, which UCLA wasn't doing; they're characterized by defenders being smart and knowing their assignments, which they weren't doing; and one of Howland's most basic fundamentals that he emphasizes in his program is the proper close-out, which they definitely weren't executing.
But when the Bruins came out of that timeout things changed. Instead of the close-outs consisting of defenders flying out of control at shooters, the close-outs were fundamentally better. UCLA got its rotations down – at least a little better – and the effort drastically improved. Just that bit of improvement took a half-second away from Butler's open looks, which was enough to disrupt their offense and disrupt its shooting.
Butler, after missing its first three shots to start the game, two of them being three-point attempts, hit its next 8 shots in a row, five of them being three-pointers. And most of those shots were a result of wide-open looks.
For the last 7:30, however, Butler scored just three baskets, on just 3 of 6 shooting, making one three-pointer. Not only did the Bulldogs not shoot nearly as well as they had in that early stretch, they weren't getting the looks from the UCLA D.
Up until this point in the season, UCLA's defense hadn't come close to resembling a Howland UCLA defense. Yeah, it held its first 3 opponents to 40% shooting, but all three opponents were pretty poor. The Portland Pilots, a good team, shot 58% from the field and 78% from three. Everything was going in for the Pilots, admittedly, but that can happen when you're getting mostly wide-open looks.
So, perhaps, the Portland game woke up this UCLA team. Maybe it sent a message to the Bruins as to the level of defensive effort it will need to be competitive. It seemed like UCLA was going to continue with the same lackluster defensive effort until it was given another example – the first 12 minutes of the Butler game.
If true, you'd have to think the 27-point blow-out to a Portland team that is proving its very good might have been worth it. It provided an example to UCLA of what level of defense wasn't acceptable.
This might not be the only wake-up call on defense this team needs this season. It might very well get lulled into a level of poor defensive effort and need another Portland-esque loss to shake it up.
For the rest of the Butler game, more or less, though, UCLA maintained its defensive focus and intensity. Butler finished the game shooting 39%, and that put UCLA right back in the game.
Offensively, UCLA saw mostly a man defense the entire game. UCLA fans were blaming UCLA's poor zone offense on its offensive struggles so far this season, but it was obvious in this game that UCLA's ineffective offense wasn't limited to playing against a zone.
The offensive execution did improve, however, in the second half.
And UCLA fans might laugh at this, but this year's team has a chance to be a better balanced offensive team than last season.
Drew Gordon's inside scoring will make this a more dimensional offense. Not necessarily better, but more multi-dimensional. Last season, UCLA had very little inside scoring and looked inside very infrequently. This year, it's definitely looking down on the low block for Gordon, who has clearly improved his low-post scoring.
Last season's offense, of course, was more prolific because it had Darren Collison, who could get you a basket almost at will, and was uncanny for hitting the last-second-on-the-shot-clock shot.
But the more dimension this offense shows is, well, encouraging, since it offers far more potential to have an inside-outside scoring threat.
Much of the credit has to go to Gordon, whose offensive development creates the dimension. It also is due to the fact that UCLA, overall, is a better passing team and one that looks for its low-post scorer more often. UCLA came out in the second half of the Butler game obviously with instructions from Howland to look low to Gordon, especially with Butler's best player, post Matt Howard, in foul trouble. It not only worked in getting Gordon some baskets, it seemed to open up UCLA's offense on the perimeter. Mike Roll got, really, his first open look of the game at 14:19 and hit a three, to draw UCLA to within 47-44.
Even when Gordon got into foul trouble, UCLA continued to try to get Reeves Nelson, the back-up five man, the ball in the post, and he responded. Nelson had 7 second-half points, taking the ball strongly to the basket. Nelson also supplied a shot of energy into UCLA's rebounding effort, getting a few of those points on putbacks. He actually executed a very nice pick-and-roll, with a good pass from Jerime Anderson, which, seemingly, UCLA has been unable to do for years.
Also very encouraging was Nelson's clear improvement on the defensive end. Not only did he take a critical charge at the end of the game, he was much better defending the post.
As of now, with Gordon and Nelson providing the minutes at the five, the position is well-manned, especially if you consider the potential there since Gordon is a new starter as a sophomore and the freshman Nelson just completed his fifth college game.
The primary problem on the perimeter offensively is a lack of ability to take a defender off the dribble. UCLA's offense, in the past, has been dominated by over-dribbling, now it sorely lacks anyone trying to put the ball on the floor. Without it, defenses are able to extend out and take away open perimeter looks. It also takes away any open looks shooters like Roll or Nikola Dragovic might get as a result of a penetrate-and-kick.
We hate to put more responsibility on his plate, but the only guy truly capable of dribble penetration is Malcolm Lee. He played another fairly good game against Butler, scoring 11 points, but was possibly a little more out of control in this one, which he's prone to do. But it seemed in the second half he started to not be satisfied with UCLA's perimeter game but started aggressively taking the ball into the paint on the dribble. He scored a couple of times, but also created a look for someone else by doing it. It's critical that Lee continue to do this and get better at doing it.
Dragovic had his first good minutes of the season when, in the second half, he hit a couple of big shots and started showing more intensity on defense. He, still, is a defensive liability, allowing opposing players to drive past him, not blocking out or rotating, allowing offensive rebounds and second shots. But it seems once he hits a couple of shots, like he did in this one, he starts to play with a bit more determination on defense. He'll never be a good defender, but he at least needs to be less of a defensive liability when he's in there.
The Bruins, individually, aren't great on-ball defenders, as the first five games have clearely demonstrated. Roll has improved, but he's still not great, allowing far too many guys to go around him, including Gordon Hayward in the last few seconds of the game, which led to him being fouled and making the game-winning free throws. Anderson isn't good either, but at least he has an excuse of being just a sophomore with a lot of time left in his UCLA career to improve. He, also, if you might have noticed, can be effective defensively because of his quick hands, many times able to slap away a ball to get a turnover when his defender does, in fact, try to dribble penetrate. We're not saying Anderson is a good defender at this point by any means, but there is a sliver of hope.
In fact, we're more prone to put the responsibility and culpability for any faults this team might have on the seniors – Roll, Dragovic and James Keefe. They've been here four or five years and have been given plenty of time to develop. Keefe had a poor game against Butler, in foul trouble because of foolish fouls that he shouldn't be making anymore. How many times has Keefe been called for an illegal screen in his career at UCLA? He also played poorly defensively, missing rotations. Roll, in fact got called for a bad illegal screen with a little ove a minute left and UCLA down by just four points.
In fact, on that last, game-winning drive by Hayward, ironically it was the three seniors that broke down and allowed it. Roll let Hayward by him, and both Keefe and Dragovic watched and failed to collapse and take away the drive into the lane.
There also seems to be a lack of leadership going on among the three. Dragovic has had his issues, obviously, and doesn't look to be inspiring his younger teammates. Roll is trying for a leadership role, but seems to be getting more irritated than showing mature leadership. Keefe just doesn't look to have the leadership qualities needed.
How about simply better free-throw shooting from the seniors? The team shot 10-of-17, which in a two-point game you can validly point to as the difference in the outcome. Keefe and Roll shot 2-of-4, with Roll missing a big one and Keefe actually bricking one off the backboard.
So, really, the development for this team this season is going to be on the shoulders of the youngsters. Gordon, who can clearly be a hothead, also infuses a much-needed jolt of energy, as does Nelson. There is never an issue with Lee playing hard.
You have to also like the upside of Brendan Lane. He played for only 10 minutes, but they were pretty signifcant minutes, scoring 6 points and grabbing 3 rebounds. He took a nice pass from Roll to the basket, finished and was fouled. Then, in semi-transition as the trailer he stepped up and confidently hit a three. He also has good quickness for a guy his size (the problem being most of the time, since UCLA has so many bigs filling in for guards on this team, Lane and others, like Mike Moser, are being forced into defending guys much smaller and quicker than they are). Lane also hit the boards, with better mobility and hops than, well, Keefe. If the play in this game is any indication, you'd have to advocate that Lane get more of Keefe's minutes, since every minute Lane is on the floor is going to pay off down the line, perhaps even later this season.
Moser hit his first three-pointer of his career. He looks like he's getting more comfortable.
A lot, still, is going to fall onto the shoulders of Anderson. He has his overwhelming amount of naysayers among UCLA fans at this point, and it's not unjustified. He did gain a bit of retribution in this game by hitting the huge, game-tieing three-pointer with nine seconds left, one of only two shot attempts for him from the outside in the entire game, following a nice drive and lay-up just a few seconds before. Anderson is clearly not giving the team what it needs from the point guard spot right now. Not only is he hurting the defensive effort, he's supplying little or no threat offensively, while also turning over the ball. At this point, I don't think Howland is expecting him to develop into a big offensive option, but he probably does expect Anderson to improve defensively and cut down on the turnovers and mistakes. If you have some perspective, and just remember back to the ups and downs of recent UCLA point guards, you have to give Anderson some time. If you might remember, Collison had his issues when he first became the starter at point guard, with turning over the ball and his dribble being too high. He would also go through offensive funks for a half where he wouldn't shoot or penetrate – even when he had a year of being the starter under his belt. We're not comparing Anderson to Collison, but just trying to supply perspective on Anderson's situation. Admittedly, Anderson simply hasn't gotten much better since his high school and AAU days, not seemingly putting in the work to do it, and I would say he's going to have to do it pretty quickly over the course of this season. But UCLA fans need to, at least, give him that amount of time to see if he progresses.
Overall, you have to give the team credit for staying in it with Butler mentally and fighting back from the 14-point deficit to make it a game throughout the second half.
This game, for this team, was definitely one of the steps forward.