Rob Carpentier and I had kind of an informal argument going over which of UCLA's non-conference opponent was the worst. Neither of us said New Mexico State and we were both wrong.
So, even though it might have looked like other recent Bruin teams as this one ran over the Aggies, 100-68, most Bruin fans I think realize that this blow-out win has to be taken with a huge grain of salt.
But it was truly just what the doctor ordered for an ailing Bruin team that had dropped five games in a row. For these players, that means three weeks of dealing with a grumpy Ben Howland in practice, which can't be fun.
For a team that had seen so much go wrong, fortune was definitely on its side Tuesday night. Malcolm Lee actually banked in a three, and New Mexico State kicked or fumbled an amazing amount of balls out of bounds. Balls hadn't been bouncing UCLA's way this season, but they did in this game.
That's a pretty good indication that something was different in this game. And while we've acknowledged that the biggest difference was how bad and unlucky the opponent was, we have to also give a little credit to the Bruins, too.
So far this season the primary issue offensively has been UCLA's poor shooting, shooting 37% for the season coming into this game, and then shooting 56% from the field against the Aggies. Again, a great deal of the difference was UCLA getting so many lay-ups, and that its outside looks were quite a bit more open than against other opponents. But UCLA scored 44 of its points in the paint not just in transition or by its posts in the block, but by Lee, Anderson and Mike Roll aggressively trying to get into the key to shoot. Easily UCLA's go-to play so far this season has been Roll curling off a flair screen, catching, taking a couple of dribbles into the lane and pulling up. He did it again in this game, but his other guard teammates also got into the act. Lee and Anderson looked for creases and opportunities, and Lee was particularly effective, and a little more under control than he had been so far this season. On one drive, he jump-stopped, pump-faked (two of the biggest things Howland emphasizes) and shot a soft mid-ranger. On another he spun into the lane, under control and pulled up again. To start the game, in the first minute, he penetrated twice, drew two fouls and knocked down all four free-throws.
Lee also finished with a team high (tied with Nelson) 8 rebounds. I'm sure there will still be a few set-back games along the way in Lee's development, but playing as under control as he did in this game was definitely a step forward.
Also taking a large step forward was Anderson, with his best game as a Bruin. He had 7 assists against just one turnover. Getting into the lane he was able to create for others after drawing defenders, dishing off to either wide-open shooters or cutters. He also generally did a decent job defensively, staying in front a quick (but out of control) Jonathan Gibson for most of the game. He also hit a couple of three-pointers, even though it takes him about 20 minutes to get off his shot. I'm certain that Anderson, when he plays against better opponents, will have more games this season when he struggles, so it's a bit early to claim he's made it through and come out on the other side. But as we've said about this season, that they'll be steps forward and steps backward, this was a clear step forward for Anderson.
Besides Lee's first two drives into the lane that forced fouls, it was Roll who set the spark offensively for the team early. He had 12 points in the first half, but then only played 7 minutes in the second half to finish with 14. Roll, who has pretty much carried the Bruins offensively this season, has a bit of a habit of needing a couple of shots early on to get warmed up, but in this game he confidently nailed his first three-point attempt, which was about a 23-footer, then hit two straight baskets in the middle of the half, including another 23-foot three-pointer to put up UCLA, 37-20, and the route was on.
Nelson's 16 points were typical Nelson points, coming on lay-ins or dunks after dishes from his teammates or putbacks, while also getting 8 rebounds. Honeycutt, while he still doesn't have the confidence yet to look for his shot, took another step toward comfortability in scoring his 14, and with 7 rebounds. Between the two of them they had 7 offensive rebounds which led to 12 UCLA points.
You'd have to say that Nikola Dragovic, while hitting three shots, still isn't out of his shooting slump, going 3 for 9 from the field. It was clear UCLA was trying to post up Dragovic, to take advantage of a mis-match and also probably to get him some easier looks to de-rail the slump. He did hit his one three-point attempt.
UCLA easily got its most points in transition in this game, thanks mostly to NMSU's 20 turnovers. If you're wondering how a UCLA team that was previously averaging 63 points per game puts up 100, it's mostly because UCLA was lucky to get a basket or two in transition in its first eight games and it got 20 transition points in this one. Again, it was mostly because of NMSU's turnovers and inability to get back defensively in transition, but give UCLA some credit for looking a bit more comfortable executing its break.
In its half-court offense, UCLA is running its motion seemingly more and more, giving its guards more freedom and definitely more of a greenlight to penetrate.
Defensively, the Bruins kept NMSU to shooting 39% from the field, and played generally better defense than it had yet this season, with more energy and less breakdowns. Again, this was against a team that was pretty inept offensively, so UCLA's defense wasn't challenged much. The NMSU ball movement off penetration was slow and sloppy, giving UCLA's defenders plenty of time to rotate and pick up the open shooters. UCLA's double-team in the post early also created some turnovers. It was interesting, though, with Howland playing so many younger players in this one (Honeycutt got 22 minutes, Brendan Lane had 17), there were times when you could easily see a better defensive energy with the younger players on the court. Both Honeycutt and Lane, while they make mistakes, definitely make a good effort to rotate and pick up the open man. The youngsters, too, are buying into the Howland take-a-charge mantra, with one charge being taken by both Lane and Nelson in one sequence.
UCLA got the five-losses-in-a-row monkey off its back, mostly because, clearly, New Mexico State was pretty bad. But there is a palpable confidence a team, particularly a young team like the Bruins, can gain from a win like this. Perhaps there's something to be said for scheduling a bunch of non-conference cupcakes.