It was an interesting game, with the drama of Nikola Dragovic coming out of his three-point shooting slump, UCLA's Ben Howland employing a zone defense, and the Bruins melting down in the second half but then re-gaining their composure, and then almost giving it away at the free-throw line.
If UCLA had stuck to its man defense, it was looking like ASU would have run away with this game. In the first 5 minutes or so, ASU was getting easy looks and baskets against UCLA's man D, using the pick and roll against UCLA's screen hedge, and then good ball movement to catch the UCLA defense in a slow and clueless rotation. But Howland, showing some capability for surprise and adaptability, went to a zone for really the first time this season and it shocked ASU. The Sun Devils couldn't get a good look at the basket, and UCLA went on a 11-0 run to go up 23-14.
On the other side of the court, UCLA started out the game completely relying on Dragovic, who scored UCLA's first 7 points, and went on to go 5-for-5 from three in the first half. But the Bruins, perhaps energized by their effectiveness in playing a zone, got sharp offensively, finding seams in ASU's match-up zone, cutting it up with some nice passes. Tyler Honeycutt provided a spark off the bench with two very nice assists that split the zone, and UCLA was in sync on both ends of the court. One touch pass from Honeycutt off a cut found Reeves Nelson underneath for an easy lay-up.
Jerime Anderson had a big hand in UCLA's first-half run, finding his shooters for four assists in the first half.
Mike Roll, being fed by Anderson, hit the bottom of the net with two threes.
And the Bruins looked like they were rolling.
You knew there was going to be a second-half lull, where UCLA would letdown and ASU would adapt and make a run. It was just a matter of whether the Bruins could weather it.
They barely did.
The weathering would have been quite a bit easier if UCLA had merely made its free throws. Down the stretch when ASU was fouling in the last couple of minutes, the Bruins went 4-of-8 to make it a close finish. The one that really hurt was Roll's miss on a front end with UCLA up 68-61 and 1:20 or so left. Roll has earned his stripes over his four-year UCLA career, and has proven to be a clutch three-point shooter (in fact, making a clutch three-pointer in this game), but he has shown a weakness in making big free throws in crunch time, and this one almost was the biggest doozie.
Roll, overall, played well, hitting all four of his three-point attempts (can we get him some more three-point looks?), and was effective defensively in the zone.
Anderson had a good game, and is a different defensive player when plugged into a zone, showing that his length is really conducive for it. Interestingly, with UCLA shifting back to a man throughout the game, Anderson was better defensively in the man D in this one, too. He had, of course, the defensive play of the game, blocking Jerren Shipp's potentially game-winning three-point attempt at the buzzer. Offensively, he did what you need the UCLA point guard to do, dish out 6 assists against 2 turnovers, scoring 10 points and being enough of a scoring threat that teams have to honor him. He definitely needs to continue to take the ball into seams, scoring on a nice pull-up and also by taking the ball to the rim. His assists, though, were the big contribution, finding the shooters and making the right, smart pass.
Malcolm Lee, also, has great length to lend to the zone, while he was still very good in the man matching up against ASU's point guard, Derek Glasser, basically shutting him down offensively until the last few minutes of the game. Many observers watching the game would make note of Lee's athletic move finishing on a break where he stepped around a defender to take the ball to the hoop, but perhaps Lee's best play was a more subtle one. In the last few minutes, with ASU making its run and UCLA trying to weather it, UCLA was turning over the ball repeatedly. You might think that Lee, who has a penchant for playing out of control at times, would be susceptible to it in this situation, but the sophomore drove the lane under control, jump stopped, and hit a jumper to key a mini-run by the Bruins that basically stemmed ASU's tide.
That mini-run was impressive and, actually, a bit surprising for this team. Howland, after the Bruins had melted down and ASU had drawn to within one point at 60-59, called timeout. After that timeout, UCLA settled down, regained its composure, and executed its offense. A nice assist from Anderson led to a Reeves Nelson lay-up, Dragovic and Anderson made some free throws after drawing fouls, Lee made his jump stop and UCLA countered with an 8-0, which it clearly needed because the Bruins then went into its free-throw shooting lapse.
The zone's effectiveness in this game gives UCLA an entirely different defensive dimension. As we had speculated, UCLA's personnel lends itself very well to a zone, being a team of considerable length. When you have Anderson and Lee on top in the 2-3 zone, and then Honeycutt, Dragovic and Keefe or Nelson, that's a lot of arms taking up a lot of space and passing lanes. Of course, UCLA will lose the element of surprise it benefitted from in this one; other Pac-10 teams will be prepared for it now. And ASU clearly made some adjustments in the second half that helped find the soft spots, particularly on the wing. But, at the very least, it will force UCLA's opponents now to prepare a zone offense, taking up valuable practice time doing it. Right now, in fact, Arizona undoubtedly is taking up time it didn't ever envision doing in drawing up a plan to face UCLA Saturday.
And, while teams will be more prepared than ASU was for the new UCLA zone, on the other hand, UCLA will certainly get better at it. UCLA didn't even practice a zone Wednesday.
Lastly, there is the enigma that is Nikola Dragovic. His suddenly hot shooting didn't alleviate the Dragovic Issue, but intensified it. Because, while he did go 6 for 8 from three, and his hot shooting was a major catalyst to UCLA's critical offensive burst in the first half, he still can't play a complete game to get us off his back. It's pretty easy to make the case that just about every other aspect of his game Thursday was poor. When UCLA went into man, his defense was particularly poor. He allowed the slow Rihards Kuksiks to drive around him like he was a light post. He, in Howland's own words, committed some "knucklehead" plays, like the blown dunk and the behind-the-back pass in the final minutes. It only fuels the mystery of why Howland, who obviously recognizes Dragovic's issues, continues to play him so much, especially when he is the antithesis of the Howland-type of player. Dragovic having committed two knucklehead behind-the-back passes in two games begs the question: Why is there seemingly no sense of consequence on Dragovic's part? While Howland clearly is displeased with it, why does Dragovic repeat it with seemingly clear impunity? It is truly a mystery.
If you were thinking that Dragovic would get less and less minutes as the season went on, you can throw out that delusion. Dragovic hit his threes and played 32 minutes. In fact, the bench was shortened quite a bit in this one, with all five starters playing over 30 minutes; Lee and Anderson played 36 and Roll 37. As has been Howland's M.O. in previous seasons, the bench shortens up in the conference, so expect less of Tyler Honeycutt (who got 11 minutes in this game while averaging 20 per game for the season) and Brendan Lane (2 minutes).
It is the continuing soap opera that is UCLA basketball this season, which, by the way, is 1-0 and sitting atop the Pac-10.