Washington State: Defense is the Key

UCLA returned to winning ways this weekend, completing a sweep of the Washington schools by beating WSU Saturday. And they did it, albeit with a zone, by playing good defense...

What a difference a week makes. One week ago Saturday UCLA was blown out of Pauley Pavilion by USC and there were serious questions as to whether or not this could be UCLA's worst season in basketball since the 1940's. The questions really revolved around UCLA's maturity level, ability to try and compete and ability to focus on the task at hand. As of Sunday morning the Bruins had completed a two game sweep of the Washington schools that was punctuated by UCLA's most dominate effort of the year, a 74-62 victory over a pretty good Washington State team that was much more of a one-sided affair than the score would indicate. As of Sunday morning the Bruins still sit a game below .500 at 9-10, but they are 4-3 in the Pac-10 Conference and only a game out of first place in what has been a crazy conference season already. If nothing else the buzzer-beating victory over Washington on Thursday night and the win on Wazzu on Saturday offer the Bruins and their fans a glimpse of what the Bruins are capable of when they answer the focus and intensity questions positively.

The victory over Wazzu really came down to one thing, UCLA's zone defense. ON Thursday night Coach Ben Howland had the Bruins in the 2-3 zone an entire contest for the first time this season and it paid off because the zone helped to force Washington into one of the worst shooting halves of basketball, (the second), that the Huskies have attempted this season. It continued on Saturday against Wazzu. The Bruins were very active in the 2-3, especially when Wazzu tried to get the ball inside. UCLA was quick to cut off the short corner and double the post anytime Wazzu's lone inside threat, DeAngelo Casto got the ball. It's safe to say that Casto had probably his worst game of the year for the Cougars. He struggled on offense against the zone but was totally overmatched on the defensive end trying to guard Reeves Nelson. The Bruin freshman went off for 19 points and had 7 boards to go along with that. If Nelson could hit more than 7-12 from the free throw line, (more on the free throws in a bit), he would have been well over 20. But the defense was the story. Washington State scored 27 points in the first half but scored virtually nothing inside and had to rely on the outside shooting of freshman guard Reggie Moore just to keep them in the game. Moore hit two deep three pointers with a Bruin in his face. Again, it bares repeating that Wazzu simply couldn't get anything inside, nor could they drive against the seams of the zone because of UCLA's length.

The Cougar offense tried to run against the zone the same way Washington did in the second half of Thursday's game. They got the ball to their right side, usually to Klay Thompson, and then they looked for the skip pass and hoped for an open shot, a drive, or a pass to the short corner where they believed they had a match-up advantage against UCLA's Nikola Dragovic. The offense was much too static, however, because UCLA was very active in their movement against the Wazzu offense. It helped that Dragovic had probably his best defensive game this season as he consistently cut off the baseline anytime the Cougars wanted to drive on his side.

On the other side of the ball the Bruins missed more than a few "bunnies" that would have substantially increased their halftime lead. Still, watching the game you could sense that it would be a matter of time until UCLA ran out to a lead. Wazzu was struggling with their offense to get consistently good shots while the Bruins were missing because of themselves. Senior Mustafa Abdul-Hamid deserved special praise in the first half. After nailing the game-winner against Washington, Abdul-Hamid calmly nailed three first half jumpers when Wazzu clearly left him open in order to shade other players. After missing his first two shots Abdul-Hamid hit a wide-open three to allow UCLA to go up by five when it appeared that the Cougars might gain some momentum. He then hit a very deep three with a man in his face and finished his half with a nifty shake-and-bake move to his left with a nice 10-foot pull-up jumper at the end of the move.

Washington State clearly had trouble guarding the Bruins when they played a man defense so Wazzu Coach Ken Bone switched to a zone fairly early in the game. It did frustrate the Bruins to an extent, but for the most part UCLA was still getting open looks.

After the break Washington State made one adjustment in their offense; they had the weakside perimeter player cut to the basket when instead of waiting for the skip pass. It allowed Wazzu a few more open looks than in the first half but it allowed UCLA's interior defense to collapse and cause bad shots and turnovers. The Bruins finished with 6 blocks for the game, and, more importantly, took numerous charges. When senior James Keefe took a charge early in the first half while the Bruins were opening up their lead, the UCLA bench erupted. That included Howland who looked as animated as he's been in many moons. The team was clearly feeding off the defensive energy they were creating.

That's a key point in this week's sweep of the Washington schools. The Bruins had been, up to this point, a team that's defense fed off its offensive energy. This was the first time this season that the Bruins fed off the defense, and the difference was palpable.

There were still some things to be concerned about. The Bruins gave up too many rebounds, especially in the first half. Rebounding in the zone is still clearly a work in progress. For the game Wazzu outrebounded the Bruins 34-32. UCLA also continues to show its youth, especially on offense. The Bruins had turnovers on three straight possessions to end the first half and that allowed Wazzu to close a nine-point deficit to three. Two of the turnovers were clearly the result of mental mistakes by the Bruins, not anything that the Cougars did. Finally, there was the free throw shooting. The Bruins finished 16-28 from the line and there was a time when it seemed that none of the Bruins could make both ends of a one-and-one. The Bruins had built a 15-point second half lead but as a Bruin fan you just couldn't turn the game off because you just knew that UCLA's inability to make free throws consistently would allow Wazzu back in the game. Sure enough that happened as the Cougars worked the deficit into single digits twice with plenty of time remaining in the game.

The Bruins held Washington State's Klay Thompson, clearly one of the best players in the Pac-10, to possibly his worst game of the season. He finished with 13 points but 8 of those came after the game was essentially decided. He was clearly thrown off by UCLA's length and defensive activity. By the middle of the second half he was throwing up wild shots that weren't even catching the rim. He grew so frustrated at one point that he gave Tyler Honeycutt a bit of a shove after another of Thompson's missed shots.

Bone made one more adjustment late in the game to try and free up his shooters. The Cougars had been trying to screen the weakside high defender all game and then roll to the hoop off the screen. This didn't work a single time in the game. With about five minutes remaining in the game Bone started having the screener flare back to where the ball came from. The Bruins, looking for the roll, didn't adjust right away and it allowed Wazzu's Nikola Koprivica a wide-open look from beyond the arc, which he hit. After a time out, though, the Bruins and Howland made a quick adjustment and Wazzu was only able to get one more good look from that flare and they missed that shot.

Bone switched the Cougars back to a man defense after the Bruins started increasing their advantage in the second half, but this didn't help to stem the tide. After spending much of the first half driving and taking mid-range to outside jumpers, the Bruins made a concerted effort to get the ball inside in the second half. This helped do two things. First, Nelson's play forced the Cougars to try and double which allowed the Bruins to make the extra pass to the open man, often for a lay-in or a dunk. Second, it opened things up outside and as the Cougars struggled to contain things on the inside Dragovic and Mike Roll connected from three-point-land. The Bruin offense looked very efficient in the second half. In fact, the Bruins shot 74% from the floor in the second half and 59% for the game. It is worth mentioning that as Tyler Honeycutt becomes more comfortable UCLA's offense becomes more effective. He finished with 8 points, 8 boards and 3 assists, although he often made the pass that led to the pass that was the assist. Honeycutt also had the play of the game when he stepped inside of Klay Thompson on a first half rebound, ripped the ball out of Thompson's hands and laid the ball in when it looked as if the Bruins were going to have an empty trip when the game was still close. It was representative of the effort the Bruins gave throughout the game.

The win was important for several reasons. First, it was the first time this season that the Bruins have put two solid efforts together back-to-back. Perhaps the young team is starting to realize what kind of effort it takes to win each night. Second, as I stated above, the Bruins got their energy on the defensive end. Thursday and Saturday were a bit of a return to Howland-style basketball as the Bruins moved well on defense and forced a team to take bad shots. Also, it simply wore down the Cougars.

Now on to a new test, a trip to the Oregon schools. The question for this week will be whether the Bruins can take this effort on the road. For now, though, the Bruins and their fans can enjoy UCLA's most successful weekend of the season to date.


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