UCLA played well defensively and then cut up Washington State on the offensive end to win easily, 71-51, Thursday in Pullman.
It was not only fun to watch because UCLA won in such convincing fashion, but because of their offensive execution, and the fact that many players got more playing time than they have all season and showed something.
UCLA shot 69% for the game, mostly because they had so many easy lay-ups created from their offense. It, in fact, should have even been better since a couple of Bruins blew point-blank lay-ups and non-contested dunks.
The easy baskets came from excellent offensive execution and from putting the ball in the hands of the guys who are the best passers on the team. Well, it also came from Washington State's pretty poor defense, but we'll overlook that.
When you put the ball in the hands of Mike Roll, Tyler Honeycutt and Jerime Anderson, and they're looking for assists while the offensive sets are working that well, against a defense that is inexperienced and not very physical, you're going to shoot 69% from the field.
When we've been saying for the last couple of years that this year's team should be UCLA's best passing teams in recent memory, this is the type of game we envisioned. Each of Roll, Honeycutt and Anderson had four assists, while statistically being cheated out of numerous other ones, and actually making the pass before before the assist that set up the basket.
Not to dwell on Anderson's poor season after one of his best games, but this is how UCLA should have been this season if Anderson had played up to expectation. Anderson was under control and focused, and played with confidence. It was reported that Ben Howland had a conversation with Anderson before the game about playing with confidence and it certainly worked. He not only looked more focused taking care of the ball, but he asserted himself offensively. Anderson is good off the dribble, and he's been hesitant to do it this season. But he did it in this game, showing flashes of the player he has the potential to be. On one play, he split a double team and scored on a 10-foot floater.
When you have 17 assists on 29 baskets (and, like I said, UCLA didn't seem to get credit for all of its assists), you know you have an offense that's executing very well.
And when you have such balanced scoring as UCLA did you know the offense is executing well. Roll had 15, Nikola Dragovic 14, Tyler Honeycutt with 14 (tying his career high), and Anderson and Malcolm Lee both had 10.
Every year toward the end of the season under Howland there's some element of the team that really starts to click and you regret that you won't be able to watch it for too much longer. I didn't think that would happen with this year's team, but it definitely did Thursday. Watching Roll and Honeycutt execute UCLA's offense and play off each other is a beautiful thing. They both have such a great feel for the game, vision and passing ability, that Thursday watching UCLA's half-court offense was as good as watching any team's execution I've seen this season. It's better than even watching any fast-breaking team getting heaps of points in transition. If you watched closely, many times on a UCLA offensive possession the ball didn't even touch the ground since they team had such good ball movement.
The execution and passing also effectively limited the amount of touches and looks that Nikola Dragovic got. The team set him up for wide-open threes rather than him having to force bad shots.
Plus, throw in the 3 assists contributed from J'mison Morgan, who perhaps had the most surprising game of any Bruin yet this season. In 21 minutes, he scored just 2 points, but those three assists were also things of beauty, to go with three beautiful blocks, and one steal, a couple of other times when he forced a turnover while playing very good defense. Morgan's assists came from him catching the ball, not panicking, facing the basket and looking for cutters. He also found a cutter with his back to the basket in the post. It was a clinic on how to pass out of the post. Plus, on defense, it's too bad Morgan was hurt right when UCLA went to its zone earlier in the season, because it's clear that, with playing zone, Morgan can get on the court and be very effective. The zone masks his inability to move his feet defensively, and he doesn't have to hedge as he does in the man defense. In the zone, he takes up a huge amount of room in the paint. Plus, he played very good defense once anyone got in the paint. A few times, he was fundamentally perfect, not leaving his feet, pinning a Cougar underneath the basket and creating a turnover or a missed shot. In the zone, his shot-blocking ability really can get utilized, since he's constantly around the basket and able to slide over and swat anyone's shot. While it's clear that Reeves Nelson offers UCLA more offense playing the five, at least at this point, Morgan is clearly a better defender in the zone. Watching Morgan contribute was easily one of the most encouraging aspects of the season, with it boding well for him to continue to develop into a contributor next season.
If you have to say, though, what is the most encouraging aspect of the season it's easily the emergence of Honeycutt. You just don't go too long watching a recent UCLA game without saying, "Wow," when he does something. The stunning passing, the rebounds, the blocks, and in this game he looked like the future NBA player he is when he in rhythm knocked down two three-pointers in the first half, and another jumper that was just inside the three-point line. And folks, there's more to come: Honeycutt still is getting up his confidence to put the ball on the floor, which he's very good at doing, to create for himself and others. When defenses will have to step out and honor his outside shot, which WSU didn't do in this one, he's going to go to the bounce and the creativity that is going to ensue will certainly be fun to watch.
Lee struggled some, and got into foul trouble, which limited his playing time to 23 minutes. Being in the slump he's in, you have to give him a great deal of credit for manufacturing his scoring. He's consistently turning in double-digit games by scoring on garbage or putbacks, or getting fouled and going to the line. He saw his teammate rolling to the basket early in the game, something he hasn't been doing well, but then he missed it two more times. It's encouraging to think about how, if UCLA gets the point guard spot nailed down next season, that Lee will be able to return to the shooting guard spot and return to form. If he continues to develop into a better shooter, and he's freed up from being bogged down with the point guard duties, and he can still manufacture points like he does, he has a chance to be a force.
Lee inadvertently contributed in another way, though. Since he was in foul trouble, and with Nelson getting hurt and going out of the game, and with James Keefe out for the rest of the season, it forced Howland to go deeper into his bench. And it particularly paid off. Morgan had his best game as a Bruin, and you could possibly make that case for Brendan Lane, who played 14 minutes of solid ball. UCLA's bench played an astounding 64 minutes. It does make you think: What if the bench had been getting enough minutes earlier in the season to develop? Where would they all be now? Getting more time since Keefe went out, Lane is getting better every time he's on the court. There's no telling where Morgan would be playing in this zone and giving you his passing dimension offensively.
While we're raving about UCLA's offensive performance, you have to give credit to its defensive effort. Early on, Washington State was getting open looks on the weakside of UCLA's zone, but Howland called a couple of time-outs and re-adjusted, and also threw in a couple of possessions of man. It seems that Howland likes to go to man to get his players in more of a match-up mentality out of the zone, and it worked. The Cougars didn't get many other good looks the rest of the game. Klay Thompson, who had been averaging 21 points per game, had 8, and only shot the ball nine times, simply not getting many looks. WSU shot 37% for the game, and 3 for 19 from three.
Of course, it has to be said, again, that Washington State just isn't very good, and UCLA matches up well against them. The Bruins' length in the zone really was a problem from the Cougars. They would often times tried to force penetration through a seam, only to see it close up pretty quickly, which would commonly cause a turnover or a block.
Going into the Washington game Saturday, if you had said that Reeves Nelson might be limited because he got 25 stitches above his eye (that same eye, man, has taken a beating this year), you would have thought that UCLA would really be in trouble. But now, the prospect of watching Bobo in that zone is a bit exciting, to see if he can replicate his performance against Washington State.
You don't want to get your Bruin hopes up, but what if UCLA has actually put it together for a Pac-10 conference tournament run? At the very least, if UCLA can't pull it off, theh younger Bruins are showing encouraging signs for next season.