It's Now Okay to Look

We've been cringing most of the season, or turning away and just peeking through hands over our eyes. But the last two games UCLA has played well, and not like a team indicative of their record. You don't want to jinx it, but it could now be safe to look...

It's been two games in a row, so it could be safe to say this...


For really the first time this season, the last three days it's been (gasp!) enjoyable to watch UCLA basketball.




UCLA played its best two-game stretch of the season in beating California Thursday night and coming close against Stanford on Saturday. 


It was almost as if you could throw out the season's record and actually imagine this UCLA team was, say, at about 17-6 for the season, and probably 11-3 in the Pac-10 (which is the exact opposite of their current record).   They were that good. 


It would be very interesting to see this team, with its current rotation and player use, start the season over again and see just where they'd be.  They might not be at 17-6 and 11-3, but it's not a stretch to think they'd have at least a solid winning record and be among the top 4 or five in the Pac-10.


In fact, that would be just about the appropriate level given the talent on the squad.


And, if they actually played some decent defense, they could be even considerably better than the team we've seen in the last three days.  Even though they're quite a bit better because they've improved their execution on the offensive side, the defense is still pretty poor.  Stanford shot 64% from the field, had good looks at the basket all game, and open, uncontested lanes.  For UCLA, helpside defense seems to be a completely foreign concept.  The defense is still essentially the defense of the nearly unwatchable 6-17, 3-11 team we've been watching all season. 


But offensively, UCLA is now watchable. Against Stanford, they might have taken only a few ill-advised shots, when previously this season just about 50% of their shot selection has been poor.  The Bruins are actually running an offense and getting a shot from passing the ball, as opposed to one-on-one desperation.  There was even significantly better offensive execution in the Stanford game than the Cal game, where, down the stretch, UCLA did revert to its one-on-one option (but Cal did so also, luckily).  Perhaps UCLA needs to play a fairly well-disciplined offensive team like Stanford and it rubs off.


A huge difference has obviously been the play of Ray Young. Forced into playing point guard because there is no other option, the change has changed Young's approach to the game entirely.  As a scoring guard, it looks like he believes his primary role is to score, thus leading to the ill-advised one-on-one, over-dribbling, over-penetration that characterized much of his season.  As a point guard, it's pretty obvious he changes his mindset, looks to get his teammates opportunities to score and will try to score when given a legitimate open look.  In other words, when Ray Young became a point guard, he became a basketball player.  And Young has had the best two games of his UCLA career, scoring 40 points and making 9 assists against Cal and Stanford. With good open looks created from running an offense, he's had the time to set himself well for his outside jumper, making five of five attempts from three against the Cardinal.


And it hasn't just been Young who has improved. Actually executing on offense has benefitted the entire team (what a concept!).  If we're talking about watchability now, T. J. Cummings is now watchable.  It's hard to recall if he put the ball on the floor against Cal or Stanford, which is a good thing.  He has waited patiently for the offense to come to him and get him an open look, which he'll knock down very consistently when he can just catch and shoot. In the last two games he's been 10 of 14 from the field and has had just two turnovers. 


And it's not a coincidence that when you run an offense, and other players like Dijon Thompson, Young and Cummings are scoring from taking good shots, Jason Kapono's offense comes alive. Kapono scored 27 against Stanford, also doing it without having to force shots and putting the ball on the floor.


Without wanting to jinx it, it would be very refreshing if UCLA could play at this level for the remainder of the season, which includes regular season games at Oregon State and Oregon, and them home at Pauley Pavilion against Washington State and Washington. It's not even that it would provide UCLA a very solid chance of making the Pac-10 tournament, but it's just so much easier for the UCLA universe to watch this team actually play decent basketball. If they could continue to execute offensively as they did Saturday against Stanford, and combine that with some actual defense, it'd be very intriguing to see just how good this team could be. 

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