UCLA Shows Late Season Improvement

The Bruins clearly showed they're a much better team now than earlier in the season, in beating Arizona, 75-69, in the Pac-10 tournament. It also helps to get the goggled freshman Reeves Nelson back in the paint...

The victory over Arizona Thursday in the Pac-10 Tournament, with the Bruins winning 75-69, is definitely bittersweet.

On one hand, it's like a Shakespearean tragedy. There are some hopeful moments along the way, but you know it's just a matter of time until the end.

On the other hand, if you didn't have it in your mind that UCLA's season was ending soon, perhaps today when the Bruins take on California in the tournament's semi-final, you might actually have come away from the Arizona game with some legitimate hope.

What you want the most out of a team over the course of the season is that it improves, and the version of the team you saw Thursday definitely showed improvement. Heck, you didn't have to watch the game but look at the schedule: On January 2nd, UCLA was blown out by Arizona at Pauley Pavilion, 77-63. On March 4th, UCLA lost on the road in Tucson to the Wildcats, 78-73, in a game in which they led most of the way. And then, on March 11th, the Bruins beat Arizona, 75-69, and did it without a doubt.

Clearly, the difference in this game was the return of Reeves Nelson, who contributed 19 points and 10 rebounds in 33 minutes. The goggled-eyed freshman gave UCLA its only offensive threat in the post, and it changed the entire complexion of the game. His ability to score in the paint, or even just the threat of it, opened up UCLA's offense. But still, clearly the difference was Nelson's 19 points – points that they didn't have a week ago Thursday.

There were other elements that made a difference. UCLA switching from a man-to-man defense to a zone throughout the game, and playing predominantly a man, was effectively in keeping Arizona off-balance offensively. For years, UCLA fans have clamored for UCLA to play a zone, at least occasionally to keep opposing offenses on their toes having to adapt between the two defenses in the same game. Well, Bruin fans, you got it yesterday against Arizona, and it worked well. UCLA used its man to try to utilize Malcolm Lee to put pressure on Arizona's point guard Nic Wise, and to double Derrick Williams in the post. When Arizona started getting dribble penetration at times and getting in an offensive rhythm against UCLA's man, the Bruins would switch to zone. If nothing else, it took Arizona a while into the shot clock to adapt, and disrupted at least that one possession. When Arizona would then find the zone's soft spots, particularly on the weakside wing, Ben Howland would go quickly back to the man.

Making a particular difference was the fact that the Bruins seemed to sustain a good effort and focus throughout the game, which was a sign of growth compared to earlier in the season. A few times in the second half, Arizona made some min-runs; at one point Nelson committed a stupid intentional foul, and Arizona came to within 3 points with possession of the ball. But the Bruins remained poised, and didn't panic.

Nikola Dragovic clearly played with more energy and conviction in this game, with it easily being among the few best of the season for him, finishing with 18 points and 3 blocks. Jerime Anderson, while still struggling with his ability to merely bring up the ball, did contribute solid minutes, which were definitely needed once Tyler Honeycutt fouled out. Anderson's vision and passing ability definitely give UCLA another added play-making dimension, in addition to what Honeycutt and Mike Roll provide, making UCLA's halfcourt offense particularly dangerous in finding the open man with good passing.

UCLA also got some key points in transition, especially early on in this game, that established the tone and the lead. Arizona only had 11 turnovers for the game, but had five in the first 10 minutes, which led to easy fast-break buckets for the Bruins on the other end. UCLA also owning its defensive boards was a big contributing factor, not only in initiating the break but in limiting Arizona to one shot per possession.

It was, overall, actually a game of pretty poor decisions, on the part of both teams – it's just that UCLA made less of them. Arizona, as we said, started out the game committing turnovers, and then, down the stretch, ended the game with some big mistakes. When trying to make a push in the last few minutes to get the game within striking distance, the Wildcats turned the ball over twice on two bad, lazy passes. While UCLA's defense was decent, Arizona helped UCLA's defensive cause with poor shot selection, shooting 40% for the game.

UCLA, though, also contributed some poor decisions. Mike Roll, while overall playing a good game, with 18 points, and 3 for 6 from behind the three-point arc, took a couple of ill-advised shots himself. With UCLA trying to ice the game, up by 5 points with about 40 seconds left, Nelson made a great offensive rebound, which gave the Bruins a new shot clock, but Nelson, in the heat of the moment, forced up a shot and was called for an offensive foul.

But, if you're looking for a silver lining to the season, this game provided a little bit of it – representing marked improvement for this team from where it started back in November. Heck, from when it started Pac-10 play in January.

But just a word of caution: We've been tricked before this season. The team has had these types of games, and then followed them up with particularly disappointing, letdown games. Hopefully today's game against Cal in the Pac-10 tournament semi-final doesn't live up to that pattern, and UCLA ends its season, possibly today, with the same note it established Thursday – one of effort and focus. We'll take a good tragedy over horror any day.

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