Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
This UCLA hoops squad is elite.
We know, we know — an ascription such as that is meaningless and as flamboyant and over-used and cliche as these are meant to be kept in the shoe-box, saved only for those who need measuring sticks.
But this UCLA basketball team earned the label. Even after Cal Poly. Even after an ugly loss to San Diego State, and a needlessly close win over UCI.
Beating the No. 6 Arizona Wildcats will do that for you.
Of course, this game shouldn’t be looked at in a vacuum, as no game ever should. But this win was as good as they come.
Because these UCLA Bruins finally played their asses off for 40 minutes, finally managed to put together a game which didn’t see them collapse egregiously.
Of course, UCLA was helped by a lightning-fast start, one that proved clear they were fired up for their tilt with yet another top-10 team. Early on, UCLA played more physically than the Wildcats did and, to use another sports cliche, punched the ‘Cats in the mouth from the inside out. The key to the Wildcats walking out of the McKale Center was doing what they’ve done all year — punish teams on the interior and rebound like men freaking possessed, suffocating teams from the paint and absolutely destroying guards who were looking to get into the lane with an easy lay-up in sight.
None of those things happened because UCLA wouldn’t allow it. Early on, Arizona did try to take over the game from the interior, with the ‘Cats pounding constantly as is their tendency. With Kaleb Tarczewski, Solomon Hill and Brandon Ashley attacking the rim and attempting to crash the boards, it was the heavy-lifting of Travis Wear in the opening minutes that prevented and altered a few shots down low, and shifted his feet over in the right positioning to force penetrating guards to double-think their lay-ups. The result was miss after miss for these Cats that, in real-time on TV, looked comical for missing shots from point-blank but, looked at objectively, are understandable given UCLA’s pressure in the paint.
And that was what really separated tonight’s UCLA team from the UCLA team that showed up last week against Oregon or that fell apart against Utah. Tough, hard-nosed defense proved to be something UCLA had learned after the Bruins were tossed around on the glass by Oregon last week and, knowing that Arizona fed off of rebounds much like the way Oregon did, they adjusted. The ‘Cats did wind up winning the contest on the glass but that was likely due
Of course, we can go on and on about a defense that held a largely-efficient Arizona squad to a ridiculous 92.8 points per 100 possessions. We can go on about how UCLA negated every positive impact senior guard Mark Lyons was supposed to have on this game, holding him to a measly 16 points off of 17 shots to go along with five turnovers.
But this UCLA hoops squad played some offense, too, and their 106.2 points per 100 possessions don’t lie.
UCLA was sloppy, though. Let’s not get muddled up with all this optimism and jubilee. Lest you forget, these Bruins had a hard time hanging onto the rock and were scrapping for loose balls more than they would’ve liked. This team struggled down low to hang on to the ball and get a shot up in the post, too, and it likely cost them some points.
Other than that? It’s hard to be disappointed with UCLA’s offense, with no player having a particularly bad shooting night — if you don’t count Larry Drew II, who always seems to be suffering from a bad shooting night, although he made it up as he usually does with the quietest nine assists ever — and with Shabazz Muhammad, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson absolutely dominating offensively, with the three earning 46 combined points, while Kyle Anderson earned himself a ridiculous 12 rebounds.
(As a side note, it’s clear that Anderson is the best rebounder on this team, with his hands essentially gloving the ball; as soon as he goes up for the board, it’s almost guaranteed that he gets it.)
And this is all aided by the lovely passing done on the part of the Bruins; what has damned this team offensively the past few games and, really, in general, has been ill-advised shots from the perimeter and shots that were taken with too little patience from the young guns. Shabazz Muhammad was likely to shoot as soon as he got the ball and the same could be said for Jordan Adams and Travis Wear.
That didn’t happen, though, with this team making the extra pass and finding a defender late to his assignment. Penetration and kick-outs proved to be this squad’s bread and butter and the ball movement was beautiful in every sense of the word. Perhaps we’re being a bit hyperbolic here, but it’s a sight to watch this team make those passes, especially now that they’re comfortable in half-court situations.
This team’s improving, and though I, personally, am critical of Ben Howland beyond belief, it’s hard to discredit a win like this and it’s difficult to be upset with the manner in which this tilt was one.
Or easy, if you write dorky headlines like “YOUTH MOVEMENT: FROSH OVERCOME COACHING, BEAT UA,” in which case, you follow UCLA athletics for the schadenfreude.