- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The statistics will show that Jordan Adams and Shabazz Muhammad led the UCLA Bruins to an 89-70 victory over the Long Beach State 49ers on Tuesday. But in coach Ben Howland’s mind, Larry Drew II sparked it.
And if UCLA is to continue to build on its recent success and get back to being the type of team many had pegged the Bruins to be this season, Drew must continue to fuel the fire.
Of all the new faces on UCLA’s team this season, Drew, a senior transfer from North Carolina, received the least amount of fanfare -- overshadowed by a monster recruiting class that includes Adams and Muhammad.
Those freshmen haven’t disappointed. Adams had 24 points Tuesday and Muhammad added 21 as the duo continues to lead UCLA in scoring. But Howland couldn’t stop gushing about Drew’s game.
The point guard had 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting to go with nine assists, but it was Drew’s performance on the other end of the floor that got Howland going. He harassed Long Beach State point guard Mike Caffey all game with an in-your-face intensity that effectively shut down the quicker, more athletic 49ers and keyed the Bruins’ victory.
Caffey had only six points on 2-of-10 shooting as Drew continued to show signs of becoming the type of defensive player the Bruins need him to be if they intend on competing against speedy, agile teams.
“That’s the best game of Larry Drew’s career thus far at UCLA,” Howland said. “He played fantastic at both ends. He did a great job defensively on their point guard, who is a very good player.
“When he is playing like that defensively, it makes everybody else’s job easier because he guarding the head of the other team.”
Drew had not been up to snuff defensively early this season. During a Dec. 8 game against Texas, commentator Dick Vitale called out Drew for his lack of effort to stay in front of the ball as Texas point guard Javan Felix routinely beat Drew off the dribble.
Something came over Drew in the final minutes of that game, however, as his tightened defense helped the Bruins erase an eight-point deficit in the final four minutes. Ever since that tilt in Houston, Drew has played with the type of effort required for UCLA to have success, and the Bruins have won three consecutive games.
In the past two, opposing point guards have combined for six points on 2-of-13 shooting.
“When he is really locked in and playing as hard as he possibly can, he is a very good on-ball defender,” Howland said.
“We need to have that out of him. It makes it a lot harder to run your offense for the other team’s point guard if you’re having to deal with Larry Drew at his best defensively.”
Howland has been touting Drew’s importance since the summer, saying on more than one occasion that despite the No. 1 recruiting class coming in, Drew was the most important new player for the Bruins this season.
He continued that theme during his news conference this week when he said Drew could be the best defensive player at UCLA since Darren Collison. The problem, Howland said, is that Drew has never really been taught to play defense the way Howland requires.
Howland wants Drew to pick up the ball earlier in transition and play a suffocating, high-energy style of defense to frustrate the opposing ball handler.
The coaching staff has been emphasizing that style in practice, challenging Drew to raise his level of play on the defensive end.
“All [Monday] the coaching staff, they were really on me about this game and Mike Caffey and his playmaking ability,” Drew said. “Coach [Scott] Garson let me know straight up that if we’re going to have any chance, it starts with you on the defensive end. You have to come and bring it for 40 minutes, so I just took it upon myself to try and stop him.”
The importance of Drew’s defense on the opposing point guard cannot be understated:
He is one of only two or three players on the UCLA roster anyone would label as quick or athletic. When he’s getting beat off the dribble, there is little any of his slower teammates can do to help.
He’s also got the strength to fight through screens and is in shape to play more than 33 minutes a game. Drew said it’s his responsibility to figure out what the coaches are telling him and to put in the energy, effort and work required to do it successfully.
During the past few games, he said, he’s done exactly that and seen positive results.
“The coaches are giving me all the tools we need to go out there and perform, and it’s on me to go out there and actually execute,” he said. “I need to give 100 percent effort and intensity for the whole 40 minutes.”
And when he’s doing that, it’s good for the entire team.