- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- For the UCLA basketball team these days, the best defense is a good offense.
The Bruins defensive woes this season have been well-chronicled, but for the last three games it’s been moot thanks to an offense that is putting up some impressive numbers.
The Bruins defeated Fresno State, 91-78, Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion and pushed their win streak to four consecutive games. They have scored 95, 89 and 91 points in their last three games, shooting a whopping 57.6% during that stretch.
UCLA (9-3) has won by 19 and 13 points the last two games despite allowing Long Beach State and Fresno State (5-7) to shoot nearly 48 percent in those games. It’s not exactly a recipe for long-term success, but it’s nice for the Bruins to know they have the ability to simply out-score opponents when they need to.
“It’s great when you have a few mishaps on defense and everybody is clicking on the offensive end and everybody is being unselfish,” said guard Kyle Anderson. “But I think it’s much better if we want to be a contending team we need to buckle down on defense.”
Unselfishness has become a hallmark of the UCLA offense. In the last three games, they have a combined 70 assists on 91 made field goals. Point guard Larry Drew II has a 28-to-3 assist-to-turnover ratio in those games, making the offense run quite efficiently.
On Tuesday against Long Beach State, Jordan Adams and Shabazz Muhammad each scored 20 or more to become the first freshmen in UCLA history to score 20 or more in the same game. Against Fresno State on Saturday, they did it again and added Kyle Anderson to the mix, giving UCLA three freshmen with 20 or more for the first time in school history.
“Guys aren’t afraid to give up the ball and really trust their teammates and that’s a big factor with us right now,” Muhammad said. “It’s unselfishness and it’s bringing our team a long way.”
At some point the UCLA defense is going to have to tighten up. Fresno State got way too many open three-point looks and opponents all season have found easy paths to the basket, and UCLA’s interior defense has been almost non existent against upper-tier post players.
Howland, a notorious stickler for defense, said he planned on drilling the team hard on staying in front of the ball because they are getting beat off the dribble far too often. His most successful teams were always hard-nosed defensive teams that held opponents to scoring in the 60’s and he said he doesn’t want to gamble on being a team that needs to score 90 points a night to win games.
“We don’t want to play that way,” Howland said. “We want to do better defensively.”
Saturday’s offensive performance may have been the most impressive of the season. Fresno State was giving up an average of only 55.8 points a game this season and no Bulldogs’ opponents before UCLA had scored as many as 70. The Bulldogs had held their last six opponents to under 60 points.
And that performance came amid the distraction created by an Internet report this week that said that UCLA was leaning toward firing Howland and that he could be let go during the season. The players said it was not a distraction and that it even served as a bit of motivation.
“We didn’t pay attention to it,” Muhammad said. “There are a lot of rumors that go around and as you can see he’s a great coach who is pushing us to get better and we’re improving as a team. It doesn’t affect us. We went out there and played. We’re always playing for him because not only is he a good coach, but he’s a good guy so it’s a big thing for us to play for him.”
Muhammad said the team played “with a chip on our shoulder” and they hope to carry that over into the next few games. The Bruins face No. 12 Missouri next Friday and then begin Pac-12 play against California and Stanford on Jan. 3 and 5.
It’s an important stretch for the Bruins, who began the season as a top-15 team with high expectations.
“We’re looking forward to this game [against Missouri],” Adams said. “It’s been marked on our calendar. They’re a top-10 team and we need this game to get back.”
Offensively, at least, they seem to be well on their way.
2dChantel Jennings and Kevin Gemmell