ANAHEIM--It took a game against hapless UC Davis, but UCLA seemed to finally rediscover its identity in a dominating 82-39 non-conference victory over the Aggies Saturday at the Honda Center.
The Bruins played staunch defense and center Joshua Smith showed signs of emerging from a season-long slump as the Bruins (5-5) won their third consecutive game and reached .500 for the first time this season.
It was UCLA's largest margin of victory since a 103-62 victory over Wyoming on Dec. 23, 2008. That it came against UC Davis (1-9) is a bit of a disclaimer because the Aggies have lost six consecutive games and have defeated only Division III UC Santa Cruz.
Still, the Bruins can use all the victories they can get after a dreadful start to the season.
"UC Davis is a better team than they showed," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "It was a good combination of them not playing well and us playing real well. We’re pleased to get the win and get a little momentum here with one week left before we go into conference."
Smith led the team with 18 points and 10 rebounds and added three blocked shots. David Wear had a career-high 15 points, Lazeric Jones had 12 points and Tyler Lamb had a well-rounded performance of nine points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
Five observations from the game:
1Joshua Smith dominated the paint
Smith has struggled with foul trouble and and conditioning most of this season, but showed little trouble on either of those fronts Saturday when he finished with season highs of 18 points and 10 rebounds in 21 minutes.
Howland expertly subbed Smith in and out of the game to keep him fresh, and it seemed to pay dividends as both coach and player seemed to find a rhythm to keep the big man effective. He seemed spry at times with three of his baskets coming on powerful dunks and he also blocked three shots.
"I was just being aggressive, to be honest," Smith said. "I felt great out there tonight. I know it’s going to be my issue the whole year until I get into great physical shape, but since the start, I feel great now compared to our first couple of games."
Howland said Smith's improvement is causing a case of deja vu. Last season, Smith struggled early but played himself into game shape as the season went on and became a dominant force by the end of the season.
"It’s about two months in now kind of like last year," Howland said. "Things are all of a sudden coming easier and he’s playing better and better and we need that. We’re counting on Josh obviously."
2UCLA's man defense is showing some life
Much has been made about UCLA's need to play more zone defense with it's current cast of players, but the Bruins have played a suffocating man-to-man defense the last two games.
UC Davis shot only 23.6 percent Saturday as UCLA played predominately man-to-man. It was lowest shooting performance by a Bruins opponent since Mississippi Valley state shot 19.7 percent on March 20, 2008.
Tuesday against Eastern Washington, the Bruins played all man-to-man and held the Eagles to 25.9 percent from the field. In the last two games, UCLA has given up and average of 43 points per game.
"Our defense hasn’t really changed that much but we’ve just really been focusing on help," Smith said. "Just making the extra rotation in help defense because a lot of times in the first games, we weren’t helping. A lot of guys were just playing one on one defensively. We didn’t have guys coming over to rotate and getting blocks and changing shots."
Blocked shots contributed a great deal to the defensive performance. Anthony Stover had five blocks and Smith had three.
3UCLA crashed the boards
One of Howland's big points of emphasis coming in to Saturday's game was the need for UCLA to rebound better and they did so in a big way. The Bruins out-rebounded UC Davis, 50-34, setting a season-high for team rebounds.
Smith had 10, Norman Powell had 10 and Lamb had nine. Rebounding was a key part of UCLA's defensive performance as the Aggies had only six second-chance points.
"Coach said he wanted somebody grabbing more than five rebounds a game so I took it upon myself to get in there and grab more rebounds and try to be the leading rebounder today," Powell said.
4The three-guard lineup proved the winning formula
UCLA's obvious strength this season is size with four players at 6-10, but sometimes there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Howland has tried using lineups filled with trees, but early on that formula led to slow-footed performances and losses.
During UCLA's current three-game win streak, Howland has used a three-guard approach more often than not, putting Jerime Anderson, Lamb and Jones on the floor with Smith and David Wear. It's created more quickness, better ball handling and a better defensive team.
"I feel that us with three guards on the floor it gives us more options," Powell said. "When we get defensive stops, we can push. If we have three guards on the floor, it’s harder to guard us because we can go inside out. Get the ball to Josh, space out, let him draw the double team and kick out for the open shots. It’s easier with the three guards."
Travis Wear missed a second consecutive game with a skin infection on his foot so his absence made it easier to use the three-guard lineup. He's expected to come back next week and Howland said he'd have to figure out his rotations based on opponent.
"We’re going to play big at times," Howland said. "There’s going to be times definitely with Travis at the three and depending on the team we’re playing against, it’ll be a team we’re zoning more when he’s at the three."
5Momentum is heading the right way
It's been a difficult start to the season for the Bruins with Reeves Nelson's on-the-team, off-the-team situation disrupting chemistry as well as new faces David Wear, Travis Wear and Norman Powell trying to carve out roles.
With Nelson permanently gone now and 10 games in the books, things have settled and it's showing on the floor.
"We’re starting to get a feel for each other’s game, starting to make that extra pass," Powell said. "Not looking for your shot but looking for others coming off the second option of the play."
The early-season adversity easily could have torn apart the team, but instead it seems to have brought the team together. And even though the victories have come against teams the Bruins should have no troubles beating, UCLA players are growing more and more confident as more time passes from their 1-4 start.
"Everybody needs those games where you start to gel together and start to get wins," Jones said. "I feel like we’ve been doing that lately. We’ve been real confident and aggressive and real supportive of each other when we’re out there."
And lest anyone forget, UCLA was a preseason top-25 team and picked to win the Pac-12. Getting back to that level is still within reach, Smith said.
"We had high expectations and we still do," he said. "The season didn’t start as well as we wanted to and now it’s one of those where we have to put ourselves in the best position to get to the tournament. We know we’ve lost five games and we’re just kind of trying to keep it like that, keep winning our non-conference games which is kind of big for us to get wins before we go into conference play."