UCLA: Darren Collison
UCLA was successful in its return to the mainland, earning its first victory over a Division I opponent Monday night with a 62-39 drubbing of Pepperdine.
But by no means were the Bruins crisp, especially to start. They managed only five points in the first 7 minutes 46 seconds of play before going on a 20-2 run midway through the first half to pull away. The Bruins, fresh off an uninspiring trip to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational, got their first victory at the L.A. Sports Arena and improved to 2-4 overall.
Five observations from the game:
1Perimeter defense was in sync
Suffocating pressure from starting guards Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson played a major role in Pepperdine's first-half funk. The Waves went scoreless for over five minutes and managed just one basket in a rough stretch that lasted nearly nine minutes.
UCLA gave up only 11 points in the first half, the fewest since holding Florida International to 13 in 2008.
"Our team defense wasn't even close [at the beginning of the season] to what it is now," coach Ben Howland said.
Remember, the Bruins lost their best perimeter defender when Malcolm Lee left for the NBA last spring, and they don't have another player that will fill his shoes this year. Instead, UCLA will have to be good as a unit. Jones, who had a career-high six steals, attributed the change to better communication.
"I continued to hear people talk behind me," Jones said.
Sophomore forward Travis Wear took an inadvertent elbow that knocked out his two front teeth -- causing him to speak with a noticeable lisp during the postgame news conference -- but that didn't stop him from pegging it as his best game as a Bruin. Travis Wear had eight points, a career-high 10 rebounds and three blocks, and, before he left the court to get his mouth examined, spent a considerable amount of his minutes alongside brother David Wear, who added 10 points and a career-high seven boards.
Howland seems intent on having both on the floor at the same time, and their collective performance Monday probably won't make him stray from that strategy.
"I think we're on the right path to being a really good team," Travis Wear said.
A total of 22 minutes from Reeves Nelson and Joshua Smith is an alarming statistic to take from this one. The two projected frontcourt starters were afterthoughts, really.
Nelson, who hasn't made a start since the season opener, played only two minutes in the first half because of foul trouble. Smith, again plagued by the whistle, played only four minutes in the first half. The duo combined for six points and six fouls.
"They'll play better," Howland said, "I'm confident, as we move forward."
Former UCLA guard Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook thrived in fast-break opportunities during their time in Westwood, usually capping their runs with dazzling moves near the rim.
Freshman Norman Powell might be UCLA's next can't-blink-when-he-has-the-ball player. He had a flashy dunk late in the first half that drew a surprisingly loud response from the 3,885 in attendance. Powell also added a pair of 3-pointers and notched a career-high with 10 points.
Jones appeared to regain his shooting touch, scoring a team-high 14 points Monday following his 0-for-5 performance in the Maui finale against Michigan. The Bruins will need similar efforts from him the rest of the season, and Jones knows it.
"I feel like sometimes you've got to get a win to know how to win," Jones said. "To see us go out there and play hard, it showed us what we need to do to win."
It's a blissful sound when he produces it. He has done so with more regularity lately, a major reason why UCLA sits in second place in the Pac-10 standings heading into Thursday night's game against Arizona State.
On the defensive end, "swish" is an agonizing ordeal.
"A nagging pain," Lee says, wincing at the mere thought of an opponent scoring on him. "It's an irritation, like a sense of disrespect. Nobody wants to get scored on, especially if it's a great play. It hurts, just hurts."
Deep in his core, actually. That's why, if given a choice between containing the other team's best player or scoring 30 points, Lee would choose the former. Every single time.
The junior guard figures that even if doesn't contribute much scoring, the Bruins have enough firepower to outscore the opposition.
"Some guys, when they make shots, they get confidence," Lee says. "When I feel like I'm shutting my man down, that carries over to the offensive end. It gives me the confidence, the mentality, the aggressiveness to look for my own shot.
"Switching from defense to offense happens in a split second. When you're being aggressive on defense, it stays with you."
Feb. 14, 2010 - USC 68, UCLA 64
The Trojans finally beat the Bruins at the Galen Center (opened in 2006) behind senior Dwight Lewis' 23 points. UCLA had four players score in double figures and held a ridiculous 46-25 rebounding advantage, but USC pulled away to sweep the regular season series for the first time since 2004.
Jan. 16, 2010 - USC 67, UCLA 46
As ugly as it gets for Bruins fans. The 21-point loss was UCLA's worst to USC at Pauley Pavilion since the venue opened in 1965. The boo birds flew all over the place that day. Perhaps coach Ben Howland summed it up best, saying afterward, "I’m embarrassed for our team. I feel embarrassed for the program, the former players and coaches. It’s really all I can say about this. It was embarrassing."
Mar. 13, 2009 - USC 65, UCLA 55
UCLA, then ranked No. 15, had aspirations of heading into the NCAA Tournament with momentum. Instead, it was DeMar DeRozan's coming-out party, as the star freshman scored 21 points and grabbed 13 boards to pull off the upset in the Pac-10 Tournament semifinals. The Bruins shot a meager 27 percent from the field; senior Darren Collison had just four points. The Bruins lost big to Villanova in the second round of the tournament.
Feb. 4, 2009 - UCLA 76, USC 60
Using Howland's patented -- and now rare -- stout defensive play, UCLA forced 23 turnovers and led by as many as 25 points. Former USC coach Tim Floyd described it as a "great spanking." Guard Jrue Holiday said, "Stopping them on the defensive end, that's our bread and butter."
Jan. 11, 2009 - UCLA 64, USC 60
The No. 10-ranked Bruins won for the third time in as many games at Galen Center, using a combined 55 points from starters Collison, Nikola Dragovic, Josh Shipp and Holiday. Perhaps the most fiery moment, though, was when then-freshman Drew Gordon caught Daniel Hackett's jaw with an elbow.
Following a 10-point, five-assist performance in an NBA Summer League game Tuesday, the former UCLA combo guard and current Philadelphia 76ers point man spoke about his evolution, about his confidence, about becoming a more polished player.
"I'm a lot more comfortable," Holiday said in a postgame interview on NBATV while sitting courtside after the Sixers' win over the Boston Celtics. "That year under my belt has really helped me. I'm trying to be real mellow."
On Monday, Holiday scored 23 points to go along with eight assists.
The 6-foot-4 guard posted respectable numbers as a rookie last season, averaging eight points and 3.8 assists in 24 minutes per game. It wasn't much different from his lone year at UCLA, which ended with a second-round exit from the NCAA Tournament. As a Bruin, Holiday scored 8.5 points and dished out 3.7 assists per game -- numbers that were good enough to make him the 17th overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft.
Philadelphia's offense is his offense -- something that could not be said at UCLA, where Darren Collison had control. His current role might have changed drastically had the Sixers landed the No. 1 pick through the lottery, a slot that was eventually filled by fellow point guard John Wall. Instead, the Washington Wizards received the top selection and Philadelphia -- which sent Holiday to the lottery as its representative -- was No. 2 and chose former Ohio State standout Evan Turner.
"He's kind of like a raw Brandon Roy," Holiday said in regards to Turner. "Really calm, especially since last year I was out here real nervous."
Nerves and ball-possession don't mix well, especially for a young, upstart team like Philadelphia. Holiday has the ball in his hands a lot more now, though he admits he needs to become a better decision-maker and passer. Out of bad habit, the 20-year-old from Chatsworth often leaves his feet to pass.
"Every time I do it, I want to beat myself up," he said.
Holiday added that new coach Doug Collins has talked to him about becoming one of the team's leaders, despite his young age and inexperience.
"At the end of the game, [Collins] wants the ball in my hands," Holiday said.
That just wasn't the case during his brief time in Westwood.
Blair Angulo: You had a career-high 15 points off the bench [Friday], something we have not seen much of from you. Was there a change in mentality?
Jerime Anderson: Really, I was just trying to help my team. I picked my spots. I was not as aggressive as I could have been all year -- sometimes I was in my head a lot. I was not trying to make mistakes. This summer and spring, I just have to get back to who I was as a player -- before all this, before this bad season. The 15 points is a look at what I can do and I've just got to try to build on it.
Angulo: What kind of player were you? What changed?
Anderson: I was a lot more aggressive going to the rack, taking shots, trying to make something happen, you know. I used to force the issue. I just lost my aggressiveness, really. I lost my confidence. I don't know what to attribute that to right now, but I've got to work on it and not let it happen next year.
Angulo: How much of the offseason will you set aside for the mental side of the game?
Anderson: Every day. I have to get better as a basketball player. I'm going to take some time off, but whether that's watching film, hitting the weights or getting in the gym, that's what I'm going to do.
Angulo: Are you at your ideal physical state?
Anderson: I want to get a little bit bigger -- not bigger in terms of my frame, more so my legs. I need to get stronger so I don't have to worry about injuries. That's the biggest issue right now.
Angulo: Before the season, you talked about the work you put in to correct your jump shot by keeping your elbow in. Was that a factor this year?
Anderson: No, no. I just don't think I was that aggressive and confident with my shot and with my game. That comes with putting more work in. I don't think I put enough work in during the offseason to play the way that I needed to play this year. I'm not going to make that same mistake again.
For now, at least.
But the fact that not one player is even thinking about jumping to the league is a cause for concern. It's a pick-your-poison situation, really. Needless to say, coach Ben Howland has missed on some players, or else there would be some rumbling about possible early exits.
UCLA fans were spoiled with guards Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo, Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook making Final Four runs. Jerime Anderson, the guy who was supposed to be next in line, has not shown any resemblance to them.
In order for the Bruins to stay atop the Pacific 10 Conference, Anderson had to take over for Collison -- just as Collison did for Farmar and Westbrook did for Afflalo. But Anderson has underperformed, losing his starting spot earlier this season. The sophomore was so bad that Howland was forced to move Malcolm Lee from the off guard position to a ball-handling role.
Lee has struggled there too, at times too sped up to think. His decision-making has been spotty at best. Lee has committed a team-high 82 turnovers. Anderson has 62 while averaging 10 minutes less.
On offense, Anderson is as reluctant with the ball as Farmar, Collison and Westbrook are assertive in the NBA. Granted, the three former players were also restricted by Howland's limit-the-possessions philosophy (let's just say guards dribble more than they drive). But unlike Anderson, the preceding guards showed glimpses of greatness when the clock was winding down and they had the ball in their hands.
Anderson has not.
Howland's misjudgments are not limited to the back court. Six-foot-10 center J'mison Morgan, a former five-star prospect who had conditioning problems coming in, was supposed to be thrive in Howland's methodical and slow-paced offense. Instead, Morgan has seen the kind of minutes that are more appropriately suited for walk-ons.
Morgan is adequate with his back to the basket and can block shots when he finds a defensive rhythm. That's really all we can draw from his two seasons in Westwood. Many expected Morgan to be great (i.e. Kevin Love), but he doesn't rebound with the aggressiveness of No. 42.
If you're seeking an explanation for UCLA's fifth-place finish in the conference, look no further than the Bruins' bench, where Anderson and Morgan have become staples.
Collison's rookie season has taken off since New Orleans' all-star leader Chris Paul was sidelined with a knee injury in late January. He is averaging nearly 19 points and nearly nine assists in 25 starts.
Monday's stellar performance may have left Bruins fans wondering where this double-double machine was last season when UCLA exited the tournament in the second round.
The same goes for Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, who averages nearly 17 points and eight assists per game.
Perhaps these two were not used correctly during their time in Westwood. Perhaps their numbers have benefited by the fast-paced style of the NBA.
Whatever Collison and Westbrook's success -- along with the continued progression of Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar and Jrue Holiday -- may be attributed to, it only raises the standard by which coach Ben Howland's current batch of underachieving guards is judged upon.
That may not be fair to Malcolm Lee and Jerime Anderson, but that's just the way it is.