With a final score that was reminiscent of many UCLA-Washington State rock fights of years past, UCLA escaped Salt Lake City with a win on Thursday, and despite the inability of either team to hit shots, it was a fairly well played, grind-it-out game on both sides.
Of course, Utah had the opportunity to win the game in the last three minutes with any one of three open three pointers, but the Utes did not oblige, missing all three before Larry Drew made a driving, twisting layup that put the Bruins up four with nine seconds to go.
In some respects, it was an impressive win for the Bruins. Despite playing a team that designed its entire game plan around denying UCLA what it wanted to do—run—and despite having a very poor shooting night, the Bruins were able to still pull off the win.
Utah clearly designed its game plan with the slowdown in mind. The Utes walked the ball up the court most of the game, and on the offensive end, rarely sent more than one player to crash the offensive glass, and even didn’t happen all the time. Obviously, this is probably going to be the strategy from most teams UCLA plays this year, as we’ve already seen it from Stanford, Utah, and even Cal at times.
In the first half, for a stretch, UCLA played right into Utah’s hands. For about a five minute period in the middle of the first half, Utah would drain most of the 35 second clock before taking a shot, and then UCLA, seemingly, would run right down the court and jack up a quick, hurried shot. Shabazz Muhammad, who had arguably his worst offensive game of the season, was guilty of that frequently, but Norman Powell, who may have been sick and was sent to the locker room in the second half, also took a few ill-advised shots. UCLA also missed a few open looks during that stretch, which is the worry of this Early Offense—if you aren’t hitting shots, it can kill your defense.
You could really see the fatigue start to wear on UCLA in the second half. Kyle Anderson, who had been a force in the first half in keeping UCLA in the game, was unable to impact the game in the second half, grabbing only one rebound. Muhammad, who had been playing pretty good defense in the first half, struggled more keeping his man in front of him in the second half. Larry Drew, defensively, struggled in the second half in on ball defense, but it looked like Howland changed the defense a little to account for it, with a couple of switches on screens in the second half.
Travis Wear had one of his better halves as a Bruin, on both ends of the court. There was a sequence in the second half, with the score about 40-30, where Wear made two free throws on the offensive end, then did the best job of blocking out on the defensive end that we’ve ever seen from him to snare a rebound, and then, when Utah returned back down the court, he blocked a shot on a Utah drive to the hoop. Down the stretch, he was seemingly the only player who could hit a shot. He did seem to get a bit fatigued on the defensive end, but that seemed to be the case for everyone on the team.
It’s because of this kind of game, at high altitude, that you wish Tony Parker had gotten more minutes earlier in the year. Parker played six minutes, but in this kind of game, where so much energy needed to be expended on the defensive end, it would have been nice if he’d been ready to play 12 to 15. He was moderately effective in the first half, and had a nice four minute stretch where he made an interesting looking jump hook, but he didn’t do much in his short stint in the second half.
In the first half, it was Kyle Anderson and Larry Drew who kept UCLA in the game. Although he’s certainly playing out of position at the four, Anderson’s making the most of it, emphasizing rebounding and even learning how to defend some bigger, stronger players in the post. He can’t play great positional defense at this point, since he’s simply not strong enough, so he cheats a little so he can use his long arms (which, with all respect to Ernie Kent, still don’t make him the equivalent of 7’2”) to poke the ball away. That strategy was mostly successful, but it did burn him once in the second half when he overplayed the top side of one of Utah’s posts, allowing him to drop step for an easy layup.
Really, though, it was his rebounding and, surprisingly, his shooting that kept UCLA in it. He has a great feel for where the ball is going to carom off the hoop, and most importantly, he’s showing better effort than anyone on the team in terms of boxing out. His shooting is probably not something you can expect long term, but hitting the three to open the game has to be a confidence booster for him. He doesn’t have a horrible looking shot, and you have to figure that developing that three pointer is going to be one of his big emphases if he ever hopes of sticking in the NBA.
Drew impacted the game in both halves on the offensive end, distributing fairly well and also scoring when he needed to. Although the assist numbers weren’t there (largely due to the nature of the game), we liked his aggression offensively, especially on his two drives to the basket. Drew’s shown the ability to drive this season at times, and although this came against some undertalented guards, you’d like to see him show some of that aggression more consistently. Obviously, if there's one continuing issue with his game, it's his general defensive effort. He just doesn't consistently play hard on that end, which could cost the Bruins at some point.
Muhammad, like we said above, had one of his worst offensive games of the season, and it’s a worry that a player who has the potential to be such an impact player at this level can be so taken out of the game by a poor shooting night. He couldn’t hit from three, and it seemed like that made him focus even more on scoring, which led to him forcing several shots into a fairly packed defense. He didn’t show much of the same effort on the defensive glass that he showed against Stanford, which was a concern. He’s a gifted scorer, obviously, and his one handed runner from mid-range is almost as automatic as Travis Wear from 14 feet, but he has to learn how to impact the game when his shot’s not falling.
Jordan Adams had many of the same problems as Muhammad, and you have to credit the Utah defense for some of it. Adams, though, was able to nail a couple of big threes, breaking a tie in the first half and putting UCLA up by 6 in the second half. He also is improving defensively, and this game probably marked his most consistent effort over the entirety of the game, even if he didn’t have the bursts of energy he had against Cal and Stanford.
The team defense became a bit shoddy in the second half, with a few poor rotations that you can probably explain away with fatigue. Playing at high altitude, with Utah draining so much of the shot clock every possession, it’d be hard not to be fatigued by the end of the game. David Wear, though, was the culprit a couple of times on poor rotations, and he did a weak job of hedging the few times he did, which just allowed him to be used as a second, moving screen for Utah’s point guard. He either doesn’t have a great feel for the game or just doesn’t expend much effort on the defensive end (or both, of course), but whatever the case, it was easy to notice a sizeable dropoff in defense when he came in the game.
Although you can probably explain Utah’s run in the second half as a combination of UCLA fatigue and poor shooting, Powell engineered a sequence that started the Utes on a run. At 44-34, he turned the ball over on the offensive end after an ill-advised dump off down low, which led to a three, then took a quick three on the offensive end, which led to another two points for the Utes on the other end. Soon after that, he was taken back to the locker room, and it was clear that he wasn’t himself.
Honestly, though, this game wasn’t a really ugly one. Neither team turned the ball over with any sort of frequency, there weren’t a ton of fouls, and both teams played halfway decent defense. Aside from one bad stretch in the second half, where UCLA turned the ball over on three out of four possessions, neither team went on a real tear of turnovers. A low score does not necessarily mean that the game was ugly, and in this one, it was clear that Utah’s strategy was to keep the number of possessions as low as possible—which is the proper strategy when you’re playing a team that’s more talented than you are. The fewer the number of the possessions, the more variance there can be in the expected outcome. If you kept track of time of possession in basketball, is there any doubt that Utah probably held the ball for 23 or 24 minutes or so?
Of course, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention that Utah isn’t very talented, but it’s becoming quickly apparent that about three teams in the Pac-12 are decent to good, and the rest just aren’t. The Utes did seem well coached, and this game was a good test for UCLA—the first time in a truly hostile environment, playing a slowdown style, with both offensive stars not impacting the game offensively, the Bruins were still able to pull off the win. That’s something to build on.