Amazing how a victory on a Saturday (no matter what kind of season we are having in either sport) can make a difference for rest of the weekend. For whatever reason, everything feels different about today. It is so much more pleasant to turn on the laptop and read through the stories. It is actually fun when any kind of sports comes on the tube because it doesn't trigger any kind of dreadful memories from the day before (instead reinforces all the positive moments for the good guys in blue and gold).
I will keep saying this. I am still not sold on this year's team. I don't think a sweep over Washington schools don't mean all that much for this year given how underwhelming both of this programs have been this season. Washington essentially packed it in and quit like puppies against Southern Cal yesterday, while the Cougars (despite having some upsides with talents such as Klay Thompson and Reggie Moore) haven't really played an impressive schedule this season.
Don't forget Oregon (that's right Ernie Kent's Oregon) swept these schools up in Washington (even though they got incredibly lucky thanks to some classic SPTRing in Pullman). So I can see all the good vibes from yesterday (which will carry on through early this week) evaporate in Mac Court on a Thursday night when the Duckies will be jacked up to play our Bruins (and given their past track record their students will probably be itching to rush the court).
With all those caveats out of the way, I do like how our Coach and players have handled the adversity coming off the disgraceful and unacceptable loss against Southern Cal. As tough as I personally have been on Coach Ben Howland this season (who I have worshipped since the beginning of BN), it's hard for me not to melt when reading quotes like this in today's LA Times:
"It was actually very poor coaching on my part for not recognizing earlier," he said. "It's not something we want to do, but it's something we need to do in order to be competitive and win games."
No kidding Coach. :-) I am still having a hard time forgetting our games against Arizona and those initial few minutes against Southern Cal. Not only was I surprised to see us zone against Washington State (given the potent three point shooters in their team), it was very interesting to see how effective our defense was against the Cougars.
First of all, the zone defense Howland threw against them was a little more nuanced. We actually still doubled their big down low number of times. I thought one of the reasons Howland started James Keefe was because he was better at quarterbacking the zone D from the middle than Reeves Nelson (even though Nelson is proving to be a fast learner).
You could tell that our zone defense was effective based on the shots Washington State was getting off. They weren't getting any easy looks from the top of the key or from the baseline. Most of the shots they were getting were from very tough angle which Moore was connecting on from every now and then. Our guys also completely smothered Klay Thompson by and took him out of his game:
"Any time we saw him on the court, running anywhere, we yelled out where he was and closed him off," UCLA forward Tyler Honeycutt said.
Thompson was five for 17 from the field Saturday and finished with 13 points.
"We wanted to be all over him," Howland said. "We didn't want him to drive. We didn't want him to shoot. We wanted him to get rid of the ball."
That kind of intensity gave us a little reminder of our recent past. I wrote in the post game thread how much of a head rush I got watching us taking charges and diving for loose balls. Look s like Coach Howland made the exact same point after the game:
"Probably the greatest thing of the whole thing is to see James Keefe and Reeves Nelson step up and take charges. We haven't done that very well in the last month. That was so big. If anyone was watching the game, I was so excited. I would've jumped through the roof if I could."
I think we all felt the same way coach. I really hope our players understand that over the years so many of us have been so preconditioned to Ben Ball typified by all out hustle, defense and fundamentals that it's those kind of plays that gets us more fired up than anything else. Again, it was heartening to see how the bench got so charged up following those plays.
That brings me to the point of developing an identity of this team. Not sure if it's still there. Mrs. N brought up the point (no pun intended here) that for the first time she is seeing a semblance of role clarification within this team with Malcolm Lee running the point and Mustafa Abdul Hamid coming in to given quality back up minutes. She mentioned starting from last year it wasn't completely clear whose team it really was.
DC was the clear cut floor general of last year's team. Yet there was a perception that Mr. Jrue Holiday should have been getting lot more mins at the point guard (something his message board shills constantly cried about throughout the season). Meanwhile, Malcolm Lee was probably wondering why he wasn't getting more minutes than Jrue considering he was always playing better defense and there was also Jerime Anderson as the point guard. So essentially, we had a glut of DC and 3 guys who thought who could play point last season.
This year it Anderson came in as the heir apparent (at least he thought he would just slide into that spot without having to fight for it) and never played with a sense of urgency. Finally Lee took over and still the roles weren't totally clear. Since Anderson went down, and Mustafa took up the backup role, it seems like there is a sense of stability and calm in our rotation that hasn't existed in couple of years. Not sure how long it is going to last and it will be very interesting to see how Howland handles it. I sure hope Mustafa continue to play a significant role in this team on the court as he has now earned his minutes:
"He's definitely earning his keep," Howland said, smiling.
One thing about Hamid is it really helps us that he can nail the open shot. His form is pure and he is confident in taking it. It really helps and we no longer have to play 4 on 5 on the offensive end. I hope one of the positive outcomes of Hamid's clear emergence will be that it will force Anderson to rededicate himself to this program and commit to working as hard as Hamid has since he arrived at UCLA.
Mrs. N also pointed out under Mustafa the Bruins finally look a little like the Bruins led by LRMAM, PAA, RW and AA. No, he is never going to be close to those guys in terms of athleticism. However, he matches them via his mindset. He seems like a classic Howland coached basketball player, who doesn't give off the sense of entitlement and who is on the court earning every mins and relishing representing the four letters stitched in front of his jersey. He is also sounding like the natural leader of this basketball team:
"We're not good enough to not bring our `A' game every game," said Abdul-Hamid, two days after hitting a buzzer-beater to beat Washington.
"It's something we should've learned the very first game of the season, should've learned in the exhibition game, should've learned in Portland. If we're going to be out here and we're going to win, we have to bring it."
It sure seems everyone else is feeding off that kind of outlook. Nelson had this to say about bringing it on a Saturday:
"I can definitely tell you it wasn't the partying - we don't go out the night before games," said freshman forward Reeves Nelson, who led UCLA with 19 points in 25 minutes. "Just today, we kind of drew the line and said we need to stop taking teams lightly - the lesser of the two teams in the public's eye - lightly. Before we ran out, we got in our little huddle and I said, `We need to just not take no for an answer, play our best, play our hardest.'
"In a little more colorful language, but they got the message."
Guess everyone has been reading the "clubbing" line on BN. :-) I thought another one of the better moments of last afternoon's game was when Nelson and Honeycutt basically stuffed a Cougar around the rim. Both of them went crazy over that TEAM DEFENSIVE stand. It was awesome to watch.
With all the euphoria out of the way, as mentioned up top we still have to deal with grim reality that we just had a good week against couple of really mediocre teams. Speaking of grim reality, I will let my favorite player serve this up:
"We need to win on the road," Dragovic said. "We have five of the next seven on the road. It's going to be tough. But I believe we'll know what kind of season we'll have once these games are over."
Uh yeah Nikola. None of this is going to matter if we regress back into the bad habits of stupid mistakes, jacking up unnecessary shots, not making our FTs, losing our intensity on defense, and just totally losing out composure down the stretch this coming week.
Bruins do have an opportunity to build something this week. It will be interesting to see how they handle it. For now I guess, it's good to enjoy a fun (Bruin) Sunday.