There is a bit of a different vibe today. Of course much of that good feeling was due to the women's volleyball championship, number 108 for UCLA in total. Congratulations to the ladies once again on an outstanding season. But, part of that vibe is due to the UCLA men's basketball team finally having a good game, and more importantly never letting up. The game was a thorough dismantling of a bad UC Davis team in which UCLA did everything that was expected of it at the beginning of the year.
Beating a bad UC Davis team does not mean that UCLA is once again a "contender." But the way the Bruins won does mean maybe this team can be a good team; for the Bruins did something that they had not done since the years of Ben Ball and the back-to-back-to-back Final Fours: they played for 40 minutes. Last year, Reeves would have quit, Tyler Honeycutt would have been THTO and cruising on defense. This year the team played hard for the whole game and only had one lull.
The game hit a lull at the beginning of the second half, when UC Davis went on a meager 6-0 run. Howland implored his players to "Play hard!" but called a timeout at the first sign of lax play. UCLA proceeded to go on a 20-0 run to make it 74-27.
Something tells me Reeves and Honeycutt would not have listened to CBH at that point and would have thought: "we got this one won, relax coach." They would have been right for that game but wrong for the season. The Bruins looked like a team for the first time this year. And as Josh Smith added (emphasis mine):
UCLA's first three games since the departure of Reeves Nelson have served as a textbook case of addition by subtraction.
The Bruins have won all three games since coach Ben Howland threw 6-foot-8 power forward Nelson off the team for a litany of transgressions regarding his conduct on and off the court.
"I'd say we're kind of getting our chemistry back," Smith said. "I mean, when you lose Reeves, you're losing a good player.
"He's not with us anymore, and I wish him the best of luck, honestly. But we're having better practices with the guys we have. And it's just going to get better when Trav gets back, because he adds depth to the team and we'll be that much better in the post."
Of course the reasons for the resurgence (in addition to the competition), are also the changes in style and lineup.
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."
. . . "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."
A couple thoughts on this: first, if you are playing a Wear at small forward, zone is a must, not an option, glad CBH finally said that. Still I hope we play three guards almost exclusively here on out. Second, it was fun to watch UCLA run and it does seem three guards does give UCLA more quickness, better ball handling and a better defensive team. The last two games UCLA has held their opponents under 30% shooting.
However, playing small may even be the solution to UCLA rebounding problems. The Bruins may have uncovered a way to replace the lost defense rebounding of Honeycutt and Nelson: Tyler Lamb and Norman Powell. Against UC Davis, UCLA's rebounding woes were partially solved by Tyler Lamb and Norman Powell crashing the boards. Tyler Lamb had the best game of his career with 9 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists. CBH said:
"Tyler played very well today," Howland said. "He played outstanding defense and had a really well-rounded game."
Powell was at times spectacular with a dunk and reverse layup but at other times an over-eager freshman making a game high 4 turnovers. However, Norman really needs to play more now, he is a potential star in the making and ironically may be the solution to our rebounding woes:
Perhaps the biggest boost of all came from another reserve, freshman guard Norman Powell. He played 21 minutes, scored eight points and grabbed 10 rebounds, eight more than his previous best.
"I felt more comfortable out there tonight," Powell said. "I was really trying to make my presence known on defense, going in there and grabbing more rebounds.
"I took it upon myself to go in there and grab more rebounds and try to be the leading rebounder."
The other thing that Honeycutt gave UCLA last year and that UCLA showed against UC Davis was shot blocking. It was another reason that UCLA so dominated UC Davis:
Around the hoop, the shot-blocking abilities of Smith (three blocks) and 6-foot-10 Anthony Stover (five blocks) altered countless shots and forced the Aggies (1-9) to settle for contested jumpers.
As a team, UC Davis shot 23 percent from the field.
"Blocking shots helps us with our post defense because then guys think about what they do before they even go up," Smith said. "As bigs, we have to defend the middle. We can allow some points, but if we're around, we're going to block it."
Opponents with low FG%, sound familiar Bruins fans? In other words, maybe there is a reason for optimism. Really it is too early to say anything for sure. But it is nice that the UCLA men's basketball team is looking like a team. Hopefully they can continue to improve as Josh said:
"This is the same team before the season started that was ranked in the top 25," Smith said. "We have high expectations, we still do."
UCLA has two more chances to notch wins - whether they're gifted to them or earned - before Pac-12 play starts, Tuesday against UC Irvine and Friday against Richmond.
"These are two more opportunities for us to go out and play hard and hopefully get these wins and get ready for Cal and Stanford two games above .500," Smith said.