The UCLA Bruins got through the four must win games and arguably improved every game. Yes they looked young often and they still have not put together 40 solid minutes but they are showing that they are a "good" team. (emphasis mine throughout.)
The victory required none of the Bruins' last-second heroics they needed against Cal. UCLA pulled away late in the second half for what Coach Ben Howland described as a huge weekend given that the Bruins were without their "Big Bear," freshman center Joshua Smith.
"A great comeback win," Howland said. "We just kept battling and found a way. Our guys picked themselves up. They were on each other. It's nice to see that kind of leadership within the group."
Asked if UCLA demonstrated such poise last year, Howland bluntly said, "No."
We have heard how this team likes each other. We are seeing them win in tough situations (sometimes of their own making):
"We're becoming really mentally tough," said Jones, who had 17 points and a career-high six rebounds. "When things don't go our way, we're out there fighting for each other."
But let's also keep some perspective. We are a good team getting better but this is still a bubble team. We did not beat another BYU our last four games. We still have interior defense issues. But it is really nice this year that the (often ridiculous) comparisons people make are now to good players. Take the captain Malcolm Lee who is having an amazing stretch:
Your vision isn't fooling you -- Malcolm Lee's jump shot has taken shape. Four of the junior guard's six makes were from at least 16 feet, including two corner treys that might have brought back memories of sharpshooter Arron Afflalo (2004-07).
"Last year when he released (the ball), his arm wouldn't go all the way through (the motion)," Howland said. "He's locking his elbow now in his shot because he's moved it higher up with a higher elbow. He's finishing higher and going up and down straight. He still gets sped up once in a while and he's working on that, but he played great today. I couldn't be happier about Malcolm's play."
Lee scored a game-high 23 points and was 9-for-10 on free throws. He is averaging a career-best 12.8 points and has raised his three-point percentage, from 25.2 last season to 32.5 this season.
"He's playing 39 minutes and not cramping," Howland said. "So whatever he's doing there is really, really big. If you remember last year he had those constant issues (with cramps). He played 37 minutes (Thursday against Cal) without cramping. He's taking some vitamins and doing some things that are really helping him. ... Our trainers have him guzzling Gatorades that are extra-filled with electrolytes and whatever else magic potion."
I personally think Malcolm has earned the right to BN initials but he has not earned the right to be compared to AA, on the offensive side. Defensively, that may be a relevant discussion.
Notable for UCLA was Malcolm Lee's continued defensive excellence. He limited Cal's Allen Crabbe to four points until fouling out on Thursday night and in Saturday's game he made Green work for his 12 points (on 4-of-15 shooting).
"There is no better defender, maybe in the entire country, at the wing," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "He proves it time and time again. He has the toughest job guarding the opponent's best player."
UCLA started using a three-guard lineup with Lee, Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson last week against Oregon mostly because Reeves Nelson was in foul trouble. But Oregon didn't have major size in the post.
The Bruins went to it again Saturday against Stanford, and it worked again. It certainly hurt UCLA's rebounding, as they lost the battle of the glass, 44-37, but it certainly fueled the offense. Honeycutt especially benefited by moving from the small forward to the power forward because his athleticism makes it difficult for opposing power forwards to guard.
Honeycutt, who finished with 16 points and eight rebounds, really started to get going once the Bruins went small. He scored seven points during UCLA's 12-3 run to close the first half and scored seven points as UCLA began to pull away in the middle of the second half.
"When Honeycutt matches up on the four, we’re a better offensive team, there’s no question," Howland said. "When he can do that, it makes us harder to defend. Jerime and Zeek [Jones] in there with Malcolm, that’s our best offensive lineup, no question."
I for one hope we see more three guard lineups. We should include Tyler Lamb in there as well. Lamb who switched onto Green for a couple possessions with a great effect not just on defense but indirectly on the offensive side where Lee took off when briefly relieved of chasing Green duties.
While we tied for the most points Stanford has given up in a Pac-10 game, it was our defense that really took over after 10 disastrous minutes to start the game.
Playing with poise that belied its inexperience, UCLA stormed back for a 68-57 victory that left the Cardinal woozy and solidified the Bruins as a team to be reckoned with, even without a full complement of players.
UCLA held Stanford to 30.8% shooting and committed only one turnover in the final 29:11, avoiding the late collapse it had experienced in a two-point victory over California on Thursday. The Bruins also made a hearty chunk of their free throws for a change, with Lee and Jones combining to make 19 of 21.
Seemingly every Bruin contributed to the team's fourth consecutive victory. Tyler Honeycutt made big shots, Jones attacked the basket, Lee played stellar defense, Nelson gutted out the final 7½ minutes despite a sprained left ankle and even seldom-used freshman center Anthony Stover had five points and five rebounds.
Stover was a very pleasant surprise and we should not overlook the one TO either in 30 minutes. That, for this team, is a very impressive.
We have to keep in mind that, with the exception of last place Arizona State, we just beat the bottom half of the conference in our last four games. So don't get too excited.
But, hey we did win and we are starting to look like a good team.