With all the turmoil surrounding the UCLA Basketball program, it probably felt good for the players to take the court again and finally play some basketball. The Bruins were able to withstand a late rally from Penn and hold on for a 77-73 victory. Perhaps this team can take a cue from their gridiron counterparts and "Burn the Boats", rallying around a remade roster and a radically changed rotation to spur a change in their play.
Good news first. For the sake of the season, we have to hope that this game is an indication that Lazeric Jones' early season shooting woes are over. Zeek's 20 points came only 10 shots and included 3-3 from beyond the arc. Many of the shots he made were difficult, which brings up questions about shot selection, but it's much easier to take when the shots are falling. He still dominates the ball way too much for my liking, especially for a guard with below average court vision, but we sure could use his offense, because our offensive sets were generally quite ugly.
Without Reeves, as expected, we saw a lot more Wears. They started at 4 and 5 (thankfully not at 3) and did a serviceable job on offense now that their shot selection is improving. They are still incredibly frustrating to watch on defense though. If they put as much effort into their defensive rebounding, boxing out and fighting for position, as they did hunting for offensive rebounds, the ceiling on this team would be much higher. They're going to play a lot more now, that's just the reality. They need to protect our defensive glass better.
After an embarrassing dunk attempt in the first half, Joshua Smith still was able to compile an effective offensive game. The way he's been playing recently, I'll take any signs of life from Smith. I also liked Norman Powell's contributions, and he's proving to be one of the more solid players in our rotation. His defense is objectively superior to Tyler Lamb's, and it's pretty clear whose minutes Norman should be eating into in the future.
This was also the first game we saw a true commitment to playing zone defense. I don't think it's a coincidence that Smith's offensive game improved when he didn't have to chase people on defense. Seeing him anchor that zone with the Wears just felt far more "right" than watching any of those guys trying to hedge and recover.
Of course, there were also causes for concern. UCLA built and maintained its lead on hot three point shooting. It would be nice if that continued in our future games, but does anyone really have confidence that it'll continue? I'd feel far more comfortable if we were scoring out of effective offensive sets than 3's. Speaking of 3's, Penn's Tyler Bernardini absolutely killed us with a barrage of long range shots. Some were contested, some not, but it's always disconcerting to watch an opposing player almost drop 30 on you. In a way you could spin that into a positive, because if I were to draw up a game plan against Penn, I would have focused on shutting down Zack Rosen, and the Bruins largely did that tonight.
What this also highlights is that Penn is a one trick pony behind Rosen, and thus isn't a very good team, so it's disturbing that the game was as close as it was. The Bruins just can't seem to get out of their own way on offense, and the sets looked as disjointed and ugly as ever. Not all of it can be attributed to not having a playmaker on the roster. Some of that is simply cluelessness and standing around, being in the wrong spots and having bad spacing. Tonight, the bailout shots from Zeek were falling, but if they're not, we're in a world of trouble.
It's nice to be able to talk about a win, even if it's not a particularly impressive one. I talk about "Burning the boats" above in a joking fashion, but if that's what it takes for this team to get back on track, then I sure won't complain about how they do it.
Next up, the Bruins take on Eastern Washington on Wednesday night.