It is important to put UCLA's 95-53 win over Prairie View in context. As the excellent LA Times Reporter Baxter Holmes writes:
The stakes: weak. The competition: weaker. And, yes, it was just one game.
But, qualifications aside, this is a season of baby steps for the baby Bruins' basketball team, and Saturday, the fledgling squad took a few key strides forward.
The win was nice, even fun to watch at time. But it does not erase the pain of underachieving performance in many games this season or the lost to a bad Cal Poly team. If UCLA keeps playing like this and beats a genuinely good Missouri team, then we can talk. But some reporters will exaggerate one good game. I would be fine with what Peter Yoon wrote below if it was after winning four in a row on the current home stand including Missouri but after one win, the cynics are not being cynical just realistic.
The cynics will say that it was only a win against a mediocre team which UCLA should dominate, so it wasn't that big of a deal. But UC Irvine, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Georgia and Texas also fit into that category, and UCLA (7-3) struggled against all of those teams.
Against the Panthers (5-6), UCLA looked fluid and played with an energy level that has been missing for much of the season. The defensive intensity, especially, made significant progress, and if the Bruins can somehow figure out how to string together some games with a similar energy, they may very well ramp up into the more important months of the season that are to come.
"This was hopefully something we can build on here," coach Ben Howland said.
Indeed, it was. UCLA's man-to-man defense looked like an entirely different unit than it had in recent games. The Bruins crouched low in their stance, stayed in front of the ball and seemed committed to getting defensive stops.
And the cynics point above is true. For one game UCLA had a killer instinct but there are more games this year where:
UCLA had been lacking a killer instinct for most of its season, allowing teams to hang around, or, worse, steal a win (see: Cal Poly San Luis Obispo).
I guess if you want to be optimistic, a more plausible conclusion was we saw a glimmer of the "real" Shabazz Muhammad. He looked more like a young man who had been rated one of the top one or two players in the nation:
Through a five-minute stretch late in the first half, the swingman either scored or assisted five straight UCLA field goals. His four assists in the game - hardly a gaudy number - were particularly impressive considering that it doubled his total on the season.
Shabazz performance was dominate and could have done more if needed:
Twelve pounds lighter than he when he laced up his neon yellow sneakers for the first time in a UCLA uniform, Shabazz Muhammad acknowledged earlier this week that, with a new training and diet regimen to get back into shape, he finally felt like himself.
. . .Unstoppable at times throughout the UCLA romp, the 6-foot-6 freshman swingman scored a career-high 25 points - 23 of which he collected in the game's first 31 minutes. It was by far the best performance of his young career, as Muhammad shot an impressive 8 of 14 from the field, including 3 of 6 from long range. He drove effectively to the basket and flashed the high-energy, aggressive style of play that made him the nation's most coveted recruit before the season - signs that he could be ready to handle duties as the Bruins' lead playmaker as UCLA gets closer to Pac-12 play.
For Muhammad, that change in production doesn't just boil down to his recent weight loss. More than anything, it's about confidence - something he and his teammates flashed plenty of in Saturday's victory.
"I'm starting to get a lot more confident," Muhammad said. "Guys free me up in transition, shooting the three, taking guys off the dribble - I'm feeling a lot more comfortable in my game how it's going right now."
But the team performed well not just Shabazz. Kyle Anderson had career highs in points and assists with 7. Travis Wear for the first time seemed to realize he should not be the first option for the team on offense and he should focus on defense for this team. Generally it clicked as a result:
Freshman Kyle Anderson also scored a career-high 16, logging a double-double with 11 rebounds.
Junior forward Travis Wear chipped in a career-high five blocks. Wear also made his first 3-pointer of the season after missing his first three tries this season.
UCLA rang up a 46-23 lead over Prairie View A&M (5-6) in the first half, its second largest halftime lead of the season. The Bruins shot 59.4 percent from the field while holding the visitors to just 29.4 before the break.
So it was nice to watch a UCLA dominate as it should every night over a bad team. But for those who think a corner is turned remember UCLA also dominated a bad JMU team and then lost its next home game to Cal Poly. So, this game was nice but unless UCLA dominates Long Beach State and Fresno State and then beats a genuinely good Missouri team on December 28, the naysayers are not being negative just truthful about a "corner being turned."