But there are a few nagging issues about the team that UCLA can only hope to mask for the rest of the season.
The Bruins showed both of those aspects in beating UC Irvine, 76-54, Saturday at Pauley. First, the issues they can only hope to mask.
The Bruins improved in their on-the-ball defense but it still wasn't fantastic. UC Irvine created most of its scoring off the dribble, with UCLA's defenders allowing dribble penetration, which then created a scoring opportunity. The Anteaters have pretty good perimeter players but nothing spectacular. The fact that UCLA struggled to stay in front of Anteaters doesn't bode well in terms of Wildcats, Trojans, and Huskies.
UCLA was out-rebounded 38-34. While it was partly due to some long offensive rebounds UC Irvine got that bounced fortunately for them, some of it also is due to UCLA's lack of rebounding talent. In the first three games, UCLA's two posts, Ryan Hollins and Michael Fey, have definitely shown improvement rebounding the ball over last year. But neither are naturally talented at it. They're doing it through coaching and repetition, and they still have a considerable ways to go. Hollins is averaging 26 minutes a game and only 4.3 rebounds. Fey is better, at 29 minutes and an average of 6.7, and does look improved in his rebounding efforts. In the first two games, against quite inferior opponents, UCLA blocked out considerably better than they did against UC Irvine. Irvine, to its credit, is a pretty good rebounding team, holding a +6.5 rebounding margin over their three opponents this year. They also out-rebounded USC, 36-35.
UCLA did really well in getting the ball inside to Fey in the first half, then got away from it in the second half. Fey scored 11 points in the first half and just two in the second, which wasn't his fault at all, since he touched the ball so infrequently in the second half. It probably wasn't coincidental that UCLA scored 40 points in the first half and led Irvine by 12 at halftime, and then struggled in the second half offensively, letting Irvine back in the game as a result. It's pretty obvious that UCLA, to be successful offensively this season, is going to have to get Fey looks inside. He has a great inside touch, not only being able to hit his jumper, but also very soft with his jump hook. The more he touches the ball inside the more he'll be comfortable and convert his opportunities. If UCLA doesn't get the ball to Fey, they become a perimeter-oriented team. And what happens with perimeter, three-point-shooting teams is: when they go cold, they break down. And that's what you saw in the second half against Irvine yesterday. A team that chooses to live and die by its outside shooting going cold and breaking down. UCLA ran its offense well (in getting open perimeter looks, anyway), had the open shots, but missed them. It was never more evident than in one offensive possession, up 52-45 with about 10:50 left in the second half. The Bruins moved the ball well, getting three open shots at the basket, but missed all three. That sequence really helped to fuel Irvine's mini-run, getting them to within three at 52-49 with about 8:30 left.
Dijon Thompson also had a poor game and hindered UCLA's offense, missing five easy shots from within 10 feet in an 8-minute span in the second half that pretty much removed UCLA's 12-point lead. He redeemed himself a bit when he hit an open three-pointer in the second half after UCLA had been on its cold streak. But it was uncanny how Thompson missed those five shots, one of them an easy, uncontested lay-in.
Also, Brian Morrison had a poor shooting night. You have to give Irvine credit partially for that, too, since they had him shadowed most of the night. Morrison did hit a big three-pointer in the second half with the shot clock winding down (actually, it appeared he hit the shot after the shot clock had expired).
UCLA is going to have to get some inside scoring for it to be successful this season. And if it continues to neglect Fey in the post, as it did in the second half against Irvine, it's going to rely far too heavily on its outside shooting, which is too inconsistent, since much of it is being done by freshmen.
Between the rebounding and the missed opportunities for easy baskets inside, it was evidently clear that UCLA purely lacks some superior athletes. It misses having athletes that can just merely out-jump its opponents for rebounds and have the kind of hops to finish inside. Next year, with Ryan Wright, Alfred Aboya and Luc Richard Mbaha Moute, that athleticism should at least be much improved.
But for this season, getting the ball inside to Fey is something that can be put under the category of "fixable." And fixing that will go a long way in masking the issue of offensive inconsistency.
Some of the other fixable issues that definitely showed improvement against Irvine were turnovers, freshmen jitters, and transition and team defense. The fact that UCLA limited itself to just 11 turnovers, taking much better care of the ball in this game, probably is what allowed it to win. If UCLA commits the 20-something turnovers it did against Chicago State or Western Illinois, Irvine wins this game. Much of the credit has to go to freshman point guard Jordan Farmar, who was more under control than he was in his first two games. He utilized the jump stop more against Irvine, which limited his charging issues. On defense, he also took away the outside shooting looks of Aaron Fitzgerald, Irvine's leading scorer, keeping the ball out of his hands for most of the first half. Farmar forced only one bad pass inside, and generally played a solid game in running the team. Arron Afflalo, his freshman backcourt mate, also played a good all-around game, shooting well from the field and playing solid defense. Farmar and Afflalo each had 14 points for the game. Josh Shipp, who seems immune to freshman jitters, provided a big spark off the bench in the first half, scoring 7 quick points in just six minutes. UCLA's freshman post, Lorenzo Mata, got his feet wet, playing in his first college game.
The transition defense was improved. The Bruins limited the Running ‘Eaters from getting easy baskets in transition, which set the slower, more deliberate tempo UCLA wanted. The team defense improved, particularly evident in Hollins' five blocked shots, stemming from his ability to slide over in the paint to help defensively. The team generally pushed through screens better in this game than they did against Western Illinois, too, and Irvine didn't get many clear outside looks at the basket.
We'd have to look it up, but when's the last time UCLA shot 77.8% from the free-throw line in a game? Making its free throws very well could have been the second-most important reason UCLA won this game behind limiting turnovers. It's also another reason to get Mike Fey the ball inside since he's a very good free-throw shooter.
Fey had probably the best half of his career in the first half against Irvine. He had 11 points, five rebounds and just one foul. He was converting his touches well, only missing one lay-in. Irvine's posts were struggling against him, getting in foul trouble trying to guard him.
So, you have this great thing going. You have a 7-footer who's getting in a rhythm, scoring well from the inside and causing problems for the other team's post players. You can't then not get him a touch for about 10 minutes in the second half.
While many fans might not want to put their eggs in the Fey basket – like it or not – he's an integral part of UCLA's offense. Not only will the fans have to realize it, but it'd be good if UCLA's perimeter players did, too.
It's definitely fixable.