It's a bit ironic that, among the cupcake blow-outs, the game that inspires the most reaction is the biggest, non-game blow-out -- UCLA beating Wyoming, 113-62.
There are now definitely some things to write about; in fact, the Wyoming game made the subject of UCLA basketball interesting for the first time in a few weeks.
Mike Roll is greatly responsible. He had a career game, scoring 25 points on 9 of 13 shooting, making 5 of 7 threes, with four assists and two steals. Even beyond the stats, he played a very good game, scoring within the flow of the offense, putting up points through under-control drives to the basket, passing the ball with vision and intelligence to set up his teammates, and playing very solid defense.
There are quarterback controversies in football. UCLA basketball now has a wing controversy. The question had been asked for some time – whether Mike Roll deserved more playing time – and generally fans were divided. There doesn't seem to be much division now.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves on the topic, though, we need to temper the reaction just a bit. Roll certainly had an incredible game. Heck, he beat his career scoring mark in the first half when he scored 18 points. It's obvious he's gaining confidence, which has expanded his game, and allowed him to play looser and more effectively. But just to temper things, fans tend to swing excessively both ways – good and bad – when something happens. There are going to be games when Roll doesn't hit 5 of 7 threes. The first time Roll goes 0 for 3 shooting from three the pendulum fans will swing back the other way and say Roll shouldn't get more time.
Even before Roll's game Tuesday night, as most everyone knows, we were big advocates of Roll getting more playing time. And even if he goes 0 for 3 from three in an upcoming game, we still will be. He's shooting 60% from three so far this season. Let's repeat that – 60% from three. And even if that comes back down to Earth – which for Roll would be 48%, say – he's still worthy of more playing time. He simply makes the team better. Roll improves the offensive flow. It's not a coincidence that UCLA had probably its best offensive performance in the last ten years (the last time UCLA scored more points was in the 1998-1999 season when it beat CSUN, 114-97). It's the first time in the Ben Howland era at UCLA that the Bruins topped the 100 mark (Of course, Wyoming's lousy defense and 29 turnovers also had something to do with it). But it's very evident that Roll is a facilitator of the offense; when he's in the game, he's a strong cog in proper execution that leads to more easy looks. With defenses having to honor Roll's outside shot, Darren Collison will find himself getting open looks far more often – like he did against Wyoming. It's always been fairly clear that Roll was such an offensive facilitator, but in the past, the limits on his playing time were perhaps justified on a Howland team since he was, at times, a defensive liability. He certainly isn't going to win Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year this season, but his defense has improved considerably, to the point where he's not only not a liability but a positive defensive force.
So, the big question is: Where do increased minutes for Roll come from? The obvious answer is Josh Shipp, and that, of course, has been the long-running argument on the BRO Premium Hoops Message Board. The minutes are even more rare now that freshman guard Malcolm Lee is developing into a player you simply can't keep off the court either. Lee had a UCLA-career high of 16 points, making 2 of 3 three-pointers, shooting 6 for 7 from the field, with two assists and two steals, and it looks like the freshman mistakes are starting to become more of the exception than the rule. Howland went to him quickly in this game to help guard Wyoming's three-point bomber Sean Ogirri. Some will cite that Jrue Holiday should have his minutes trimmed, since he's clearly in a bit of a three-game slump, particularly in shooting the three, going 1 for 14 in that span from behind the three-point arc. But, as we cautioned before, you have to temper your reactions, and not make hasty swings in perspective (aren't there drugs for that?). Holiday is clearly the most talented player on the roster, who is capable of doing so much offensively besides just shooting threes – like passing and penetrating. It's also a pretty good bet that, being a freshman and a potential lottery pick, that there is some considerable upside in letting Holiday play through his small slump.
So, does Howland simply take minutes away from Shipp? It probably won't be a massive difference. Shipp won't be playing just 8 minutes, say, per game. But we could see Shipp's 26 minutes per game average dip a bit and see the 15 minutes per game Roll was getting before Shipp was out with his injured thumb increase. Howland said in the post-Wyoming game interview that Roll has earned increased playing time. How Howland manages this is the biggest – and most intriguing – issue of the season so far.
Perhaps increased minutes for Roll will improve everyone's game. As we said above, it seems to improve Collison's game, enabling him to get more open looks. Perhaps it will improve Shipp's game. Shipp is a career 31% three-point shooter, but so far this season is only shooting 21%. Perhaps not considering himself the other player besides Collison who must hit his three-pointers will relieve some pressure for Shipp and his outside shooting will improve. Maybe a far more competitive environment for minutes will make Shipp be more active defensively. Many fans on the message board have correctly identified Roll's emergence as a huge advantage, not a problem, and that's definitely true.
It was also a noteworthy game because, besides Lee, a couple more freshmen made strides. Drew Gordon, in just 15 minutes, had a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds, with two assists, three steals and one block – with zero turnovers. The raw youngster is showing a capacity to learn. Even with all those impressive stats, perhaps his most impressive play was taking a charge. For an exceptional athlete who hasn't had to play fundamental basketball probably ever, excelling by just running and jumping, it's a great sign that Gordon is not only willing to learn but is doing so at such a proficient rate this early on. Frosh point guard Jerime Anderson, too, provided a very good 13 minutes, getting seven points, one block, and two steals while playing good defense. In the season's first few games, he looked a bit shaky, but as some of the non-pendulum-swinging fans pointed out – he was just a freshman point guard in his first few games. It's clear he's settling down and getting used to the speed and athleticism of the game, and realizing that he can easily compete and excel. Roll set him up in semi-transition for a three-pointer in the corner that Anderson calmly knocked down.
Among the veterans, it was good to see Nikola Dragovic hit a couple of three-pointers. We didn't want to see Dragovic go down in history as the guy who shot, say, 40% from three in UCLA's practices but could only muster 20% in the games. Dragovic, if he can shoot three-pointers at a 40% clip in the games, is worthy of playing time. James Keefe had a strange game, not looking to take one shot in the entire game, finishing with 5 rebounds in 17 minutes. Combining Keefe and Dragovic at the power forward position, you would get a player who, in 34 minutes, scored 8 points, had 9 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals, while going 2 for 3 from three. It is curious how quick of a hook Keefe gets from Howland; early in the second half, when he attempted to draw a charge but was called for a block, he was quickly pulled, with only two personal fouls, for Dragovic, who had two personal fouls himself at the time. The Keefe-Dragovic argument is another one that has been raging on the BRO message board, but as long as Dragovic can live up to his shooter rep than the debate isn't nearly as salient.
For the last 6 minutes or so of the game, the five freshmen saw the court together. They went in with the score 92-52, and increased the league, albeit against a beaten down Wyoming team. But the six-minute glimpse of the freshmen was one of the most interesting aspects of the game. 11 games into their freshmen seasons, they've already settled down, looking far more like a Howland-coached team than an AAU team, like they did early on when they played together. The offensive feel of the team is very promising, with Anderson, Holiday and Lee being such good passers. The group has tightened up on defense, and perhaps the most promising aspect of the group is rebounding. With Gordon flying to rebounds and J'mison Morgan's big body and long arms, the freshmen seemed to toy with the Cowboys on rebounds.
The two stalwart veterans, Collison and Alfred Aboya, were excellent. Collison's line was one of beauty – 19 points, 7 assists, 1 turnover and 4 steals. It was interesting to see that Howland instituted a few new wrinkles out of his offensive sets, some that clearly are meant to set screens to get Collison freed up for jumpers. If you haven't noticed, Collison has made 29 straight free throws, since missing one in the first half of the first game of the season against Prairie View A&M. Henry Bibby holds the UCLA record of 36 straight made three throws in 1972, and Collison almost broke it last year when he made 32 in a row. Collison is also shooting 96.8% on the season from the line, while the UCLA record for a season is 95% in 1982 by Rod Foster. Collison's current 54.5% from the three-point arc would also break the season record – which he himself set a year ago (52.5%).
Aboya had 12 points, after scoring 14 points against Mercer. Aboya received some nice post feeds in both games, which allowed him to score on short jump hooks or by sealing off his man on the block -- or by getting fouled when going up and then making 10 of 14 free throws in those two games. Aboya clearly is benefitting from an offense that, in the last two games, looks to get the ball down low. With Aboya as a legitimate scoring threat on the block, UCLA's offense blossoms.
In fact, UCLA's offense has looked the best it has in a two-game stretch in a very long time. Obviously we're implying that having Roll, another offensive facilitator, on the court, helps. It's encouraging, too, that the offensive effectiveness has occurred while Holiday was in a bit of a slump; imagine if the offense is running like this and Holiday comes out of his slump.
As we said in the post-Mercer game review, the issue this season hasn't really been UCLA's offense, but the consistency of its defense. And that definitely looked to be the case against Wyoming in the first half when the Cowboys converted on their first seven possessions. Ogirri scored 14 points in the first half, nailing long-distance three-pointers with a hand in his face, and in UCLA's effort to extend out on Wyoming's shooters, the Cowboys got some easy baskets underneath because of UCLA's slow rotation, which has been a continuing issue for the season. In the second half, however, as UCLA's offense continued to gel, its defense got inspired. The Bruins had far better ball pressure, and far quicker rotations on help defense, causing the Cowboys to cough up the ball often, with the Bruins getting a crazy 20 steals for the game. Wyoming committed a huge 29 turnovers, and UCLA got a whopping 40 points off those turnovers. A great deal of it, of course, was due to UCLA's defense, but a considerable amount came from Wyoming's plain sloppy play. So much was made of Wyoming wanting to run, and UCLA benefitting from that style of play, but it wasn't really the case. It was more a matter of Wyoming turning over the ball and then playing horrible defense in both transition and in the half-court. So, bottom line, you could say the UCLA defense did step up, especially to begin the second half when it allowed Wyoming just 7 points in the first ten minutes of the half, but you could also say that you can't take much from UCLA's defense performance since Wyoming was so sloppy with the ball.
UCLA did very good defensively against Wyoming's senior guard, Brandon Ewing, who was held to 10 points on 3 of 8 shooting, and 0 of 3 from three-point land, and forced into 9 turnovers. After Ogirri went off in the first half, Collison got the assignment of guarding him for a big portion of the rest of the game, and Ogirri couldn't get on track with Collison up in him, going scoreless in the second half. Wyoming's leading scorer, Afam Muojeke, had just 9 points and committed 7 turnovers with a combination of Lee, Holiday and Roll guarding him.
Easily one of the best results of the game was UCLA out-rebounding the Cowboys, 31-22. Wyoming was averaging just about twice that in rebounds per game.
So, who would have thunk it – that a 52-point win during a stretch of cupcakes would illicit so much intrigue. But it has. The game Sunday against Louisiana Tech wasn't going to be much more than the goodbye to the non-conference cupcake schedule, but now it potentially could be one of the most closely-watched games of the season, with the now burning question of how increased minutes for Roll improves this team, and where Howland is going to find more minutes for him.