After a month of severe apprehension in Westwood following losses to Georgetown, San Diego State and, wait for it, Cal Poly, the UCLA Bruins finally appear to be figuring it out.
Well, at least on one side of the ball.
With dominant wins over Long Beach State and Fresno State in the past week, Ben Howland's squad has at last displayed the colossal talent that led the Bruins to be ranked No. 13 in the country to start the season.
Unfortunately for the Bruins, no more Long Beach States, Fresno States or Prairie Views remain on the schedule—except for, you know, USC.
With only No. 7 Missouri left before UCLA takes on a much-improved Pac-12 conference, the Bruins must continue to develop as they have over the past 10 days.
That will start on the defensive end.
Make no mistake about it—even without Joshua Smith and Tyler Lamb, this offense has the potential to carry Howland's bunch deep into March.
All-world freshman recruit Shabazz Muhammad started the season off slow—probably due to the combination of several injuries and an NCAA investigation that left him sidelined for most of the summer and fall—but he appears to be adjusting to collegiate play quite quickly.
After scoring 27 and 21 points over his last two games, the Las Vegas native now leads the Bruins with 18.8 points per game. He also ranks 12th nationally with 27.1 points per 40 minutes.
With each progressing contest, Muhammad's all-around, energy-filled offensive game is looking more and more unstoppable.
Meanwhile, fellow freshmen Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson serve as arguably the most impressive second and third options in the country.
Anderson, who plays in first gear and is aptly named "Slow-Mo," looked simply tortoise-like over the first month of the season, but he is finally finding a way to make use of his unique game.
Over the past three contests, the 6'9" point guard is averaging 14.7 points, 11.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.0 block per game. If that's a sign of things to come for the top recruit, Bruins fans can go ahead and do a little jig now, as Anderson is crucial to the team's success.
In the meantime, Adams, who was the forgotten recruit behind Muhammad, Anderson and Tony Parker, has been an efficient scorer (18.2 ppg, 51.4 percent from the field) all season long.
Throw in fifth-year senior Larry Drew II (owner of an unbelievable 8.5-to-1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio) as the ideal glue guy, and it's not surprising that the Bruins rank 30th in the nation in offensive points per possession (1.093) and 12th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency rankings.
But the offense, which judging by both youth and recent events is only going to improve, can't carry this team forever.
At some point, the defense needs to step up.
On the wing, with the exception of Norman Powell, there are no overly-athletic forces. Without Lamb, Anderson—the slowest of the bunch—has used his crafty game to rack up 1.8 steals per contest, but the Bruins rank just 248th in the country in opponents' turnover rate.
On the inside, Travis Wear and David Wear, who are more face-up power forwards than true big men, don't necessarily provide an intimidating presence. Travis has managed 1.4 blocks per game, but the Bruins still don't protect the paint all that well.
As a result, the Bruins are 113th in defensive points per possession and 106th in Pomeroy's defensive rankings.
For a reference on how important defense has been for Howland's UCLA squads in the past, take a quick gander at Pomeroy's rankings for the Bruins in 2006, 2007 and 2008, the team's Final Four years:
|Season||Adjusted Offensive Efficiency Rank||Adjusted Defensive Efficiency Rank|
When UCLA has been a national force under Howland, it has been all about the defense. The offense has been impressive, and it will undoubtedly be again this year, but UCLA's calling card has always been effort without the ball.
The Bruins will get a good test on Friday against MIssouri.
The Tigers, who rank 16th in offensive points per game and 20th in Pomeroy's offensive rankings, have an explosive guard in Jabari Brown who will challenge the Bruins' perimeter defense.
Missouri also boasts one of the best power forwards in the nation in Laurence Bowers, who teams up with Alex Oriakhi to give the Tigers arguably the best rebounding team in the nation.
How the Wear twins—and possibly Tony Parker—fare down low will be key in that game, and also prove crucial during the team's Pac-12 matchups down the road.