There are some adjectives that just don’t go with certain words.
Like how we call this quarter “winter” even though that term can’t really be used to describe the months of December to February around sunny Los Angeles.
Or how “exciting” was never used in front of “UCLA basketball,” even in the program’s prime.
Well, throw out everything you thought you knew. It’s grab-your-nearest-beanie-and-blanket freezing in Westwood. And with this bizarre cold spell, we have something just as unfamiliar inside Pauley Pavilion: A revving men’s basketball team led by the strength of its offense.
While you were away for the holidays, the Bruins stayed in Westwood and won seven straight, six in Pauley after a come-from-behind win on the road against Texas in Houston. They also swept the first week of Pac-12 play, bumping their record to 12-3 and even receiving votes in the AP poll on Monday.
This column previously discussed how UCLA coach Ben Howland had planned to let his offense freely move around the court more. After one month, that strategy brought mixed results. Howland was struggling to find the right combination of players and the offense couldn’t score in extended stretches to justify the strategy.
Another month later, the identity of the team is starting to take shape. The team is running, almost more than any other team Howland has coached in his 10 seasons at UCLA.
The Bruins are averaging nearly 70 possessions per game according to kenpom.com, a college basketball analysis database. For reference, UCLA has rarely cracked 67, the current national average, under Howland’s usual calculated approach to offense. During the three Final Four years, the Bruins were closer to 64.
More possessions means a faster tempo, and that hasn’t resulted in any drop-off in scoring. In fact, kenpom ranks the Bruins as the 14th most efficient offense in the country.
It’s the reason the Pauley Pavilion scoreboard operators had to figure out how to fit a third digit on the scoreboard when the Bruins beat James Madison, 100-70, earlier this season.
If UCLA needed validation that its run-and-gun style was working, it came in a showdown with then-No. 7 ranked Missouri in Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 28. The Bruins kept up with the Tigers in a game that featured 81 possessions and ended in a 97-94 overtime win for UCLA.
An ideal UCLA possession now looks like a sequence of controlled chaos.
Regardless of whether the opposing team makes or misses a basket, the ball will find speedy point guard Larry Drew II or Kyle Anderson (soon to be The Artist Formerly Known As Slow-Mo), who both run up the court and look for a shooter. In the first half of UCLA’s win over California on Thursday, 21 of the Bruins’ 38 points came on possessions that started with a shot in the first 10 seconds of the shot-clock.
It looks like the Bruins are finally embracing what they have in their lineup and it is a fun brand of basketball to watch.
They are no longer the team that can look for big men to grind out baskets near the hoop, or the team that plays strong defense for the duration of the game. The Wear twins, for all their height, are better suited doing their damage along the perimeter with guards Shabazz Muhammad, Jordan Adams and Norman Powell while Drew and Anderson run the point.
It’s a strategy that took some time to buy in to, but can lead to success in a weak Pac-12 conference. That is, if UCLA can keep up the pace.
“Teams are trying to force us to our half-court offense,” Muhammad said after beating Stanford on Saturday. “Transition, that’s our strength.”
It was Muhammad who said the Bruins needed to run more after losing to Cal Poly, the blemish on UCLA’s record that is still keeping this team from ascending into the national rankings.
The season looked lost then. After a few weeks of watching the baby Bruins run, there’s excitement again.
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