UCLA and Missouri both opened the season with eight straight victories against modest competition, so Saturday afternoon's matchup between the Bruins and Tigers promised to help determine whose torrid start was legitimate and whose was a mirage.
What we learned is that Missouri probably entered the season underrated and that UCLA has defensive issues to clean up if it is going to mount a serious challenge to Arizona and Oregon in the Pac-12.
In an 80-71 home victory, Missouri roared back from an eight-point halftime deficit by scorching UCLA's defense from the perimeter and shackling the Bruins' fearsome transition attack. Jabari Brown led the Tigers with 22 points, while fellow perimeter standouts Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross tallied 21 and 20 apiece.
When the Bruins played man-to-man, Missouri's athletic guards exposed Kyle Anderson's and Jordan Adams' lack of quickness and inability to guard the dribble. When the Bruins switched to zone, Clarkson, Ross and Brown sunk a high enough percentage of threes to make them pay. And on the off chance Missouri missed, it often didn't matter because Johnathan Williams III and the rest of the frontcourt outmuscled the UCLA big men for a remarkable 17 offensive rebounds.
Whereas UCLA had turned errant Missouri shots and a flurry of Tigers turnovers into fast-break chances in the first half, the Bruins didn't have that luxury in the second half. Missouri scored so consistently that UCLA typically had to walk the ball up court after made baskets, not an ideal scenario for a squad that is far more deadly in the open floor.
UCLA went more than eight minutes without a field goal after a Jordan Adams layup 72 seconds into the second half, a drought that allowed Missouri to erase its halftime deficit and take a small lead. The Tigers increased their lead to as many as 11 in the final minute as the Bruins collapsed, committing costly turnovers, missing key free throws and taking panicky threes early in the shot clock.
Adams led UCLA with 22 points, but he needed 18 shots to get them. Kyle Anderson and Zach Lavine had 13 apiece, but both were quiet in the second half when UCLA had to attack from the half court instead of in transition.
One glaring weakness for UCLA's half-court offense is its inability to make use of Travis Wear's deadly mid-range jump shot. Wear became a weapon for the Bruins last season with his shooting via pick-and-pops, but the graduation of Larry Drew II has left UCLA without a tradition point guard capable of running the pick and roll effectively.
Still, it's improvement defensively and on the glass that will be key for the Bruins.
When they generate stops, they can get out and run and overwhelm opponents with their transition attack. When they don't, they become far more vulnerable.
As for Missouri, the Tigers made a strong case for a Top 25 ranking on Monday. This isn't Frank Haith's most talented team, but Missouri can contend for a top-three finish in the SEC if it cuts down its turnovers, continues to rebound well and turns its potent backcourt loose.