The jerseys still read UCLA on the front. The crowd still arrived dressed in blue and gold. And the students still celebrated big baskets with eight claps.
Aside from that, however, everything else about UCLA's 97-94 overtime victory over seventh-ranked Missouri on Friday was virtually unrecognizable from Ben Howland's heyday in Westwood just a few short years ago.
UCLA, which made three straight Final Fours from 2006 to 2008 with precise, structured offense and smothering man-to-man defense, now has a roster hardly capable of guarding five totem poles. Instead the Bruins are compensating for their many defensive deficiencies by unleashing a free-flowing, fast-paced offense that exploits every opportunity to attack in transition.
That unfamiliar formula is the one UCLA (10-3) unleashed on Missouri (10-2) to notch a season-changing win that could vault the Bruins back into the AP Top 25 Poll next week.
Shabazz Muhammad scored a game-high 27 points and Travis and David Wear combined for 38 points and 15 rebounds as the Bruins rallied from a nine-point deficit with four minutes to go in regulation thanks to 50.6 percent shooting as a team. Phil Pressey's dazzling 19-point, 19-assist performance helped Missouri pile up 47 first-half points and 86 points with four minutes to go in regulation, but UCLA answered every spurt with one of its own and delivered a stronger finishing kick.
The Tigers had a chance to win in regulation after Jordan Adams tied the score at 88 with a layup, but coach Frank Haith instructed Pressey to inbound the ball with 4.8 seconds to go, eliminating any chance for his point guard to create off the dribble. Instead Jabari Brown missed a contested jumper and Keion Bell botched a difficult put-back attempt, enabling UCLA to force overtime and escape with a victory.
What UCLA's win unequivocally proved is Howland will have to divert from all that's comfortable for him this season if he's going to save his job.
Whereas Howland initially won by convincing defensive-minded, hard-working prospects to buy into his system, he hasn't had enough of that type of player in his program the past few years to make a defensive-oriented approach effective. The roster he assembled this year to revitalize a program that has missed the NCAA tournament two of the past three seasons is full of guys more comfortable delivering a key basket or assist than a defensive stop.
With deft-passing Larry Drew II and Kyle Anderson, the skilled but athletically limited Wear twins and a bevy of creative, slashing wings, UCLA has a team built to score in bunches. They're averaging 80.9 points per game and scoring 1.13 points per possession, numbers that could increase now that Muhammad has shed the excess weight he was carrying earlier in the season and regained his explosiveness.
At the same time, UCLA's defensive ceiling simply isn't very high.
Howland teams often improve defensively over the course of the season, but this roster is limited with no viable rim protector in the paint and two freshmen, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, lacking sufficient lateral quickness to defend opposing wings. Going zone might be an option, but Howland has stubbornly returned to his trademark man-to-man the past few weeks after dabbling with zone earlier this month.
The question now facing the Bruins entering Pac-12 play is whether their offense can be potent enough to hide their defensive limitations and make them contenders. It remains to be seen what the answer is, but the win over Missouri was certainly an encouraging result.
UCLA ran every chance it got, made crisp, unselfish passes and finished brilliantly in transition. What's more, the Bruins looked like they were having fun doing it, remaining engaged on the bench and smiling more than any other game this season.
On a night during which so much about UCLA was unrecognizable, that may have been the most unfamiliar part.
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