Almost from Day 1 of practice this season, coach Ben Howland was telling anyone who would listen that UCLA was a long way from being the type of defensive team he'd like it to be.
Ten games into the season, the Bruins are finally starting to show some glimpses and they hope to continue that trend when they face UC Irvine Tuesday night at the Sports Arena.
UCLA (5-5) has held it's last two opponents to 47 and 39 points, respectively, and has given up an average of only 53.4 points over the last five games. In the first five games this season, the Bruins gave up and average of 73.2 points per game as they started 1-4.
"I think it was us having some issues that we needed to work out and watch film and just get better," forward David Wear said. We're getting more comfortable and more familiar with what we’re doing.
We’re starting to realize each other’s tendencies and as the season goes on we’re just going to get better and better."
Shooting percentage defense is where the biggest improvement has come. UCLA's first five opponents made 50.1 percent of their shots. Take away UCLA's 92-60 victory over Division II Chaminade and the Bruins gave up a whopping 56.9 percent of shots. In the past five games, however, the Bruins have allowed opponents to make only 36 percent of their shots, including 24.8 over the last two games.
The players credit simply growing as a team. Starters David and Travis Wear are new to the team after sitting out last season because of transfer rules. Tyler Lamb is in a starters' role after playing sparingly last season and key reserve Norman Powell is a freshman.
"We actually came together more as a team," Powell said. "Our chemistry is building. We all haven’t played together. Travis and Dave sat out last year. I’m just coming in. We’ve been trying to feel each other’s game out. And in practice, we’re actually working hard and there’s less attitude and more coming together as a team. Our chemistry is getting better on defense and the flow of or offense."
The importance of playing good defense has become abundantly clear. In UCLA's five victories, opponents are averaging 51.6 points and shooting 31.1 percent. In their five losses, opponents are averaging 75 points and shooting 56.5 percent.
At first, it was easy to just shrug it off as running into a hot shooting team. But when UCLA seemed to keep running into hot shooting teams, it was time to look in the mirror.
Team captain Lazeric Jones said a team-wide commitment to defense sparked the turnaround. He traced the early struggles to summer workouts with NBA players. Those games feature a different kind of defense, Jones said.
"In the summer it’s just keying on your man, not too much help," Jones said. "You’re playing NBA rules and it's more spread out so it’s hard to get there to help. In college everything is so help oriented. We’ve been playing with them so much all summer and I know my mindset wasn’t that great about helpside defense, but now I’m trying to be the catalyst of that. Making sure I do that and get on the others for not doing it."
The jury is still out on just how much better UCLA has gotten. It's one thing to dominate Eastern Washington and UC Davis, as the Bruins have done the last two games, but the big test is coming next week when UCLA opens Pac-12 play on the road against Stanford and California.
Still, even a stickler for defense like Howland can't help but notice the improvement over the last two weeks.
"We’re getting better in that respect," he said. "Hopefully that's something that will continue to evolve."
"We're getting better in that respect," he said.