The theme for UCLA’s game Saturday evening against Penn was a new beginning. Not only were the Bruins playing their first game without junior forward Reeves Nelson, who was dismissed by head coach Ben Howland on Friday following a couple of suspensions for behavioral reasons, but the squad shifted to zone defense for much of the game for the first time this season. While the 77-73 victory was by no means a crisp performance, it was a sign of things to come and a chance for the struggling Bruins to experience some positivity.
UCLA went to a 2-3 zone for the first time about midway through the first half while trailing by one, and spent every half-court possession for the next six minutes in that defense. Howland is primarily known as a man-to-man coach, but he confirmed that you’ll be seeing plenty of zone out of UCLA the rest of the way. “Zone is not preferred, but it is what is fitting for our team now,” he said. “It is something that you’ll be seeing when we’re changing things up. We need to use it and it will be helpful for us, especially as we get better at it.” At times the zone gave Penn trouble, as on the first possession where the Quakers were unable to find a good shot and had to settle for a fallaway three-point attempt by senior Tyler Bernardini as the shot clock expired; and true to another theme of the day, the shot dropped. Bernardini torched the Bruins throughout the day, regardless of the defense employed, hitting eight of his 12 shots on his way to a career-high 29 points. At times the defenders on the perimeter of the UCLA zone failed to close out on the three-point shot, not even putting a hand in a face, something that will surely be pointed out in practice this week. UCLA has already displayed terrible perimeter defense this year, and even after Penn shot 38.7% from three against them, they are still allowing their opponents to shoot 48.7% from three-point range on the season.
However, regardless of some of the sloppiness of the zone, it did provide a few tangible benefits to the Bruins. First, it kept the Quakers from getting good looks inside the three-point line (more than 50% of Penn’s shots were from three), an area where UCLA has struggled all year. Secondly, it helped protect a couple of Bruin big men who picked up a couple of early fouls; Joshua Smith and David Wear both had two fouls in the first eight minutes. Also, the zone gave Smith a bit of a reprieve from his own poor conditioning, allowing him to preserve some of his energy rather than having to chase his opponents out to the perimeter, leaving him enough energy in the second half to score on three straight possessions as well as kick one pass back out for what turned into a wide-open three-pointer.