The Bruins started off well against a soft Colorado zone defense. There was good ball movement, the Wears got some quick early buckets and it looked like UCLA might run the Buffaloes out of the gym early. UCLA got several offensive rebounds and Kyle Anderson was doing a great job of orchestrating the offense. But the Bruin defense faded after getting a few stops early and Colorado quickly got back into the game. The Bruin defense was slow and lethargic, allowing the Buffaloes several wide open shots after just a little ball movement.
When David Wear and Tony Parker each picked up two fouls, Coach Alford brought Wanaah Bail into the game for a rare appearance. This was a somewhat surprising move, given that Bail has played almost no minutes in conference play. Colorado went right at Bail with Josh Scott scoring in the post. Bail only played two minutes and, as it turned out, his minutes ended up being meaningless. But since Wear and Parker each finished with three fouls, it does raise the question of what exactly is "foul trouble." Coach Alford is hardly alone among coaches that routinely take players out with two fouls in the first half. But with all of the emphasis on advanced statistical analysis in basketball today, you would think that this kind of conventional thinking might get a closer look.
The Bruins had a 15-13 lead when freshmen guards Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford entered the game. Colorado then went on a 15-3 run over the next six minutes to grab a 28-18 lead. A combination of quick, missed jump shots and turnovers by the Bruins, as well as some shaky transition defense, helped fuel the Buffaloes run. LaVine, in particular, seemed to be struggling with his confidence and decision-making. He's not playing with the same confidence that he showed earlier in the season and one wonders if all the talk about him going to the NBA has become a distraction for him. You can see him thinking now rather than just playing as he was in December.
LaVine did hit a three to stop the Colorado run, and Norman Powell contributed another three a few minutes later, but it was really the play of Kyle Anderson that kept the Bruins in the game. Anderson had nine points and six assists in the first half. Not surprisingly, he was off the court during a chunk of the Colorado run. Anderson's improved jump shot, both from mid range and the three-point line, has made him a really tough cover at the college level. Opponents can no longer back off him and, when he gets in the lane, it typically ends up in a good look for the Bruins. Colorado didn't have a defensive answer for Anderson and he finished the game with 22 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. To this point in the season, it's pretty clear that he's been the MVP of the conference.
Jordan Adams struggled in the first half, settling for some ill-advised shots early in the clock and making some questionable decisions. But he had a solid second half and it started with a somewhat innocuous looking play on the first UCLA points of the half. Adams made a nice pass to Anderson which led to a Travis Wear score. As we said after the USC game, Adams is actually a pretty good play maker when he chooses to pass. Sometimes, though, he gets too focused on scoring and it can lead to quick, bad shots that come out of rhythm and often result in transition opportunities for the opponent. When he's forcing the action, Adams appears to make the decision to shoot the ball without waiting to judge the defense and how they are playing him. But when he doesn't make a pre-determination to shoot the ball, Adams is much more dangerous, as he does have good vision and instincts.
Under Coach Alford this season, the Bruins have done a better job in attacking mismatches than they did under Coach Howland. An obvious example of this came out of a timeout when Powell posted up Askia Booker for an easy basket. You rarely saw those types of plays out of timeouts under Howland, as the Bruins didn't look to exploit those kind of advantages with a bigger guard posting up a smaller opponent. Powell had another solid effort as his game continues to mature. He drained a couple three-pointers and continued to show improved decision-making, as he finished with four assists and one turnover.
Travis Wear also had one of his better games in recent memory, finishing with 13 points (on 6-6 shooting), seven rebounds and three blocks. Two of the blocks came early in the second half as the Bruin interior defense was finally a little more active. After Jordan Adams got the benefit of an NBA style continuation call on a three-point play, the Bruins managed to grab a 55-53 lead. Bryce Alford came in at that point and went on a shooting tear, knocking down four three-pointers in about seven minutes. The rest of Alford's game was actually not very good, as he continued to make ill-advised forays into the lane and struggled defensively. But he was feeling it from the three-point line in that stretch and, with Tony Parker contributing a couple offensive rebounds for buckets, and Anderson hitting another three-pointer, the Bruins managed to build the lead to 76-66 at the seven minute mark. At that point, Colorado was pretty much done.
Without Spencer Dinwiddie, the Buffaloes don't have a lot of offensive firepower and they have to depend way too much on the erratic Askia Booker. After starting out hot, Booker cooled off considerably and ended up shooting 6-16 from the field. Booker is one of those "litmus test" guys that tell you whether or not the announcer has a clue. Bill Walton may be the greatest player in the history of college basketball, and he's a great Bruin, but he's one bad announcer. Naturally he was way over the top in his effusive praise of the mediocre Booker.
The Bruins have proven that they can blow out bad to mediocre teams at Pauley this season. They are very good front-runners. When they're playing an over matched opponent at Pauley, and they start hitting three-pointers, they're really good at riding the momentum and taking teams out. The concern, though, is that they aren't showing consistency in their focus, effort and defensive intensity. Those are the areas that will ultimately determine the fate of their season. It would be more encouraging to see an eight-point win with real growth in their problem areas as opposed to an 18-point win where they're following the same formula we saw earlier in the year.
The Bruins are talented enough to play in spurts at home against the mediocre to good teams. But in order to win consistently, especially on the road, they need to start winning some games with consistent defensive focus and not just rely on hot shooting from the perimeter. As they've shown this season, they can't rely on their jump shooting when they go on the road. The defensive habits and energy still need to become much more consistent if they're going to do anything meaningful in the NCAA tournament. The good news is they haven't suffered any bad losses at home and they've put themselves in position to potentially earn a good seed in the tournament. If they take care of Utah on Saturday – and they will be a solid favorite to win that game – they'll have a huge opportunity with the following road trip to the Bay Area.