That was easily UCLA's best win—and best performance—of the season.
In terms of offense, defense, scheme, focus, and sustained intensity, it was the Bruins' most complete game of the season. UCLA led from start to finish, and, after the first few minutes, at no point did the Bears get within striking distance of the lead.
Considering the road atmosphere, the motivation that the Bears were likely feeling with their NCAA Tournament resume still questionable, and the need for a resounding win to open the Bay Area road trip, it was even more impressive that UCLA was able to beat the Bears 86-66—and the game wasn't even that close.
You have to give credit to Steve Alford, who clearly had the team ready and prepared for much of what California was going to try. Early on, offensively, he put Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson in post-up situations down low, particularly when Justin Cobbs was guarding Anderson, to take advantage of the mismatch. Defensively, he put Norman Powell on Cobbs early to disrupt him. The combination of having to guard Anderson on one end and deal with Powell on the other seemed to discombobulate the 6'3 Cobbs, who never found a rhythm during the game.
Obviously, the story of this game, and, really, the last two games, has been the emergence of Jordan Adams. As Greg has opined, if Adams reemerges over the next few games as a legitimate second option to Kyle Anderson, it changes the ceiling for this UCLA team. With two very efficient 24 and 28 point performances over the last two games, it's fair to say that Adams looks to be breaking out again. Last night's performance was similar to several he put together in the Bruins' stretch run last year, with the guard driving and shooting with confidence. It also helped that Alford was clearly making an attempt to run set plays for him, particularly the one to end the first half off a double screen on the wing. When Adams is given space to shoot, and doesn't need to create his outside shot off the bounce, he can shoot it very well.
Anderson had another efficient performance, and wasn't asked to do as much as he usually is (and thanks to the blowout, was able to play fewer minutes than usual). He impacts in so many different ways, though, that even with his nearly getting a triple-double every game, it doesn't quite get captured in the box score. His ability to slice defenses with his passing is something UCLA is really going to miss next year. He had at least three passes Wednesday where the timing and vision were just impeccable, allowing UCLA to get layups. And then, on the glass, it was clear he and UCLA's posts were playing with a great deal of tenacity against Cal's bigs.
The Wears seem to be playing within their roles better at this point in their careers than they have through the previous two years at UCLA. Through the first ten minutes or so, they were key in sparking UCLA's run, playing with a great deal more tenacity on defense and on the glass than they've shown during their time at UCLA. Travis Wear appears to finally be getting back into the flow of the offense as well, which gives UCLA another unique weapon on the offensive end, with his ability to hit 17-footers at a great rate. He and his brother need to continue to take three pointers the way they have been, with the brothers now over 50% combined from three.
Powell, as we mentioned up top, did a nice job on Cobbs early on the defensive end, but then picked up two fouls and sat for most of the first half. As we've said previously, something to rethink in the offseason would be the strategy of sitting players with two fouls in the first half. Offensively, it wasn't a very good game for Powell, who seemed to be pressing after picking up the second foul. Hopefully, this game was just an aberration and he returns to the form he's shown over the last few weeks against Stanford this weekend.
Tony Parker was an offensive force off the bench, scoring 8 points in his 15 minutes, and looking confident doing so. His turnaround jumper on the baseline was a thing of beauty, and if he can hit that, there's no reason why he can't develop into a better free throw shooter as well. As we've said, his development over the remainder of the regular season will be key in UCLA's postseason performance, so continuing to get him minutes and build up his confidence will be important.
Bryce Alford played the most minutes of the bench players, and probably played one of his better games on the offensive end. He had a couple plays where he pressed a bit, and there was one unfortunate situation where he had the ball as the shot clock was winding down and tried to create a three point shot off the dribble, which went for an air ball. Other than a few plays, he was under control, though. On the defensive end, he had some struggles against Cal's guards.
Zach LaVine looked a bit more confident than he's looked in recent weeks, actually electing to take open shots rather than pass them up. As with Adams and Parker, LaVine hitting some sort of stride over the next few weeks could help to raise the ceiling for UCLA's postseason.
As a team, the Bruins shot the ball incredibly well, hitting nearly 60% of its field goals and 53% of its threes. The ball movement was very good—it wasn't as if UCLA was taking and making a bunch of contested shots. If you were nitpicking, transition defense to end the first half wasn't very good, but UCLA did such a nice job of speeding up Cal throughout the game that the Bears weren't able to convert on those opportunities.
As we've said repeatedly this season, particularly after the Colorado and Oregon wins, this game merely sets up the opportunity for UCLA to make a real statement. If UCLA can beat Stanford this weekend, the Bruins will have finally exceeded expectations this year, and can realistically start to assume they will be a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament. If the Bruins will, they will also be no more than a game back in the Pac-12, and have to hope Arizona loses. Make no mistake, though, this road trip was the toughest remaining hurdle for UCLA in the Pac-12. It doesn't mean the Bruins can't lose in the last four games, but sweeping the final four games would be a real possibility.
The win against the Bears Wednesday night once again puts the Bruins on the precipice of national relevance. To seal the deal, and put UCLA on track for a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Bruins will have to beat Stanford on Saturday, sustaining the momentum from this win. It'd be the first time this year that UCLA has swept a Pac-12 road trip, and, even more impressive, that sweep would come on what is probably UCLA's toughest road trip of the year. Do that, and UCLA will all of a sudden become part of the national conversation once again.
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