It's now been four games in a row and the Bruins are playing like a different team than we saw the rest of the season, so perhaps it's safe now to answer the question.
The new-identity Bruins beat Tulsa in the second round of the NCAA tournament, 76-59, and they did it with focus and energy, on both ends of the court.
What's been a little surprising, too, is that not only have the Bruins done it over the last four games with some great offensive execution, it's safe to say they've played their best defense of the season. Against Tulsa there were probably only a few defensive possessions that you could cite that had sub-par effort, and that's definitely within the realm of acceptability.
The story of this year's Bruins might be the same old story we've read many times before. It was a team that really didn't look like it could find a way to sustain effort from game to game, and then it suffered a big, embarrassing loss that focused and inspired them. Clearly this team has caught fire ever since that horrendous loss in Pullman. UCLA fans really need to send some flowers to Washington State as a thank-you.
There were many things to like in the win Friday – namely that the Bruins truly emerged down the line and won the game going away against a Tulsa team that was much better and played better than expected. You might have noticed that, during the season, we prefaced many of the game reviews by pointing out how bad UCLA's opponent was. We want to preface this one by pointing out that Tulsa was pretty good. And it wasn't a matter of UCLA making Tulsa look good; it really was a case of Tulsa being one of the better teams UCLA has played all season. They easily were one of the most athletic, and it was easy to see how their athleticism kept them in the game, and exposed UCLA's lack of team athleticism to a degree.
That athleticism caused UCLA some problems, on both ends of the floor. UCLA's usually precise and effective execution on offense wasn't nearly as consistently effective, mostly because of Tulsa's athleticism. Tulsa's athletes were able to push around and through UCLA's screens, on many possessions actually keeping the ball out of Jordan Adams' hands. UCLA's offense broke down more times than usual against Tulsa's superior defense, and Kyle Anderson had to resort to trying to create one-on-one too many times.
It made for a game of runs. UCLA would go up by 10 or so with, say, a 9-0 run, and then Tulsa, with that stifling defense, would mount a 7-0 run itself and bring the game back to within five or so.
Tulsa couldn't keep the ball out of Adams's hands, to his immense credit. He scored a game-high 21 points and was the high-energy force of nature version of himself that is almost unstoppable. Adams has always been a good offensive rebounder, but he truly was possessed in this game, getting 5 offensive rebounds (for a total of 8 rebounds, which led the team). Those 5 offensive rebounds led to some key second-chance points for the Bruins, that were, for about 30 minutes of this game, hard to come by. During the sequence in the middle of the second half when UCLA pulled away, a big reason was Adams' relentlessness on the offensive boards.
The game turned, actually, once UCLA started rebounding. That was the factor that really turned it toward the Bruins. Tulsa was leading UCLA in rebounding for most of the game and then, about halfway through the second half, UCLA's rebounding effort, led by Adams and Tony Parker, surged. The Bruins ended up with 36 rebounds to Tulsa's 33, and it was directly correlational to the 17-point game-winning deficit.
Parker had 6 key rebounds in just 16 minutes, to go along with 11 difference-making points. Tulsa, who doesn't have anyone really of any bulk in the post, couldn't handle Parker for the most part. There were a couple of possessions where he got position so deep in the paint that he easily scored over his defender, or that he just physically muscled the Hurricane frontcourt out of the way for a rebound. If we had to nitpick one thing about Steve Alford's coaching in this game it'd be that Parker needed more minutes. If he had played more earlier perhaps UCLA's surge in rebounding might have occurred earlier and the game would have gotten comfortable earlier.
Norman Powell has certainly matured. We've cited how much he has become a calming force on this team, and then there is always the element he brings that is the opposite of that – the pure excitement. Powell easily had the sequence of the game with about 4 minutes left to play and UCLA up by just seven at 61-54. There was a feeling that the game could still go either way in the last 4 minutes and seven points was nothing. Powell then stole a pass on an in-bound play, kept the ball alive by tip-toeing along the sideline, settled it and took it to the basket, scored and was fouled. That three-point play made it 64-54 and seemed to deflate Tulsa to the point they never really recovered.
Adams then hit a three-pointer 10 seconds later, UCLA was up 67-54 and the game looked over.
It was then punctuated by the second-best play of the game – a couple of minutes later when Anderson drove on a crossover and made a no-looker to Powell who was cutting across the paint and threw down one of his athletic slams. 72-56 and the door was shut on Tulsa.
Powell, too, made an impact on defense. UCLA played a great deal of man D, and he was primarily assigned to guard Tulsa's top scorer, James Woodard. Woodard averaged almost 16 points a game coming into this but shot 3 of 10 to score just 11 points.
Bryce Alford definitely made an impact in the second half. After looking shaky in the first half, Alford had a couple of key plays in the second half that really cemented UCLA's lead. UCLA's offense couldn't get a consistent rhythm against Tulsa's athletic defense, and Steve Alford called a very well-timed timeout with about 5:30 left and Tulsa on a run, with the score at 57-52. Out of the timeout UCLA executed well and Bryce Alford hit a big three-pointer. Alford then made a couple of other key passes, one a dart to Parker under the basket and another that found a cutting Wear for a dunk. Offensively he was instrumental in UCLA's second-half surge.
Anderson didn't have his best game, shooting 3 for 11, with 8 points, and 6 assists against 5 turnovers. He was called for traveling and palming, and at least one of the traveling calls was flat-out wrong. Those calls seemed to rattle Anderson a bit. It was clear, too, that Tulsa's athleticism on defense took him a bit out of his game. Tulsa's Shaquelle Harrison, an athletic 6-3 lead guard, didn't score but his assignment was to guard Anderson for most of the game and he did a very good job. Anderson also looked slow on the defensive end. This was a game where you could see how superior athleticism, on both ends of the court, can potentially limit Anderson.
Many times Tulsa's clear strategy to try to take Anderson out of the game worked. If you take him out of UCLA's offense you're going to get long offensive dry spells, like in this game, which led to Tulsa's runs. It was a testament to how far this team has come that it can compensate for that with the type of performance UCLA got out of Adams and Powell.
It's also a great sign that UCLA can match up with a more athletic team – one that wants to run – and not only hold its own but eventually impose its own will and style on them. The beginning of the game was frenetic, with both teams wanting to run, and Tulsa perhaps had an edge there, exposing UCLA's poor transition defense on a couple of breaks. But this game wasn't won in transition, like most games. It was won in the half-court, with UCLA's ability to execute offensively and its newfound desire to hit the boards eventually giving them the edge.
We are afraid to say this because you still feel there could be the old version of this year's Bruins just waiting around the corner. But we're going to say it anyway: This is a new team, one that plays with focus and energy on both ends of the court. And with how the rest of the field in the NCAA Tournament just doesn't necessarily look that imposing, if this team continues to possess the guys in those UCLA uniforms there really is no telling how far the Bruins could go.