Looney the Difference Against Coastal

Freshman Kevon Looney just had to assert his talent for a short spurt in the second half for UCLA to get a comfortable lead and then coast against Coastal Carolina...

The Bruins got past a fairly decent mid-major team in Coastal Carolina, 84-71, Sunday, to go to 2-0 in its first two games of the season.

For any UCLA team, it’s a major accomplishment to avoid the non-conference, mid-major upset in Pauley Pavilion, and this team, after a slow start, rallied and did.

The first half wasn’t pretty, but Coach Steve Alford seemed to get a good handle on many of the predominant factors of the game and made some good second-half adjustments.

It was also the fact that Kevon Looney was, by far, the elite talent on the court. Asserting that was enough to allow UCLA a mini-run a few minutes into the second half to establish a lead which UCLA held for the remainder of the game.

If you take Looney out of this game it’s a pretty even one, even just simply statistically, with Looney getting 17 points and 14 rebounds. UCLA was clinging to a 3-5 point lead, and then Looney asserted himself and no one could match his talent on the floor. By about the 12-minute mark of the second half, Looney threw down a putback slam and then a putback lay-in, the Bruins were up 54-42 and it was just a matter of holding on after that. In a three-minute span, before he was subbed out at the 11-minute mark, Looney scored 7 points, had six rebounds and one assist. But even beyond just the stats, Looney was the difference in terms of body, length and athleticism; his talent is so superior on the Pauley Pavilion floor when UCLA is playing a mid-major that it only takes a surge of a few minutes to put the game away.

Coming out for the second half, it was pretty obvious Alford’s prime directive was to get the ball to UCLA’s big men and exploit UCLA’s size advantage inside. Tony Parker scored the first two baskets of the half once the UCLA guards got him two quick touches, and then Looney was fouled, made both free throws and UCLA opened its biggest lead of the game (5 points) and was going down the Looney path.

UCLA, also, got settled into its 2-3 defense in the first 10 minutes or so of the half, and that kept Coastal off the score board pretty well. Between the 15-minute and 12-minute mark, while Looney was making the difference on the offensive end, UCLA’s defense tightened up and contributed to a 14-2 run. Alford had been alternating defenses in the first half – a little man, some 1-3-1 to go with a ¾ press and the 2-3 zone, but Coastal found some seams in each of them. It appeared that Alford then opted to allow the team to get settled into the 2-3, opting for that for most of the second half, and that worked.

It was probably a matter of UCLA’s superior talent eventually taking over. Coastal Carolina was a decent mid-major, but desperately missed its big man from a season ago, El Hadji Ndiequene, to match up with UCLA’s bigs. But the Chanticleers kept it close for the first 20 minutes mostly because UCLA’s defense was porous, and the Coastal backcourt was good enough to out-play UCLA’s backcourt.

It coincided with Bryce Alford having a pretty poor first half. The best way to describe it was: He looked like he thought he was still playing against Montana State, in a very sped-up, loose style – which he could get away with against horribly bad MSU. He took quick shots and this time, in this game, the shots were at least somewhat contested. He forced poor drives and threw a few errant passes that were easily stolen. You could see Bryce take the half to settle down offensively, and then in the second half he was far more composed and playing within the flow of the offense. He scored 17 points by taking the open looks and not forcing bad ones. He also functioned far more off the ball, too, and that seemed to clearly help him stay within himself, not get sped up and not force things. If Alford can continue to play the way he did offensively in the second half against Coastal, to provide another offensive option to Looney, Norman Powell and Isaac Hamilton, perhaps more off the ball, then UCLA’s offense could have a real chance.

In the first half, the trio of Looney, Norman Powell and Isaac Hamilton carried the team, accounting for 26 of UCLA’s 32 points, with Looney dominating the boards. Powell’s athleticism, like Looney’s, was just too much for Coastal. Hamilton wasn’t necessarily too athletic for Coastal, but too talented, looking calm in knocking down two of his three three-point attempts (while Powell hit 3 of 7). They had 11 points each after the first 20 minutes.

The offense, then, has enough firepower to overwhelm teams that are less athletic and less talented.

The question about this team is going to be what happens when they play against a team that doesn’t have markedly less talent and athleticism.

That’s the question offensively – when eventually Looney and Powell face defenders as long and athletic as they are, and Hamilton and Alford face some that are more athletic.

Defensively, no matter who UCLA faces, it’s going to be interesting. This wasn’t, overall, a well-played defensive game. You have to, of course, understand that it was just UCLA’s second game of the season and Coach Alford is experimenting to find the team’s best defensive looks, and the players that can help him defensively the most in what combination. Again, from that standpoint, give the team and the coaching staff credit for winning the game while doing that. But the defense is going to be something that will be far more difficult to work through compared to the offense.

The primary issue right now is what to do with Bryce Alford defensively. You obviously need to keep him on the court, for what he brings offensively – and well, you really don’t have anyone else. Defensively, though, he’s a liability, and showed it Sunday night. In man D, whomever Bryce guarded had easy looks or easy drives to the basket. Bryce, when he sagged off and didn’t allow the man to drive, allowed a huge amount of space for a Chanticleer to shoot. Once he got burned, Coach Alford switched him to defend another guard, and Coastal then had that guard go after Bryce. There was also the element that Bryce picked up two quick fouls, like he did against Montana State, so Coastal clearly saw a chance to exploit him defensively. It was a game there for a while of Coastal finding the one-on-one match-up with Bryce and going right at it. And if he’s a liability against mid-major guards of Coastal Carolina, it’s tough to imagine him defensively against Kentucky, Arizona or Gonzaga. Or even Oklahoma or Colorado. It appears that Coach Alford, in the first two games, is in the process of working through where he can put Bryce to minimize his defensively vulnerability. Against MSU, Coach Alford tried him along the baseline in the 1-3-1. Bryce seemed to do quite a bit better in the second half against Coastal on top in the 2-3, with that zone enabling others to help around Bryce and also enabling him to better stay out of foul trouble. We foresee the 2-3 being UCLA’s primary defense, to minimize Bryce’s defensive liabilities, to best keep him out of foul trouble and keep him on the floor. If UCLA goes to man too much, it should be a similar case of opponents finding and going right at Bryce.

There’s also a good case for the 2-3, too, since it’s just not Bryce who isn’t a great defender. Hamilton doesn’t have great athleticism and struggled to stay in front of his man, too, against Coastal. Powell is UCLA’s best perimeter defender but still isn’t a shut-down kind of guy, and you couldn’t risk him trying to play that role in man since there’s a good chance he’d also get into foul trouble, and you definitely need him on the court. Noah Allen isn’t a good defender, either, without the athleticism to stay with quick guards/wings, but he does bring a short burst of energy to the defensive side which it appears Coach Alford can use in spurts.

Powell fouled out of this game, too, and it’s vital he stays on the floor so the 2-3 zone, just to minimize foul trouble, looks like the recourse for the season, with very minimal man D in spots.

The rotation shorted up a bit against Coastal, like we thought it would. The primary bench is going to be Allen, Thomas Welsh and Wanaah Bail. Gyorgy Goloman had just three minutes. So, even just against Coastal Carolina, Coach Alford had to play Bryce and Hamilton 35 minutes each and Looney 32. Those minutes will increase and the bench minutes will shorten more against high-major opponents and then fatigue and wear-and-tear becomes a factor, and injury risk.

The competition for minutes at the five is going to be interesting. Most true freshmen will have development stops and starts, and Welsh, after looking good against MSU, had some tentative moments against Coastal. Parker played better, finishing with a double-double (11 and 11), but, really, that’s something he absolutely is expected to do against a mid-major without a decent post player. He had a number of travels, and if they weren’t travels they would have been charges, and still looks out-of-sorts offensively. Welsh, clearly, is going to give UCLA more offense from the five more consistently. It’s going to be something Coach Alford has to probably manage game by game, determining which opponent match-ups are better for Parker or Welsh, and literally game by game who is playing better that day. Once Welsh gets more comfortable, as we said by Pac-12 play, we still expect Welsh to make a case for the bulk of the minutes at the five.

Readers are pointing out that in the BRO preseason prediction we predicted UCLA would lose against Coastal, that it’d be the one mid-major loss that most UCLA teams seem to suffer. While we still think there could be a mid-major loss on the schedule somewhere, give this team a great deal of credit for doing what so many UCLA teams before it couldn’t do, hold serve and avoid the upset in Pauley against a less-talented, less-athletic mid-major.

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