Bruins Bounce Back Against UAB

NOV. 29 -- After suffering two losses against stiffer competition, UCLA handled UAB with relative ease. Hot shooting from Isaac Hamilton, as well as improved ball movement and better defense contributed to the victory...

One day after an embarrassing meltdown against North Carolina, UCLA bounced back with an 88-76 victory over UAB. While the win didn’t provide any significant change to the long-term prospects for UCLA, it was a somewhat encouraging performance given the Bruins’ struggles in the first two games of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. UCLA played with fairly good defensive energy and focus for stretches of the game and the Bruins had better ball movement as well. Of course, it’s a lot easier to defend and get quality shots when the opponent is UAB (the Blazers don’t have nearly as much talent as UCLA), but we’ll take any positive signs we can find after the UNC debacle.

UCLA opened the game with pretty good energy at the defensive end and it resulted in a couple easy buckets early in transition for the Bruins. Their hands were more active, they were moving their feet and, in general, they had a more aggressive posture defensively. On offense, they made a concerted effort to get the ball inside during the first few minutes and the ball movement was much better than in the previous two games. Of course, it has to be said that UAB was offering very little resistance on defense, thus making it much easier for the Bruins to run their offense and get any shot they wanted. If the Bruins are to have any real success this season, they need to get better ball movement and get everyone involved in the offense. So it was encouraging to see the emphasis on sharing the ball and getting everyone some touches.

Isaac Hamilton was the main beneficiary early of the good ball movement. He got a few wide open looks and, after knocking down his first couple shots, appeared to be far more comfortable and relaxed than he was against UNC. Hamilton was obviously very tight and sped up against UNC, which resulted in a slew of turnovers and bad shots. But Hamilton does have the ability to put up points in bunches when he’s on and he was in a great rhythm most of the game against UAB. With Hamilton scoring 11 points early, UCLA grabbed a 21-7 lead and it appeared that the Bruins could get any shot they wanted. In marked contrast to the UNC game, in which the Tar Heels applied very strong pressure on the ball, the Blazers didn’t offer any defensive pressure and the Bruins looked very relaxed running their offense.

One of the main reasons the Bruins ran their offense better early was that Bryce Alford was taking a different approach than in the previous games. Far too often this season, Alford has jacked up a bad shot early in the possession. This has a few negative consequences. The first one is that a forced shot early in the shot clock will often come out of rhythm in the offense and it catches his teammates off-guard. This hinders both offensive rebounding and also makes your transition defense vulnerable. The bigger negative, though, is that it has a deflating effect on his teammates. When the point guard is looking for his own shot, and taking bad, contested shots before anyone else gets a touch, the other players are going to start looking for their own shots. If they can’t trust the point guard to get them involved (and, ideally, create good looks for them), then the effect is going to be bad, forced shots from the other players. This has a demoralizing effect that may also lead to less effort and focus at the defensive end. It’s very difficult to get guys to play team defense when there is no “team offense” at the other end.

In the first half of this game, Alford only took two shots and the Bruins did a much better job of moving the ball for a quality look. While the majority of the early offense came from Hamilton, Thomas Welsh, Kevon Looney and Tony Parker all had moments of exploiting the Blazers’ forgiving defense. Welsh, in particular, had an encouraging game. His in-rhythm jump hook in the lane was his best moment all season and provided a glimpse of what UCLA fans can expect in the future.

We’ve mentioned it a few times now, but the biggest issue for Welsh is adjusting to the speed of the game. Yes, he needs to get stronger and that will happen. But the vast majority of the shots he’s missed have been due to rushing it just a bit. When he gets comfortable, and the game slows down for him, he’s going to shoot an extremely high percentage. He’s got a terrific mid-range touch and he’s actually very comfortable playing with his back to the basket. It may not happen this season, but he’s ultimately going to be a guy that opponents need to double team in the post. Welsh’s feel and passing ability are good enough that he will be able to create quality chances for teammates when he gets doubled.

For the most part, UCLA was pretty solid at both ends of the court in the first half and the Bruins went into the break with a 49-33 lead. The Bruins were clearly much more talented than UAB. Other than getting some long threes from freshman point guard Nick Norton, the Blazer offense consisted mostly of converting offensive rebounds into points or scoring off hustle plays. And when the UCLA defense did have a lapse, UAB was usually unable to capitalize off the open look.

In the second half, UCLA lost some focus at both ends and began to play in spurts. The Bruins would push the lead up to around 20 and then they’d have a couple bad shots or turnovers and the Blazers would make a little run to close the gap to 12 or so. This was the pattern for most of the half and, while you’d prefer to see 40 minutes of focused effort, it wasn’t surprising that UCLA had a tough time staying interested. UAB played with more energy in the second half than the first, but the talent gap between the two teams was obvious and there was never any real concern that UAB could actually win the game.

In addition to the energy/focus lagging a bit in the second half, it also didn’t help that Alford reverted to casting up bad shots early in the shot clock. He’s a good shooter when he’s spotting up for an in-rhythm, uncontested shot in the flow of the offense. He’s a poor shooter when he tries to create his own shot against a set defense. He ended up 1-8 from the field in this game and at least four of those attempts were shots that he didn’t need to take. His ability to distinguish between a good shot and bad shot is going to be a huge issue for the Bruins. Quite simply, this Bruin team doesn’t have a big enough talent to overcome multiple low-percentage shots every game. They really need Alford to recognize his limitations and scale back his desire to score. Alford did do a good job of recognizing when the Blazers had foul trouble and he forced the issue a few times to draw contact and get to the line. He exploited the Blazers’ lack of defensive discipline and managed to knock down 11-12 free throws.

Other than Welsh, the Bruins got little from their bench and that’s probably going to be the case most of the season. Gyorgy Golomon has some decent ball skills, but he’s a long way from being able to contribute against high major programs. Noah Allen is limited in terms of talent and Wannah Bail continues to show some athleticism and not much else. His failure to draw iron on a wide-open lay-up in transition was illustrative of just how far he has to go in terms of skill level and feel.

After being plagued by foul trouble against UNC, Kevon Looney bounced back with a solid effort and only one foul in 32 minutes. Among the takeaways from this tournament – Looney can’t get in foul trouble. Looney and Powell are clearly UCLA’s two best players and the Bruins need each of them on the court as much as possible. It was encouraging to see Looney make 7-7 foul shots after some struggles at the line in previous games. With his offensive rebounding ability, he’s obviously going to be spending a lot of time at the line this season. After watching him play the first seven games this season, it’s pretty easy to see that he’s clearly one of the top ten prospects in the country. In fact, he might be in the top five and it’s difficult to see him returning for a sophomore season. He made a move in transition in this game that looked a little like Kevin Durant. He’s got a terrific combination of length, ball skills, agility and feel for the game. Bruin fans should enjoy him while he’s here.

While you obviously can’t take too much from an easy win over an out-manned UAB team, it was encouraging to see the Bruins respond after such a disheartening game against UNC. This team is going to have some tough nights against top competition this season, but they do have the talent to win against many of their opponents. The Pac-12 isn’t all that great this year and it’s important that the Bruins don’t slip up against the lower part of the conference. So far this year, UCLA has done a good job of taking care of business against the obviously less talented opponents.

With three home games coming up against Fullerton, San Diego and UC Riverside, the Bruins have an opportunity to work on improving their ball movement and team defense. It’s critical that they improve in those areas because after the cupcakes they face the most difficult part of the schedule – Gonzaga, Kentucky, Alabama, Utah and Colorado. That stretch of the schedule will be UCLA’s best chance to get some quality wins that would impress the selection committee come tournament time.

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