The Bruins were embarrassed Saturday in Chicago, as Kentucky thoroughly dominated them in every phase of the game. To give you an idea of just how bad it got for UCLA – the game wasn’t as close as the 83-44 final score would indicate. And while most reasonable fans knew coming into the game that UCLA had little chance to win, the disturbing part was not the margin of the loss. What was most concerning was the obvious lack of a foundation in the program. Good programs are built on good habits. Toughness, discipline, competitiveness…those are givens in programs that consistently compete at an elite level. Frankly, the Bruins have looked like a glorified AAU team for much of this season. They’ve won games where they had a decided talent advantage. But there is no commitment to defense, the shot selection is atrocious and they don’t compete well when faced with adversity. When you have those kinds of cracks in your foundation, and you run into a team that’s much more talented and athletic, you get the kind of beat down we witnessed Saturday afternoon.
Kentucky is obviously a very talented team and there was no real expectation coming into the game that UCLA would win. Kentucky’s depth, athleticism and size are an issue for any opponent. However, Buffalo and Columbia played the Wildcats tough for a half and those games were in Lexington. The only way to keep it relatively close when the other team has such a decided talent advantage is to play smart, disciplined basketball with a game plan that recognizes the talent disparity. Instead, the Bruins played scattered, soft, undisciplined basketball and suffered the consequences. They jacked up bad shots early in the shot clock, they didn’t get back in transition defense and their zone “defense” was incredibly passive and soft. It was 41-7 at halftime and it could have been worse. The shots that Kentucky was missing didn’t come as a result of any Bruin defense. They just missed some wide open shots or they could have been up by 50.
Nobody played well for UCLA but the backcourt, in particular, had a horrible day. Norman Powell had a nightmarish game, going 1-13 from the field and finishing with two points. He’s a guy that truly does need someone to create good looks in order to be successful against elite athletes. In this game, Powell tried to get his own shots off the dribble a few times and the results weren’t pretty. Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton were both non-existent defensively and their lack of athleticism was exposed big-time in this game. Prior to the season, I was talking with a friend about the Bruins’ prospects this year and I told him I didn’t see any path to success with such a poor defensive backcourt. Hamilton and Alford are both average, at best, athletes at the high-major level, but that’s only part of the problem. They both want to shoot the ball (a lot), but they have no interest in playing defense. That may not matter so much against Long Beach State, but it definitely matters when you play North Carolina or Kentucky. Coach Alford is doing both players a disservice not holding them more accountable for their poor effort at the defensive end of the court. Watching their “close-outs” on shooters is painful. Alford plays with his hands down in the zone and he’s never in a stance. Hamilton is constantly losing his man when they aren’t in a zone and he routinely goes under screens and allows open jump shots.
The Bruin big men didn’t play well, but I thought they competed better than the guards. They were just overwhelmed by a far superior Kentucky frontcourt. Kevon Looney, for the first time all season, struggled with the size of the opposition. He did manage to grab nine rebounds, but found it much more difficult to convert his offensive rebounds into points. Tony Parker played hard but he was completely over-matched against the Wildcat posts and he finished 1-10 from the field with two points. Thomas Welsh was similarly out of his league against the athleticism of the Kentucky frontcourt.
In a game this lopsided, there really isn’t much to analyze. Kentucky was much more talented, more athletic, with better depth and better coaching. The Wildcats played hard and with purpose, while the Bruins fell apart early and seemingly had no game plan. The strategy of “everyone’s got a green light” was not the best choice against a team with such a decided talent and athleticism advantage. The poor decision-making, lack of discipline on offense, bad floor balance and indifferent defense led to a predictable result against the best team in the country. Playing AAU ball against Big Sky and Big West teams may not matter much. The Bruins can “out-talent” those teams most nights. But when it comes to playing elite, high-major programs, those cracks in the foundation show up big-time.
It’s doubtful this Bruin team is going to be playing for anything meaningful in March. They may or may not make the tournament and, if they do, a first-round win is probably the most you can reasonably hope for given the roster deficiencies. The more important issue, though, doesn’t really have anything to do with wins and losses. Last year’s team, for most of the season, played a brand of basketball that focused on offense and gave very little effort at the defensive end. Most of the wins came because they simply out-talented their opponents. It wasn’t until the Pac-12 tournament that we saw any real toughness and grit, with a real effort on defense. And that team had three NBA first round picks and a fourth NBA player.
In order to have any real hope for the future, there needs to an indication that Coach Alford is laying some kind of foundation that values defense, toughness, good shot selection, competitiveness, etc. So far, we haven’t seen those qualities from his teams. We saw some pretty good offense last year, but you have to wonder how much of that was due to the unique talents of Kyle Anderson. In order to feel any kind of optimism for the future, I’d like to see some indication that Coach Alford understands that his foundation is lacking. So far, I’m not seeing anything to indicate that he understands the problem.
Bruins Embarrassed by Kentucky
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