Bruins Play Well, Eat a Cal Cupcake

Jan. 12 -- UCLA played smarter, but Cal, in its state, was about as good as Coastal Carolina...

It obviously felt good for UCLA to win a game easily again, putting away the Cal Bears without really sweating, 73-54.

The Bruins did play better, playing a little more team-oriented and making a concerted effort to play more inside-outside, and it definitely paid off.

It has to be said, though, that playing Cal was a bit like a Return of the Cupcake. The Bears might not have been a cupcake in other games this season, but they certainly were Sunday night. They didn’t look much different than Long Beach State or Coastal Carolina, with comparable talent on the floor. In fact, when there are guys like Sam Singer, Dwight Tarwater and Kingsley Okoroh playing 52 minutes between them, they definitely look more like a Big South team than a Pac-12 team.

There’s also the matter that three of Cal’s four top scorers didn’t show up. Jabari Bird returned from a foot injury but then got a cramp in his hamstring and didn’t play. Tyrone Wallace, who was averaging 19 points a game, scored 4, and he and David Kravish combined to shoot 6 of 22. Just add in the points under the average of a combined Wallace and Bird and that’s 26 points, and you have a game. Yeah, UCLA’s defense was a bit improved, but still, there were some wide open shots that Cal just flat-out missed time and time again. Perhaps Kravish was psyched out with Kevon Looney on the floor and guarding him sometimes, but he had some wide-open looks, and he got off some very flat shots.

On one hand, playing a cupcake Cal team is a bit of fool’s gold, just like playing Coastal Carolina. But on the other hand, if this is an indication as to how talented the rest of the conference is UCLA might have a legitimate chance to make a run in the Pac-12.

On offense, the Bruins played an improved game through the first 7 or 8 minutes of the second half. Bryce Alford clearly was trying to set up his teammates more and not taking forced shots, and Isaac Hamilton fed Tony Parker for three possessions in a row in the game’s first five minutes. UCLA clearly had an advantage in the frontcourt, with nobody even close to as talented as Looney and no one able to guard Parker on the low block, so there was some clear recognition of that tactically. There were a few little deviations from the winning formula, with Hamilton occasionally taking a hurried shot and Bryce driving to nowhere, but not nearly as much as we’ve seen in the last month. UCLA’s transition defense was pretty mediocre, though, and, in fact, if they had played just a modicum they would have absolutely destroyed Cal right out of the gate. Then in the last 10 minutes or so of the game, individual Bruins tried to pad their stats, taking quick shots when the game was out of reach and, when you’re playing against a cupcake, remember, they go in.

The MVP of the game was clearly Norman Powell. He scored 14 points on 6 of 13 shots, and most were smart, good shots. He drove the basket when he had a clear lane and he finished in transition well. Where he made the biggest impact, however, was on defense, really frustrating Wallace, staying in front of him and not allowing him penetration. With Bird out and Kravish shooting line-drives, removing Wallace from the game rendered Cal a team that would probably finish toward the bottom of the Big South.

Looney and Parker both followed up their standout performances against Stanford with good ones against Cal. Even though he can’t always finish inside, Parker is really tough for an average D-1 big to defend in the post. He’s getting better at sealing off, especially off pick and rolls, and he did it beautifully a couple of times in this game. A sequence of a few minutes to start the half was pretty much the Parker Show, as he scored easily on the offensive side and took a charge and got rebounds on the defensive side. And Looney, once again, is just too talented. Kravish and a couple of other Bears inexplicably extended their defense on Looney, which is the exact opposite scouting report anyone should have on him (shouldn’t you sag off and make him shoot from the outside?), and Looney took those long first steps right around them.

Bryce was a little better in this game. He had a couple of nice post feeds that were really encouraging and looked for Looney when he rolled off the ball screen instead of looking for his own shot. It’s still worrisome when, though, in the last 10 minutes of the game Bryce reverts to the old style of jumping to pass and taking quick shots; you hope he doesn’t necessarily get a false confidence again. It’s also worrisome that Bryce doesn’t recognize who his scorers are when he’s driving and dishing to Noah Allen.

Hamilton, even though he scored 13 points and didn’t take nearly as bad of shots as he has recently, was the true weak link defensively. Cal’s Jordan Mathews scored 14 points in the first half, mostly because he had wide-open looks in transition and in the halfcourt with Hamilton guarding him.

Cal had an interesting tactical approach to playing UCLA. It got very few second chances on the offensive end, choosing to rotate back quickly after its first shot and take away UCLA’s transition scoring. That might have been a wise tactic going into the game but when you’re shooting really poorly like Cal was and missing open looks that’s as good as a turnover. Cal didn’t get an offensive rebound for the first 14 minutes of the game. It’s clear, now, too, the way to beat UCLA is to get the ball inside and make Looney and Parker guard your bigs, and potentially get them in foul trouble and limit their minutes. Any cupcake that tries to beat UCLA with a perimeter-dominated game is just asking to get blown out.

The two wins this weekend for the Bruins were a welcomed bounce-back to a season that was looking like it could spin out of control. It shows that UCLA has some resiliency and it’s just plainly not the type of team that will just roll over. It has, too, started to play with some tactical savviness, and it looks like Steve Alford has made a little progress with getting Bryce and Hamilton to involve Parker and Looney and be a little better in their shot selection. But it’s almost like it’s just holding back the tide; you can sense there’s such an overwhelming impulse from Bryce and Hamilton – and subsequently Powell – to force shots and drives, and it’s still unlikely to envision they’ll be able to build or even sustain that type of approach consistently. Like we had said previously, it could very well be a case that UCLA, when it’s home in Pauley Pavilion, will more likely play smarter more often – but on the road the flood gates could bust. You also have to consider that Cal without Byrd is one of the worst offensive teams in the conference, and Stanford was missing a very talented piece of its puzzle without Reid Travis. It’s going to be a different story when UCLA travels to the Bay Area in four weeks to play these teams on the road. Its only chance is to keep working on Bryce and Hamilton and get them to play smarter, so in four weeks, when Cal and Stanford aren’t cupcakes anymore, at home and at full strength, that will be a good test of whether Alford can develop his players and make his team better.

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