UCLA is Watchable in Beating Colorado

Feb. 1 -- Yeah, the Buffs are bad without mtheir best player, but at least the Bruins played decent basketball during a second-half spurt that fueled the win, 72-59...

UCLA beat what is pretty much a cupcake Colorado team, pulling away in the second half to win, 72-59.

Without its best player, Josh Scott, the Buffaloes are on the same level as one of UCLA’s non-conference cupcakes from back in November.

Colorado had some of the worst offensive possessions we’ve seen of any UCLA opponent yet this season during a 25-4 second-half Bruin run.

Give UCLA’s defense a little credit. You could say the Bruins played some more active defense against a really bad offensive team.

And you have to give Isaac Hamilton a good deal of credit, too. Hamilton, who has really struggled this season, mostly because he just doesn’t have a good overall feel for the game and is a selfish offensive player, clearly stepped up his effort defensively against the Buffaloes. He frustrated Colorado’s top gunner, Askia Booker, and – through pure defensive energy – boosted UCLA’s overall defensive effectiveness.

The easy player to point to as the one who had the biggest impact on the game is Norman Powell, who finished with a game-high 22 points and was seemingly, again, able to drive at will against what looks like little boys defending him. Powell is now getting better at finishing in transition, and he knows it. He’s just too big, strong and athletic in the open court for defenders to keep away from the rim.

But the difference-maker in this game was Hamilton. See, there’s a tipping point, where all a team needs is just one guy to improve one element of his game and it tips the entire team in another, better direction. That’s what happened Saturday night with Hamilton. He clearly was inspired to try to shut down Booker, who had scored 43 points against USC Thursday night, and he essentially did, holding him to 16 points on 6-of-15 shooting and 1 from 7 from three. But it wasn’t just a matter of being effective against Booker; adding Hamilton’s defensive energy was not only infectious but the little increase of defensive energy for the team was enough to befuddle a pretty bad Colorado offense. It was the tipping point.

The big development in this game – the elephant in the room – is how much better UCLA was when Bryce Alford wasn’t on the floor. This was easily among Bryce’s worst games of the season. It was almost a highlight reel of the worst Bryce moments. There was one possession in the first half where Bryce jacked two forced threes, was late to pass the ball in a pick-and-roll with Gyorgy Goloman, drove the baseline and threw a pass down the middle of the lane to no one (If we could just be granted one thing that we could eliminate from Bryce’s game it would be that baseline drive to nowhere). And it wasn’t just that Bryce’s shot wasn’t going down or he wasn’t executing well, the bad game came mostly from a really bad mindset and approach. There are times when Bryce does play within a team concept and looks to get his teammates involved, even though it’s infrequent. Against Colorado that impulse didn’t really exist. His approach was almost as if Bryce mentally had given up on the team concept and was completely doubling down on the selfish approach. His father, the coach, had to take him off the ball in the second half – and then took him out of the game, and that’s when UCLA, with Hamilton playing better, actually started its game-winning run. Bryce didn’t score a basket until about 8 minutes left in the game, and that came when he was off the ball.

What’s perplexing, too, is that Bryce is clearly considered – in his own mind and in the mind of the coaching staff – as the primary scorer on this team. Even after Alford took Bryce off the ball they kept running the same play for him where he runs the baseline and comes around a screen to catch and shoot in the corner. It’s not just Bryce who has the double-down concept, but the coach.

Now, Bryce isn’t going to play this bad all the time; he’s played much better at times. But we were speculating a couple of games ago, when Hamilton was playing really poorly, that perhaps the team would be better by utilizing the emerging Goloman more than Hamilton. But now, we don’t need speculation; we saw against Colorado what the team was like without Bryce and it was some good, actually watchable basketball for that 6-minute stint in the second half. If Hamilton is going to play with that kind of defensive intensity for the rest of the season he definitely needs to be on the court.

Perhaps the compromise is to take Bryce off the ball more. That same baseline play finally paid off at the end of UCLA’s second-half run. It was the only time in the game where Bryce looked comfortable, just catching and shooting a fairly open baseline jumper.

Like I said, for that second-half stint, UCLA was probably the most watchable it's been all season. Tony Parker actually got a touch. Kevon Looney flashed to the high post and was fed the ball. UCLA executed an offense. Before that, Bryce was in his double-down mindset and the offense was stagnant, which made the game close through early in the second half. In fact, the rest of his teammates were trying to freeze him out. Powell, who is now doing more initiating of the offense, when he had the ball literally turned his back on Bryce a couple of times, running a two-man game with Looney late in the first half, which seemed like the first time Looney actually touched the ball in the flow of the offense besides an offensive rebound. Poor Parker, who in this game, with Bryce in his double-down mindset, was completely absent from the offense. In the second half, Hamilton finally fed him a pass and he looked like a kid on Christmas morning. With Bryce not running the show, Goloman and Thomas Welsh got touches and converted nice baskets. Without Bryce, Noah Allen entered the game, and while he’s not a high-major player by any means, Allen had a significant impact, making the extra pass, one a pretty touch pass to Parker in the post, while also bringing a little more effort to the defensive side of the floor.

If you’re trying to read the body language of the team there was a marked difference during the period Bryce was out of the game. The team looked liberated and, as a result, there was a bounce in their step. Hamilton tried a couple of times to force a shot and ruin it, but there was clearly an energy without Bryce on the floor. When he came back in and was off the ball, the energy was still there. It’s pretty evident that the players know what’s going on. Everyone in Pauley Pavilion had to see what was going on. Everyone on the BRO Hoops Message Board saw it.

It’s now a matter if Alford and Bryce see it, or will we get double-downed?

The Bruins now head back on the road, to the Bay Area schools, where this Bruin team has played particularly bad, punctuated by breakdowns in team play and reversions to selfishness. We might, though, have inadvertently discovered the elixir to road-itis, and that might be taking the ball out of Bryce’s hands. In basketball, because it's such a team game, a combination of individuals that make up a whole, sometimes it’s just one small element that can be the tipping point, and perhaps this is the one that makes UCLA a different road team.

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