The Bruins played one of their best games, as well as one of their worst games, in their win over Stanford Thursday night.
For the first 30 minutes, UCLA dominated the Cardinal with generally good ball movement, solid shot selection, adequate defense and very good offensive rebounding. But in the last ten minutes or so, the Bruins reverted to some of their early season issues – bad shot selection, non-existent defense and a few careless turnovers – and the Cardinal staged a furious rally to almost come all the way back from a 22 point deficit. In the end, it wasn’t so much the Bruins making big plays to win the game as it was Stanford just ran out of time.
Overall, though, it was encouraging to see the Bruins play well away from Pauley for the first time this season. It may not have been perfect, but it was still a big improvement from their previous trips on the road.
Norman Powell and Isaac Hamilton both continued their strong play of late as they each had moments where they were providing most of the offense. Hamilton got hot early, knocking down several open jumpers in the flow of the offense. Hamilton looks far more comfortable than he did two weeks ago in Oregon. He’s playing much better defense, doing a fairly solid job on Chasson Randle when the Bruins were in man, and he’s making better decisions on offense as well. He’s still got his limitation as a ball-handler and you find yourself holding your breath when he tries to make a play off the dribble. But he’s clearly much more confident with his shot than he was a couple weeks ago and he’s taking more good shots than bad shots lately.
Powell carried the Bruins for a long stretch in the second half when the Cardinal had no answer for his aggressive drives to the basket. Powell has become very proficient at using his athleticism to get to the rim and then finding ways to finish with swooping finger rolls to avoid the opposing big men. In this particular game, he was also helped by the fact that the Cardinal didn’t have any real rim protectors. The Cardinal defense, in general, is very soft and Powell consistently found gaps to attack in the second half. He had a couple questionable decisions when the Bruins started melting down late in the game, but it’s hard to fault him for being overly aggressive when he was carrying the team for much of the second half. Frankly, if anyone is going to be overly aggressive with the ball, it should be the best player on the team. For far too long this season, that hasn’t been the case. It’s not a coincidence that the Bruins’ recent strong play has come when Powell has been a bigger part of the offense.
In addition to the solid play of Powell and Hamilton, the Bruins also did a fairly good job on defense for much of the game. They didn’t play great defense, as their zone was actually somewhat passive and they benefited from the Cardinal taking way too many quick jump shots in the first 30 minutes of the game. The Cardinal missed a lot of open shots, but they weren’t good shots in rhythm from the flow of the offense. The Cardinal looked out of sorts for much of the game, rushing shots and fumbling away some opportunities inside. But some of the credit for that has to go to UCLA. The Bruins were a little more active at times, forcing a few turnovers and keeping the Cardinal from doing much damage inside for much of the game. The Bruins weren’t great on defense, but they were much more solid than they have been in the past road games. They stayed focused for much of the game and they did a very good job with their transition defense. Other than a couple breakaways from live ball turnovers, the Cardinal had very few transition baskets.
The Bruins didn’t get a lot of offense from their big men in this game, as Tony Parker finished with eight points, Kevon Looney had five and Thomas Welsh didn’t score. But the Bruin post players had a big impact on this game with their rebounding and defense. In the first 30 minutes, all three big men were playing good interior defense. They were active, communicating and playing good positional defense in the man or zone defense. One of the reasons Stanford was able to get so many easy buckets in the last ten minutes was the foul trouble of Looney and Parker. Both players had been very solid for the first 30 minutes, but when they picked up fouls late the Cardinal suddenly began getting lay-ups. In part that was due to the Bruin perimeter players playing more passively as they tried to protect the lead. As often happens in these situations, the team with the big lead starts playing more cautiously and the trailing team plays as if they have nothing to lose. The Cardinal started making those open threes they had missed earlier and the Bruin defense became much more passive, allowing the Cardinal to get several uncontested lay-ups.
Bryce Alford had a mixed performance in this game. For the first 30 minutes, he was generally making good decisions and his defense wasn’t much of an issue (although Marcus Allen did blow by him a few times). In the second half, Alford got hot when the Bruins opened up a lead and he knocked down a few open jumpers in the flow of the offense. He wasn’t forcing things and he even deferred to Norman Powell when Norman demanded the ball with the shot clock winding down. Alford was trying to wave everyone off, but he gave up the ball when Powell demanded it. Norman then proceeded to make a spectacular drive for a lay-up and the Bruins were up 54-33. I wrote in my notes: “Finally, the best player taking over at the end of shot clock situation – Bryce starting to get it?”
Unfortunately, that was an isolated occurrence as Alford then proceeded to take several questionable shots in the last ten minutes when Stanford rallied. At 65-58, with 20 seconds left on the shot clock, Alford launched a contested three-pointer and I wrote in my notes: “Bryce still doesn’t get it.” Part of the blame for this goes to Bryce obviously, but a large part has to be placed on his father. Coach Alford continues to run plays for his son as if Bryce is the best player on the team. In critical situations, he’s running plays for his son (the worst shooter on the team by %) and ignoring Looney (the toughest matchup for any opponent), Powell (the best player on the team) or Hamilton (the hot hand in this game). Unfortunately, the upside of this Bruin team is severely limited by Coach Alford’s blind spot for Bryce. This team has some talent, but it doesn’t have enough talent to overcome the handicap of a 37% shooter taking the most shots on the team (although in this game he only took 16 shots to Powell’s 19). Once again, it’s so bad than even Bill Walton is commenting on it repeatedly. Think about that -- it takes a lot to get Bill to actually comment on something that’s happening in the game he’s watching.
As we’ve been saying for most of the year, the real measurement of this season isn’t going to be wins and losses. The Bruins have now given themselves a slim chance to make the tournament if they finish strong and it’s obviously better to make the tournament than miss it. But, realistically, this team isn’t going to do much in the post-season even if they manage to sneak in. The more important issue is whether or not Coach Alford is laying a foundation for future success.
In those terms, the past couple weeks have been somewhat encouraging. It hasn’t been great, as you have to remember that the “improvement” we’re seeing is relative to some absolutely horrific play earlier (see Kentucky, Utah, Gonzaga, OSU, Oregon, etc.). But the Bruins are doing a better job of playing with purpose, they’re playing decent defense for longer stretches, the shot selection is improved and there’s far less “AAU ball.” They look much more like a team than five individuals running around with no purpose. They still don’t feed the post as much as they probably should, but at least the big men are getting some touches now. It’s not surprising that with better ball movement, and shot selection, the defense has also improved. It’s very difficult to get everyone to buy in on defense if players are just chucking away on offense. We’ve seen less chucking lately and the team defense has improved as a result.
The Bruins look to continue their recent success on Saturday at Cal against a struggling Bear team. Frankly, this game shouldn’t be much of a problem for UCLA. The Bears don’t have nearly as much talent as the Bruins and Cal is playing particularly bad basketball at the moment. If the Bruins play with focus and energy, they should be able to complete the Bay Area sweep and come home with some real momentum.
Bruins Hold Off Cardinal
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