UCLA Exerts its Talent to Make Sweet 16

Mar. 21 -- The Bruins beat Alabama-Birmingham, the worst team remaining in the NCAA Tournament, by playing a solid game and merely allowing its superior talent to emerge...

UCLA made it into the Sweet 16 by playing a solid game in beating Alabama Birmingham in the Round of 32 Saturday, 92-75.

It looked better than it actually was because UAB was, fortunately, the worst team remaining in the Round of 32 (according to RPI). So, comparatively, UCLA should look pretty good.

It was an illuminating game. Even though we had seen UAB in November, in the 7th-place game in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, we got another look at them, and it’s clear – again – what level of talent they have.

And it’s clear what level of talent UCLA has.

There was one possession in at about the 2:55 mark of the first half that was particularly reflective of the talent imbalance. Kevon Looney and Tony Parker got three consecutive offensive rebounds and Parker eventually got the putback, and it looked like a UCLA rebounding drill with no opponents on the court. That showed clearly just how much more talented UCLA is, with two frontcourt McDonald’s All-Americans (actually three) showing what they can do when they play up to their potential.

That was basically the game. UCLA asserted its superior talent and, despite some lapses -- defensively and in taking care of the ball – the superior talent won out. When you have that much of a talent advantage, you just have to play fairly soundly, don’t force much, don’t make too many mistakes, and let that talent advantage ultimately win the game for you.

UCLA out-rebounded UAB 41-26. In the first half, UAB had 8 total rebounds and UCLA had 8 offensive rebounds. That’s going to win the game for you.

Parker benefitted the most from the talent differential. He had his way inside, able to dominate the paint physically over UAB’s bigs to carve out deep-post position. The gameplan, too, was a smart one – with the prime directive to get the ball to him. He might have had the most touches he’s ever had in a first half, scoring 19 points in the first 20 minutes. He finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds for the game and looked like he was on a different level talent-wise than anyone in a UAB uniform.

Thomas Welsh (the third McDonald’s All-American post on UCLA’s roster) showed why he has so much upside. For the limited minutes he had coming off the bench, he was a force in the game, intimidating UAB inside, altering shots from their posts and drivers and easily snatching rebounds from the Blazers.

UCLA allowed UAB to hang around a bit, mostly by playing pretty poor perimeter defense. A team that shoots 33% from three on the season, the Blazers lit it up because of wide open looks in this game, shooting 12 of 26 for 46% from three. Norman Powell and Isaac Hamilton both alternately didn’t guard UAB’s Robert Brown well, allowing him to shoot 10-of-20 and 4-of-8 from the floor, and score 25 points.

UCLA countered its mediocre defensive performance with that talent edge inside and then very good execution on the offensive end. UCLA was clearly recognizing that it had a huge talent advantage in the frontcourt and stay focused on that mantra. When it came out to start the second half, its first five possessions worked the ball inside and got Looney and Parker touches. This season, in the second half of games when UCLA clearly knows it’s better than the other team and can offensively dominate the game, the Bruins have tended to then play more selfishly, with the guards trying to “get theirs.” There was a little bit of an element of that about halfway through the second half, which also contributed to allowing UAB to hang a bit too close, at one point cutting the deficit to 7 points. But the Bruins, for the most part, got back their discipline and focus on the offensive end and continued to execute well – still getting the bigs touches and easy baskets with some very nice movement and passing within the sets.

It led to UCLA getting a whopping 50 of its 92 points in the paint.

For a big portion of the game, Bryce Alford was off the ball, and Hamilton executed the point predominantly. After Bryce’s great shooting performance Thursday night, it made sense, trying to free up Bryce with screens to get him open looks. He finished with a pretty easy 22 points. Hamilton had a good offensive game, getting 7 assists, and converting some tough drives in the lane late in the game that helped to seal the double-digit lead and pretty much end a UAB surge that had them threatening with about 7 minutes remaining.

The win puts this UCLA team unexpectedly in the Sweet 16, benefitting greatly from some fortuitous developments in making the Tournament (lucky not because of its talent but its Tournament resume), how the draw has played out, and playing up to its talent level.

Settle in, because it’s completely within the realm of expectation that #2-seed Gonzaga loses to #7-seed Iowa tomorrow to give UCLA an easier path to the Elite Eight.

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