UCLA turned in a dud of a performance Friday night in the opening game of the season, losing in overtime to mid-major Monmouth 84-81.
It was an ugly game that saw the Bruins turn the ball over 23 times, and the stunning part was just how many of those turnovers were unforced. And it wasn’t as if there was one particular culprit for UCLA -- yes, Aaron Holiday was sped up and a little sloppy with the ball in his first real game, but UCLA’s upper-classmen did the Bruins no favors either, with Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, and Tony Parker combining for 14 turnovers. Across the board, UCLA looked unprepared and unfocused, and it’s a testament to that lack of focus that the Bruins managed to lose a 13-point lead in the last 9:50 of the game.
This loss is devastating for UCLA, which is getting geared up to face a really tough non-conference schedule. Monmouth is a solid mid-major, but this should have been an RPI-boosting win for the Bruins (since Monmouth has a good chance of winning its conference) rather than a loss that comes close to spelling doom for UCLA’s NCAA Tournament bubble chances. As it stands, with this loss, UCLA can only be comfortable with its bubble chances if it somehow manages to steal a win against North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, or Gonzaga in the coming weeks.
In any case, this game presented some issues that might make UCLA’s bubble chances irrelevant. The sloppiness for UCLA was pervasive, and it infected everything from the turnovers on offense to the usual inattention on defense. Transition defense was extremely poor in this one, with oftentimes only one player getting back against two or even three Monmouth players. Defensive rotations were inconsistent -- at various points in the first half, UCLA looked like it was playing with good energy, and then, especially when Monmouth went on its run in the second half, the energy died and UCLA barely went through the motions.
UCLA used Holiday primarily on the ball and Alford primarily off of it, and it looked like both players are still getting comfortable with those roles (which might change anyway, given Steve Alford’s comment after the game that they need to put the ball back in Bryce’s hands). At times in the first half, they didn’t seem to be synchronizing well, and that’s to be expected with new roles. If Alford sticks with it, we’d expect the two of them to get more comfortable.
Anyway, neither of them played well. Holiday brought good energy to the floor, but he was just too sped up on offense and showed exactly where he needs to develop as a point guard -- he’s always in attack mode, and in this offense, he has to be more of a distributor. We loved the energy he brought to the defensive end, and he clearly has the ability to be a really good player, but he definitely needs to develop. Bryce Alford, as we said above, didn’t look quite comfortable playing off the ball, and forced the issue a little bit. He had a few ill-advised shots, especially late when he was trying to put the team on his back. And when he did play on the ball late, and UCLA needed a steadying force, he coughed up a bad turnover where he got picked from behind. Defensively, he actually had spurts of good energy in the first half, but struggled more in the second half, particularly, again, during that Monmouth run.
Isaac Hamilton had one of his bad games Friday night. Early on, he lost the ball on a drive and missed a couple of shots, and that seemed to push him into a nosedive. By the second half, he seemed really reluctant to do much of anything with the ball. His handle is still a real issue. Prince Ali played fairly well in his 18 minutes, making a couple of threes and playing with good energy on defense, and if Hamilton keeps up that level of play, we wouldn’t be stunned to see Ali start to cut into his minutes quite a bit.
Tony Parker put up a big stat-line of 19 points and 19 rebounds, but it’s a little bit deceptive, because he had some absolutely crippling turnovers. He straight up threw the ball directly to a Monmouth player at least three times, and speaking of guys who don’t quite seem comfortable in their current roles, Parker comes to mind. He’s getting some power forward responsibilities on offense, and while he made a couple of nice high-low entry passes to Thomas Welsh, he also seemed overly conscious of trying to pass out of the post and he’s just not a polished passer down low. He did a nice job finishing on offense, and cleaned up the glass well, so both of those are positives.
Welsh was the best player on the court for long stretches for UCLA. Defensively, he is much better than a year ago, and looks much more comfortable using his length to block shots. He’s not quite as sped up shooting as he was a year ago, and it paid off with his mid-range jumper looking much more like the automatic thing we saw in his senior year of high school. The big thing for him is to still increase his strength -- a couple of times on defense in a one-on-one situation, he allowed the big to push him more or less right under the basket, and he can’t give up position that easily. Given his passing ability and mid-range jumper, we’d like to see UCLA experiment a bit more with Welsh at the high post and Parker at the low, but given how effective both players were scoring and on the glass, we’d understand if UCLA wants to keep the current system the same. Parker’s turnovers, though, are something to keep an eye on.
Obviously, Jonah Bolden being out didn’t help. That forced Alex Olesinski into more minutes than he reasonably should be playing at this point. To Olesinski’s credit, after a rough first half stint on the floor, he looked much more comfortable in the second half and started to do some positive things. He looked completely out of sorts at the top of the zone throughout the game, but a freshman not knowing where he should be defensively is pretty understandable at this juncture.
Weirdly, Noah Allen was the first guard/forward off the bench rather than Ali, but Allen only ended up playing three minutes. Perhaps it was just a courtesy to the junior Allen, but those three minutes made it readily apparent why Ali needs to get those primary minutes off the bench.
This was a really bad loss. It’s obviously not insurmountable -- if UCLA finishes the non-conference winning every remaining game the Bruins should win and then beat a team they shouldn’t, and then end up in the top three of the Pac-12, they should be a solid bubble option -- but when we’ve seen losses like this in the past in the opener, it usually hasn’t meant anything good for the season (see: 2011-12, when the Bruins lost to LMU and finished 19-14, and 2009-10 when UCLA lost to CSUN and finished 14-18). Monmouth is probably better than either of those teams, but this absolutely puts UCLA in a hole to start the year, and the Bruins will have to figure things out quick, or the non-conference season could be a disaster.