UCLA on Sunday was similar to what it was on Friday, just with a slight improvement and playing against a slightly worse team in Cal Poly, hanging on to win, 88-83.
The flow of both games was eerily similar. Once UCLA settled in and started playing, it built a double-digit lead, but then got complacent and lost it, and then had to desperately hang on at the end.
There are many factors that contribute to this pattern, but the two primary ones: Lack of consistent effort and intensity, and a lack of a defense to rely on.
It’s difficult to really analyze factor A. Perhaps as the season goes on, the team will be able to sustain its effort better. Spotty intensity has been a bit of a question under Steve Alford, but there have been times in his tenure when his teams seemed to be more focused later in the season. It does seem, too, that the team has a little bit of a conditioning issue, and perhaps that will improve as the season goes on.
Factor B has been Alford’s bugaboo since he arrived in Westwood. Alford’s offense has been relatively acceptable over the last two seasons (even though the Green Light issue has always been pronounced). But Alford hasn’t been able to put together a good defensive team yet in Westwood, and after watching this team for two games, there’s a worry that theme is going to continue this season.
There were some signs of improvement defensively, though, from Friday to Sunday. UCLA might have played its worse game in recent memory Friday in terms of transition defense. A great deal of it happened because of the 23 turnovers against Monmouth, but still, UCLA only lazily got back on transition defense. That was better Sunday. Again, UCLA had less turnovers (11), so that helped, but there seemed to be a little more effort in getting back. It wasn’t great, but better. UCLA still allowed far too many points in transition against Cal Poly. The Mustangs are a three-point shooting team, and they’d look for shooters in semi-transition, and UCLA at times still had a difficult time matching up and finding the shooters. But at least there were less transition lay-ups.
The half-court defense was a bit better, too. It appeared the difference was that Aaron Holiday got most of his first-game issues out of the way and settled in, and was very effective defensively. He pressured the ball in a way that hasn’t been seen at UCLA since Darren Collison, and when you do that you disrupt an entire offense. Holiday instinctually goes around the top of a screen, which really hasn’t been seen in Westwood since Collison either, instead of dipping under. Just that added defensive element, of merely Holiday being able to pressure the ball and stay in front of the point guard, gives UCLA a chance of having an improved defense this season.
It also helped that it seemed UCLA played a bit more man defense. With Holiday, it seems like the smart thing to do. In man, it enables him to be on the ball, while in zone, obviously, he isn’t. Also, UCLA is playing a 1-2-2 zone, with a big on the top of the zone, and that essentially makes that big the on-ball defender for the point guard. That can work if you have a pretty quick big doing it, but it can miserably fail if you don’t. In the first two games, when Alex Olesinski is in the game and UCLA is playing zone, he’s that designation, and so far it hasn’t worked well with him at that spot. It worked better with Jonah Bolden, since he has considerably more foot speed, but it was still spotty.
UCLA clearly needs to learn to play some zone because, besides Holiday, it just doesn’t have any proven man defenders. It’s uncertain if the 1-2-2 is the answer for the zone, however, and perhaps UCLA will have to experiment a bit more with other zones. It’s tough since you have two centers on the floor much of the time in Thomas Welsh and Tony Parker, and then another big in Bolden/Olesinski, and then two poor perimeter defenders in Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton. Figuring out the best zone for that is a puzzle.
During the lull in the second half of this game, there was something that was a bit alarming, in terms of defense. It seemed Holiday started to take his foot off the gas defensively a bit. It definitely contributed to Cal Poly’s run. You hate to lay so much responsibility on the shoulders of a true freshman, but there it is. When Holiday starts dipping under screens, like he did a little in the second half, it’s probably a really bad sign. The hope is that Holiday’s defensive intensity rubs off on the rest of the team; the worry is that the defensive culture of the rest of the team rubs off on Holiday.
Against Cal Poly, poor perimeter defense was what led to the Mustangs’ surge. They are an acknowledged three-point shooting team, and they run some nice perimeter screens to get their shooters freed up. In the second half, with UCLA in its effort lull, those shots were wide open. Combine that with a lack of finding shooters in transition and Cal Poly came back to threaten in the second half.
Thank goodness for the TV timeout at the 3:31 mark. After that, UCLA picked up its defensive intensity and got a few very good stops that basically gave them the opportunity to win the game. UCLA shut down Cal Poly on four straight possessions, overplaying on the perimeter and not allowing Cal Poly to get off a three, or a decent one. UCLA went on a 7-0 run and that was enough for the win.
Offensively, the pieces are probably there for UCLA to have a good offense, as it showed against Cal Poly. It’s a bit deceiving because Cal Poly didn’t really have a big that could defend Parker or Welsh, or rebound against them, but even so you can see easily that this team needs to play inside-out. Getting Parker and Welsh touches is going to be critical. They scored 26 points combined in the first half, and UCLA had built a semi-comfortable 10-point lead. When UCLA went into its lull, it also did so offensively, and it was mostly because it stopped trying to get its bigs touches. Welsh was the offensive force that got the Bruins back on track, hitting a few baskets over a few offensive trips that pulled UCLA out of an offensive slip that allowed Cal Poly to take the lead. UCLA was then scraping by, leading 73-71 with 2:34 left, and the game could have gone either way, when Welsh hit a big basket and then, on the next trip, made two free throws. Welsh scored 12 points in the second half, finishing with a game-high 22.
Isaac Hamilton also had a much better offensive game Sunday night. Even though he scored just 11, he had 7 assists, and scored a few key baskets in the second half. He did so by staying under control and pulling up in the lane for a mid-range rather than forcing it to the basket. He did make a bit of a bonehead move in trying to force a break during the stretch run when possessions were key. But take that away, Hamilton showed more composure and more willingness to look for his teammates.
Alford made a couple of big baskets in the second half that helped save the win. He still, though, struggles offensively with his basic feel for a game. Sunday night there were a few times Alford made the extra pass, or took a shot in the flow of the offense. But there were those times when he forced a poor shot, or tried to over-penetrate to draw a foul. He still jumps to pass, and that caused a critical turnover in the second half. It will be interesting with Alford playing more off the ball this season -- if that will improve his offensive feel, or perhaps promote the offensive indulgence he can be prone to.
We got our first look at Bolden, and it's what we expected: A raw but talented player. He made some considerable mistakes, and has a little bit too much playground in him at this point. But there's the potential there to stretch defenses with a good outside shot and also a good first step off the dribble, some athleticism that could help on the boards and perhaps, if he gets under control and disciplined, on defense.
We think Coach Alford will have a good chance of putting together the offensive puzzle. A big piece of that puzzle is getting Welsh some mid-range touches, and those on the short corner, like he got Sunday night. And of course, emphasizing that the offense should run inside-out, which was a challenge last year.
It’s pretty evident, though, that so much of this team’s potential will be dependent on how it develops defensively. At this point, it seems like more man defense, which enables Holiday to be the on-ball defender he can be, is the key.