C Tony Parker (Photo by Steve Cheng)

UCLA Takes Another Step Forward

Nov. 20 -- UCLA beat Pepperdine 81-67 on Thursday night, and controlled the game throughout the evening...

UCLA’s game Thursday was a clear improvement for Steve Alford’s Bruins over the first two games of the season, with UCLA playing with more sustained effort across the board and generally controlling the game for a full 40 minutes.

Pepperdine didn’t seriously threaten in this game. There was one point in the second half where the Waves cut UCLA’s lead to 12 at the 10:08 mark, but Pepperdine was held scoreless for the next three minutes, with the Bruins stepping up the defensive intensity a bit during that period. Pepperdine is probably not as good as Monmouth, but the Waves are probably no worse than Cal Poly, so winning this game 81-67 while controlling the game throughout was an obvious step forward for the Bruins.

The most exciting part of this game for UCLA fans would probably have to be the play of Aaron Holiday, especially in the first half. Holiday’s effort and energy level is extraordinary, particularly for a true freshman playing in his first college games. He tied for the most minutes on the team with 36, but his energy was consistent throughout the game. What was obvious in this one is that he already seems to be making the adjustment to play more under control after being a little wild in game one. He did have four turnovers, including a couple of sloppy ones late, but he shot the ball very well in this one and seemed to approach the game with more of a distributor’s mentality. Holiday continues to play on the ball extensively on offense, and it’s a credit to Steve Alford that he didn’t make an immediate adjustment after that ugly game one to take Holiday off the ball since he seems to be getting more comfortable in the role.

Tony Parker had another really nice game against another diminutive front court, racking up another double-double and looking like the most indispensable Bruin. When he came out in the first half, it almost immediately led to a Pepperdine run. Offensively, he’s much more under control than he’s been in his first three years in the program, and he’s been excellent on the glass. For really the first time, he’s started to rebound out of his area a little bit more. There was one sequence late in the game where Pepperdine managed to get a couple of offensive rebounds and looked like it was running a tip drill at the backboard and then Parker swooped in from the perimeter for the rebound. His free throw shooting is still an adventure and defensively he’s still a mixed bag, but he has become a real presence on the inside.

His front court mate Thomas Welsh really struggled defensively in this one and notched four fouls by the early minutes of the second half, which forced him into just 18 minutes of play. He did well on the glass in his minutes, getting six rebounds, but he seemed to struggle guarding the smaller players for Pepperdine.

It’s going to be interesting to see what UCLA elects to do going forward with the lineup. Welsh and Parker together clearly bring a decided advantage inside on offense, but there are some obvious issues with either of them having to guard a face-up four, let alone some of the small forwards they’ve had to guard in recent weeks. UCLA has gone to some zone to help them out, but with potentially very good man defenders like Aaron Holiday and Prince Ali looking more comfortable by the day, it could limit the overall potential of the team to stick with a lineup that is inherently limited defensively. It’s definitely an interesting problem to assess, because Welsh and Parker do provide a matchup advantage on offense.

Jonah Bolden wasn’t really effective offensively, and seemed to float a little too much out to the perimeter, but he was a game-changer on defense. With Bolden at the top of the 3-2 zone, which UCLA ran probably half the game last night, Pepperdine really struggled to generate any kind of consistent offense. During that sequence where the Waves had cut the lead to 12 in the second half, Bolden was a huge part of keeping Pepperdine from scoring in those three minutes. He disrupted a few inbounds plays, and actually forced the Waves into a turnover because they couldn’t get the ball inbounds. He’s a good enough athlete, and combined with his length, that gives UCLA a really intriguing look out of that 3-2 zone.

You could make some value arguments about the Welsh-Parker combination, and whether it makes sense to move Bolden into the starting group and bring one of the centers in off the bench, but there are definitely two sides to that one. What’s looking a little more like an obvious switch at this point is increasing Prince Ali’s minutes at the expense of Isaac Hamilton. Hamilton actually didn’t have a horrible first half, but had a sequence in the second half that was pretty ugly, turning the ball over in the open court, then assisting Bolden with a turnover on a botched inbounds play, and then following that up with a poor decision on offense where he ended up yelling at Bolden as he walked off the court. His weak handle is definitely an issue. On the flip side, Ali looked much more comfortable in his 12 minutes on Thursday, shooting the ball well and driving really well to the hoop. He helped to sustain UCLA’s lead late with multiple drives where he was fouled and hit his free throws. Hamilton is not much of a driver, since he has a weak handle and isn’t particularly strong, and Bryce Alford’s game lends itself more to shooting from the perimeter. Holiday and Ali give UCLA a real driving presence from the perimeter, and the two combined for 11 of 11 on free throws Thursday night.

For our part, a lineup that includes Holiday/Ali/Alford/Bolden/Parker, with Welsh the primary backup at both posts spots, looks to be the most intriguing defensively, at least in man, and probably gives UCLA its most varied offensive attack, with Parker as the low-post scorer, Bolden as a face-up four, Holiday and Ali as drivers, and Alford as the perimeter scorer.

Bryce Alford shot the ball really well from mid-range in this one, and at times looked a little more involved defensively than he has in the past, so that was nice to see. He actually played the fourth-most minutes of the starters on Thursday, and it seems to be helping him to play a little more off the ball (he’s shooting 45% from the field after shooting 38% and 39% in the last two seasons). His shot selection continues to be interesting, and we’d love to see what he could do as a shooter if he cut down on some of the questionable shots, but he was doing a nice job of making even contested looks on Thursday.

Across the board, there were too many turnovers for UCLA on Thursday, once again, and many of them were unforced again. That's probably, in some part, due to the freshman guards playing extensive minutes, but it was still too many. Parker, as the one blemish on his game, had four, and Hamilton once again had a pretty sloppy game, recording three of his own.

This was a nice showing for UCLA, and hopefully gives the Bruins a little bit of momentum heading into next week’s gauntlet in Maui.

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