C Thomas Welsh (USA Today)

UCLA Notches Best Win of Alford Era

Dec. 4 -- Thanks to the best sustained defensive effort for UCLA under Steve Alford, the Bruins knocked off No. 1 Kentucky Thursday night...

UCLA played its best, most complete game of the Steve Alford era Thursday night, beating Kentucky 87-77 and controlling the game from beginning to end.

It was the best defensive effort we’ve seen from the Bruins in quite a while, with almost every player on the court giving markedly better effort than we’ve seen from them this season.

From a game planning perspective, UCLA’s coaching staff clearly saw before the game that they’d have an advantage inside with the strength and size of Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh. On both offense and defense, UCLA utilized that advantage, working the ball into the posts a fair amount and then building the entire defensive plan on the ability of Welsh and Parker to control the paint.

It worked, in a huge way, and credit has to go to Steve Alford for significantly out coaching John Calipari. The Bruins were very clearly the team with an actual plan on both ends of the court, and Kentucky was very much the team taking wild shots, playing sped up, and not getting back in position on defense.

UCLA played almost entirely man-to-man, which would typically be a disastrous move for the Bruins, since their effort level tends to wax and wane and UCLA is not a super athletic team. But in this game, UCLA’s effort level was tremendous, and the goal of the man-to-man, much like the goal of a typical zone, was to force Kentucky, a poor shooting team this year, to take jumpers. Kentucky took 25 threes in this one, made just 8, and really struggled to generate anything inside against the size of Welsh and Parker.

Welsh was fantastic in this one, on both ends, and he seems to be starting to play really well off of Parker. In a game where you might have suspected he’d be taken out of his game by the athleticism of Skal Labissiere, instead he was the one who took Labissiere completely out of his game, handling him easily (with an assist from Parker) on the defensive end and then repeatedly shooting over him from the elbow on offense. Welsh rebounded extremely well in this one, and with Parker a little limited by illness, he played by far his best game as a Bruin.

Parker gets some credit too. Even though his stats don’t reflect a huge performance, this was a really nice game from the senior center. He played well and under control for the most part on defense, and he passed the ball really well, with a couple of assists to Welsh, one directly under the hoop and the other a high-low entry pass for a lay-in.

The other big in the rotation was Jonah Bolden, and he really affected the game with his length. He’s basically deadly defending an inbounds at this point, as he had another steal when UCLA was up 34-25. He only had three rebounds on the box score, but it felt like more, and he had a couple of key offensive boards.

The guards, for the most part, did their jobs, and, as with the bigs, it was one of the most energetic defensive performances in quite some time for UCLA’s guards. This was easily the most effort that Bryce Alford has shown on defense in his UCLA career, and he did an altogether pretty nice job of staying with his man. On offense, he made several big plays down the stretch despite not shooting particularly well overall.

Aaron Holiday hounded Tyler Ulis into a 2 of 12 shooting night, and he might have been the best, most athletic guard on the floor for stretches of this game — for either team. Two of his first two scores were really instructive — he put UCLA up 11-7 early with a great drive from the wing where he made it to the basket in basically two dribbles, and then, on the ensuing possession, he hit a banked three-pointer where the most impressive part was how he shook the defender off of him just by slightly jabbing his foot. Already, teams have to respect his athleticism by cheating a little bit, and if he can keep shooting the way he is, that’s going to make him a really tough cover. Holiday also had several assists to Welsh, and was clearly making a concerted effort to get the ball to the hot hand.

If there’s a single criticism with this game in particular it was the play of Isaac Hamilton. He had another couple of stretches in this one where he just looked completely out of sorts on the court. At one point, he almost lost a handoff to Prince Ali because he didn’t acknowledge the Kentucky player who was basically inside Ali’s shirt. He also took some shots out of the flow of the offense (one of which was a critical made three, so there’s that).

Ali, for his part, came in and provided a real spark. He’s a very explosive athlete, as he showed on his thunderous dunk over Alex Poythress, but he’s also pretty effective in the mid-range and his three point stroke has looked good so far this season. Defensively, he brought a good deal of energy, even if he sometimes looks a little lost. At this point, given what we’ve seen from both players this year, we’d, again, really like to see Ali start to cut into Hamilton’s minutes. There’s an argument to be made that Ali is a better player right now, full stop, and it’s basically axiomatic that Ali has significantly more upside than Hamilton as well.

The question for UCLA is twofold: first, for the frustrated fan, where was this effort earlier in the year? And second, the related but more important question for everyone: can this effort be sustained going forward? Because, rest assured, this was in large part a win because UCLA played with significantly more effort on the defensive end and more focus on the offensive end than they’ve shown this season.

It’s not realistic to expect any team to play with that precise level of sustained effort game after game, but it’s completely reasonable to expect, say, 80% of that effort in most games. As we talked about after the loss to Wake Forest, that’s the main thing we’re looking for at this point — win or lose, UCLA showing more consistent effort and commitment on defense. Against Kentucky, the Bruins clearly hit the necessary level of effort, but sustaining most of that effort against Long Beach State on Sunday, when the crowd will be back to 6000 or so people and when they won’t be playing the No. 1 team in the country, is what will show us that the team is really starting to grow.

In any case, this was a big win for the program. Monmouth has turned out to be a pretty good mid-major, but losing that game was still a big blow to NCAA Tournament hopes. With this win, over a Kentucky team that, while perhaps a bit overrated, is probably going to finish comfortably in the top 20 this season, UCLA is right back in good position for NCAA Tournament bubble purposes. If UCLA can wrap up the non-conference season with at least eight wins (wins over LBSU, Louisiana Lafayette, and McNeese State) , and then go through the conference schedule at 11-7 or better, the Bruins should be in solid shape for an at-large bid at the end of the year.

It’s amazing what beating the No. 1 team in the country, and showing some real, sustained effort on defense, will do for you.

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