PF Jonah Bolden (USA Today)

The Bruins Could Be Building Something

Dec. 13 -- UCLA beat Gonzaga 71-66 on Saturday night, and it could be a sign that the Bruins are starting to gel...

For the second time in two weeks, UCLA took down a ranked opponent, but this time it was No. 20 Gonzaga, and it was on the road, and it came largely without the services of key bench player Prince Ali.

It was also the product of sustained, consistent effort — nothing outrageous, like the extreme effort that the Bruins put into the Kentucky win, but a really solid, 80% version of that, the kind of effort that’s plenty good enough to win competitive games with good teams and not burn out doing so.

It was also pretty clearly the biggest road win for Steve Alford (and maybe, if you really look at the schedule history for UCLA, the biggest non-conference road win for the Bruins in about a decade). And, given that it was such a huge road win for a coach whose teams have struggled on the road the last couple of years, perhaps it’s a sign of a maturing group of players.

For all of those reasons, this was a huge win for UCLA, the kind of win that immediately makes you consider what kind of upside this team has over the course of the season. That’s the sort of win, building on the Kentucky game, that can start to unlock a fan’s higher end hopes.

There’s much to be hopeful for after a game like that, perhaps even more than Kentucky. It would be easy to convince yourself that the win over the Wildcats, in a vacuum, was a fluke, since it came at home and required a level of effort that, to that point, the Bruins hadn’t even come close to. But now we have this other piece of data to point to, one where UCLA again brought very consistent effort against a quality team, and this time pulled off the upset win on the road. The game required a very similar approach in terms of that effort and offensive focus, and for the most part UCLA brought exactly what they needed to, which could mean that the Bruins have figured out a formula for success.

OK, enough generalities, because there was a lot to talk about in this game in particular that should give UCLA fans major reason for excitement.

First and foremost, probably the biggest individual reason for excitement after this game: Jonah Bolden had a breakout performance. The sophomore power forward came in at the first media timeout, right after Tony Parker gave up consecutive threes to Kyle Wiltjer, and was basically a fixture in the lineup the rest of the night. He immediately cooled off Wiltjer with his length and athleticism on defense, keeping the talented big man from finding much room on the perimeter, and if he’d only done that all night, he would have been one of the critical pieces in UCLA’s victory.

But instead of just doing that, Bolden was also a key part of several offensive possessions throughout the game. Steve Alford made a nice tactical adjustments in this one, getting Bolden plenty of touches in the low post, and Bolden responded with, by far, his best offensive game. Early on, he had a nice spin move around Damantas Sabonis and earned a trip to the free throw line. Later on in the game, especially over the last ten minutes, he had two critical possessions in the low post where he made really exceptional passes, one where he hit a pass in traffic to Isaac Hamilton on the perimeter who hit a three to put UCLA up 50-48, and the other a nice dish to Thomas Welsh out of a timeout (a well-drawn play, as well) to put UCLA up 67-64 with about a minute to go. When you factor in that he’s a very good rebounder, and especially a very good offensive rebounder, then there’s a great deal to like there. The one big thing going forward for him is to get stronger and play through contact better. He wasn’t quite able to finish at the rim as well as you’d like, and it makes sense why he’s more willing to float to the perimeter. But it’s clear, at this point, that the strength of his game is in the post, where he can use his excellent passing ability to open up opportunities for others. 

So, that was a huge positive, and that’s a potential game-changer for the Bruins. If Bolden is capable of playing those kinds of minutes (he played 30), or a close approximation of those kinds of minutes, every night, that gives UCLA a lot more versatility. It’s no stretch to say that if he keeps playing like that, he could force himself into the starting lineup and give UCLA a more traditional look with a true power forward.

The other big bright spot in this one was the play and poise of Tony Parker. How many times have we seen that exact sort of game go completely awry for the big man? After his second foul midway through the first half, which looked like a questionable call, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Parker was going to be out of it the rest of the game. Instead, after sitting for the remainder of the first half, he came back in at the beginning of the second half and, seriously, might have been the most poised and in-control that he’s ever been. He made it look easy around the basket, scoring three of UCLA’s first four buckets of the second half on easy layups. Overall, he had 16 points on eight of nine shooting and, aside from that bad stretch against Wiltjer to open the game, played solidly on defense.

And, don’t look now, but if you were picking out a third key player in this one, it was pretty clearly Isaac Hamilton. The sophomore guard was mostly under control on offense, with few forced shots, and only turned the ball over once despite getting the ball in some pressure situations where he could have easily lost it. He shot it well again, and also was opportunistic on defense, getting three steals, including one toward the end of the game that he turned into a coast-to-coast layup that put UCLA up 69-64 with 53 seconds to go. Throughout the game, he made key buckets at critical times, including the aforementioned three to put UCLA up 50-48 when it seemed like Gonzaga had a ton of momentum. On a night where his understudy, Prince Ali, was unavailable for most of the game, he stepped up with 37 big minutes.

Neither Aaron Holiday nor Bryce Alford shot it particularly well in this one. Holiday might be enjoying the time-honored tradition of the freshman funk right now as he has shot 2 of 13 over the last two games and 0 of 4 from three. If there’s one major thing to like about him, though, it’s that, for the most part, he still brings the same amount of energy and, despite not shooting well, didn’t press too much, and still led the team in assists. Gonzaga seemed to be keying its defense on Alford a fair amount, and I think a big growth point for him will be to understand when that’s happenedg and become even more of a facilitator. He had a few shots where he probably didn’t need to take them, and they led to brief surges for the Zags. He’s a good enough shooter that he can make some bad shots, and on a different team, it probably makes sense for him to take those at times, but this team has better options than contested jumpers. I really liked his awareness on the first buzzer-beater attempt, even if it didn’t quite get off, and he played with poise for long stretches last night.

Defensively, again, this was a solid effort. It wasn’t quite the sustained, break-neck effort of the Kentucky game, but that sort of effort is actually a lot to ask every game with a mostly short bench. Pick and roll defense got really spotty for a stretch in the second half, mostly from the guards not showing hard enough. Luckily, Gonzaga seemed a little gassed in stretches and the Zags weren’t able to hit some open threes. At one point, Hamilton took a break and went under a screen on the outside and got lucky that Josh Perkins missed a wide open three when the Bruins were up 56-48. There were also times when Gonzaga was a little too able to get into the lane from the perimeter without much resistance.

We’ll now put in our requisite pumping of the brakes. This isn’t one of Gonzaga’s super elite teams, certainly not without Karnowski. UCLA is still just a few weeks removed from losing to a probably mediocre Wake Forest team, and just a couple of weeks before that losing to Monmouth at home. The Bruins have put together two really nice efforts in the last two weeks, but there is a long season ahead, and two games don’t make a season.

But if you’ve spent the last five or so years looking for signs that UCLA is finally starting to gel back into a team that’s worth watching, and worth investing some time in, you could do worse than pointing to the last two weeks, and these two games in particular against solid opponents where the Bruins exhibited good effort and a sound offensive approach. For those cautious UCLA fans who have resisted getting too emotionally invested in the basketball team over the last few years, given the year-in and year-out disappointments…

It might (we repeat: might) be safe to jump back in the water.

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