C Thomas Welsh (USA Today)

Low-Intensity Bruins Show Up for McNeese

Dec. 23 -- UCLA ends the non-conference season on a disappointing note, with a low-intensity effort in the win over McNeese State on Tuesday...

UCLA got by McNeese State on Tuesday night 67-53 to finish the non-conference season 9-4, but in the overall picture of the season, this might have been one of UCLA's worst efforts of the year. McNeese is one of the worst teams in college basketball this year, so everyone could have naturally expected some lull in intensity from the Bruins, but the depths to which the intensity sunk in this game was disappointing.

The Cowboys had the game tied as late as the first shot in the second half, and had the score within 7 points at the 2:12 minute mark in the 2nd half before UCLA pulled away late. This was legitimately a close game most of the way, and that just shouldn't happen when the talent disparities are this great.

UCLA's defensive intensity was clearly at early-season levels in this one. For most of the first half, almost to a man, UCLA had no interest in closing out on three-point shooters, which let the Cowboys, who are a poor-shooting team from outside, make six of 11 shots from three point range. The Bruins were also getting outworked on the boards -- though they had an overall rebounding advantage throughout the entirety of the game, they should have dominated this team on the glass. Instead, through effort and tenacity, McNeese was able to steal way too many rebounds.

Here's the crux of it: if UCLA had switched the Long Beach State and McNeese game (if UCLA had gotten its wish, in other words, of having a weaker game immediately after Kentucky or Gonzaga) the effort last night would have cost them the game. It's simply that McNeese is so bad -- so throwing-the-ball-away-on-the-same-play-three-times-in-the-second-half bad -- the the Bruins could afford to coast like this and still get the win.

The offensive approach was pretty poor most of the game. Early on, UCLA seemed to have the right idea, working the ball into the post, and it resulted in Tony Parker drawing three quick fouls from McNeese. Then UCLA just sort of lost interest in that whole plan, and became much more perimeter-oriented. Isaac Hamilton, who actually was one of the few Bruins who had an overall good game and seemed engaged, just wasn't hitting as well from the perimeter as he has in recent games, so the Bruins really didn't get much production during that period when they weren't working the ball inside.

But the defense was the big issue. Bryce Alford was noticeably bad, to the point where even Don freaking MacLean was pointing it out on the broadcast. There was one play where he had to rotate a few steps to his right to stop a dribble drive, but he instead hopped in place as the guy drove right by him. Alford has shown this season that he can play with more defensive intensity than that, and as he himself has said, as his intensity goes, so does the team's. He needs to show better leadership than that. Look, this game was going to be a lull -- no one is saying that UCLA needed to play with the level of intensity the Bruins showed against Kentucky. But if UCLA had shown just five minutes of real intensity in the first half and five minutes of real intensity in the second half, this probably could have been a 30-point blowout.

Thomas Welsh put up some numbers, but he didn't really dominate the game the way he could have. With his size and height, there was no one on McNeese who should have been able to a) take a rebound away from him or b) defend him or c) score on him, and yet he had a number of rebounds ripped from his hands, had a number of points scored around the basket with him in the game, and scored most of his points on baseline jumpers rather than in the paint, where he should have been able to get whatever he wanted. We love Welsh and love his development, but the big key for him at this point is getting stronger, tougher, and more physical in the paint so he can be more than a pick-and-pop guy on offense and more of a discouraging presence on defense.

Tony Parker seemed pretty disengaged from the game again. He turned the ball over four times, after turning it over six times against North Carolina, and that's just kind of bizarre for a post player. His concentration just didn't seem to be there in this one. He rebounded more aggressively than Welsh, though, and that was necessary.

On the bright side of things, Aaron Holiday got out of his shooting slump a little bit in this one, hitting a variety of mid-range jumpers and each of them looked pretty good coming out of his hand. His free throws have actually gotten pretty poor in recent weeks, though, and it looks like he's just way too sped up during the process. He also played some defense, which on this night was actually pretty impressive.

Hamilton definitely seemed engaged on offense, and he wasn't a complete eyesore on defense. He is on a real hot streak at this point, with five straight games where he has been arguably UCLA's most consistent offensive player (he's averaged just over 20 points during that stretch). His active hands on defense led to quite a few run-outs, and that was really the difference between this game getting even more absurdly close in the second half.

Jonah Bolden gave UCLA the only quality bench minutes it got in this game, and it actually seemed that when he came in, UCLA played better and with overall more intensity. Alex Olesinski continues to struggle, and it's a bit worrying that he wasn't able to work some things out against the Cowboys. The bench as a group missed all five of its free throws, with Olesinski missing two and Noah Allen missing all three of his attempts.

UCLA finished the non-conference season 9-4, and given the way this part of the season started, that has to be considered a major win. But this game was a little disquieting. Again, the biggest thing we've wanted to see from UCLA since the Kansas game was consistent effort. We got it, for the most part, against Kentucky, Gonzaga, and North Carolina. Against the lesser opponents, it's been worse. Against McNeese, it was particularly bad. The Pac-12 is replete with decent enough teams. The only ones that seem markedly below average at this point are the two Washington schools and Stanford. Everyone else has been pretty solid and competitive this season. At the same time, there isn't a really elite team. If UCLA gives a good effort every game, the Bruins could very well win the conference.

We have every confidence in UCLA's ability to play hard against Arizona, and against California, and against Utah. But what kind of effort are we going to see against Washington, and Washington State, and Stanford, and Arizona State? At the end of the non-conference season, we're not entirely sure.

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