In another absurdly poor effort Sunday night, UCLA lost to Washington State, probably the worst and least-talented team in the Pac-12, 85-78.
If we could find reason to blame mostly offensive focus for the Washington loss on Friday night, there is no such solace here: this game was lost thanks to a near-complete lack of interest, effort, or focus.
The Bruins were bad on defense, arguably the worst they've been all season, which includes the ugly defeats in November. Transition defense, particularly in the first half, was just abysmal. Washington State was able to cut through the defense at will -- actually, scratch that, there was no cutting necessary. The Cougars were able to move through the defense as if it wasn't even there. Perimeter defense was atrocious, in zone and man, as UCLA's guards seemed uniformly unwilling to step out and contest shots, or rotate quickly. It's not like Washington State was some very talented team that is so adept at ball reversals that their quick passing around the perimeter will just naturally break down a team's defense -- the Cougars were typically able to find an open shooter with just one or two passes.
The fact that this UCLA team has enough talent to beat Kentucky, and enough sloppy, disinterested basketball in them to lose back-to-back games to maybe the two worst teams in the Pac-12, is maddening.
Once again, Bryce Alford and Tony Parker had really ineffective games. Parker, once again, seemed generally disengaged. He finished with just seven points and six rebounds, and played with very little energy on either end. Alford is clearly going through a shooting slump right now, and it's affecting his offensive play, but he was probably the worst of the guard defenders on Sunday. If UCLA is going to achieve something over the next couple of years, and if he's going to be the leader of this team, he needs to find a way to contribute on the days where he isn't shooting well, and that means playing defense.
With Alford, here's a telling stat: This season against winning teams, he's shooting 33% from the field and 29% from three, and has 38 assists to 27 turnovers. So, in key games, not only is his defense slack, but he's not helping much on offense either.
As with Washington, there were a couple of bright spots. Aaron Holiday is still turning the ball over way too much in unforced situations, but he also is displaying a lot more confidence offensively than he was last month. His mid-range pull-up could be deadly if he gets a little more sparing in its use, and he also hit a really pretty teardrop floater. His defense wasn't good, but it's hard to blame the freshman when the upperclassmen are the ones dogging it the most on defense.
Thomas Welsh continues to show more toughness than he was showing last month, and that's also good to see. He's hitting the glass with more authority on both ends, and on a night when Parker was nowhere to be found, Welsh responded with another double-double. Defensively, he still has a lot of work to do in terms of his physicality, but he appears to be getting better.
Isaac Hamilton wasn't good defensively, but he at least contributed on the offensive end. You can tell how much front-yard basketball he's played by how efficiently he's able to score off of wild caroms off the rim. Like Holiday, he can hit a wide range of mid-range shots, including a variety of floaters.
UCLA didn't get much of anything out of its bench, again. Prince Ali had a couple of nice offensive moments, and Jonah Bolden at least seemed to give a crap on defense, but otherwise, this was another game where UCLA was almost entirely reliant on its starters, who were not up to the task of caring enough about this game.
Washington State simply controlled this game. It was relatively close in the first half, but once the Cougars got a lead after the first ten minutes or so, Washington State was able to respond to every UCLA mini-run with a flurry of quick baskets to rebuild the lead. Every time UCLA managed to score a little on offense, the Bruins suddenly decided to play even worse on defense, which allowed the Cougars to respond relatively easily.
The Bruins are now basically where they were before the Kentucky game, with a need to play above their heads the rest of the way to make the NCAA Tournament. As we wrote before the Kentucky game, though, that's really not the significant thing we're assessing this season. What we're mainly looking at is whether this team can play with consistent effort on defense and consistent focus on offense, and both of those things were basically absent this weekend. The team has clearly not internalized any lessons that you may have hoped they learned from the effort expenditure needed to beat Kentucky and Gonzaga.
UCLA didn't need to put together a crazy effort to beat Washington State. 10 minutes of really good effort in the first half and 10 minutes of really good effort in the second half probably would have been enough to comfortably put away the Cougars. That the Bruins weren't able to summon even that, two days after an embarrassing double-overtime loss to another mediocre Pac-12 team, is a very worrying sign for the rest of this season.