See, it's no complex formula -- play reasonably hard and reasonably focused for 40 minutes and you can beat a bad team by 33 points, as UCLA did yesterday in an 83-50 win over Washington State at Pauley Pavilion.
There were some tactical adjustments and role changes that certainly helped contribute, and we'll get to those in a second, but the main thing was that UCLA simply played with sustained effort and focus for virtually the entire game, which allowed the Bruins to overcome an uncharacteristically poor shooting night for one of their most resounding wins of the season.
Washington State really didn't get easy possessions, especially over the first ten minutes or so of the game. UCLA's guards as a whole did a great job of staying in front of the Cougar guards, with Bryce Alford in particular probably giving his best effort on defense since the Kentucky game. Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday also did a mostly very good job on the defensive end, and it helped lead to the overall stalling of the Cougar offense, which finished with just 33% shooting. Washington State had just eight points through the first 11 minutes.
The effort level was also significantly better on the interior. UCLA gave up four offensive rebounds in the first 10 minutes or so and then surrendered just one over the 30 minutes or so. Considering how many shots Washington State missed in this one -- 36 -- that was a really impressive feat. Thomas Welsh and Jonah Bolden were in better position to snag defensive rebounds in this one and overall played better post defense than UCLA has shown of late.
Obviously, there was the big lineup adjustment, with Bolden starting in place of Tony Parker. This was a significant switch in a few respects. First, it pushed Parker to the bench, which was probably the smart move, as Parker's inconsistent play has been one of the biggest issues for UCLA this season. Second, instead of trying to play with two centers, UCLA now had a true power forward in the lineup, which helped with spacing and roles on both ends. And third, with Bolden getting the nod, it put him firmly ahead of Gyorgy Goloman in the rotation, which had been a question mark since Goloman came back.
For all of these reasons, it was an excellent move. Bolden didn't shoot the ball well in the game, but he played hard, rebounded well, and bothered Washington State with his length on defense. What's more, it gave UCLA real rotations in the post rather than the kind of mess there had been. When Bolden came out, Goloman came in, and when Welsh came out, Parker came in. The two starters played 26 minutes (Bolden) and 22 minutes (Welsh). The two bench players played 14 minutes (Goloman) and 18 minutes (Parker).
We have to give a ton of credit to Parker as well. He easily could have moped, and if we're being honest, we half-expected him to. Instead, he played with more energy on defense than he has shown since the very beginning of this season, and actually looked a little more comfortable in his role than he has this season. Perhaps playing center on both ends was helpful to him, or coming in off the bench relieved some pressure, but this was a very nice game for the big man.
UCLA once again played Alford off the ball quite a bit, with Holiday handling much of the point guard duties, and actually Hamilton bringing the ball up a few times to initiate the offense. Overall, this was one of Alford's better games of the season. He played within himself on offense, played hard on both ends, and didn't really try to take over the game at any point. There was one possession in the first half where he passed up two semi-open three pointers to work for a better shot and then only took the final open three when the clock was winding down -- and wound up getting fouled and shooting three free throws. When he plays hard on defense and plays within himself on offense, he's an asset, and that was absolutely the case on Saturday -- the trick is getting those first two things to happen with consistency.
UCLA's inconsistent play over the last few weeks can easily be attributed to the vagaries of Parker and Alford's play. If they come to play hard, then UCLA generally performs well. If they don't, UCLA doesn't. So it's no surprise that on a day when Parker brought his best effort of the season and Alford played the best game he's played since arguably Kentucky, the Bruins looked once again like a team capable of doing big things.
Hamilton continued his season-long resurgence on offense, again throwing in a variety of runners and floaters in addition to a few true jump shots to put up 22 points. There was a real focus early on getting him the ball, which makes so much sense that we wish UCLA had started to make him the primary offensive focus earlier. Hamilton shot the ball six times in the first ten minutes, and there were clear attempts to work the ball to him to get it to him in good spots. He actually didn't shoot it well early, funnily enough, which was a big part of why the game was closer than it should have been in the first half, but we like the idea even if it didn't work out.
Earlier this year, against Gonzaga, Bolden did a lot of work out of the low post and that was arguably his best game of the year. We'd really like to see that return, especially if he is to remain in the starting lineup. Offensively, he's just not a good jump shooter at this stage of his development. Maybe that comes later on, but earlier this year, he showed really nice playmaking ability out of the low post, whether it was dishing to Welsh under the basket, kicking the ball out to open shooters, or even using his quickness and athleticism to score. He shot one of seven in this one, largely because he spent most of the game floating to the perimeter and shooting jumpers that didn't have much of a chance.
Holiday didn't have a good offensive game and looked like he was pressing a bit after playing with a ton of confidence over most of January. He had four turnovers, and most of them were unforced. In this game, it didn't much matter that he was a little bit off, but UCLA will need him to play with that confidence he showed in January if it's going to make a run over the final month of the regular season.
In the end, UCLA split a home stand when it really needed to sweep. There were some pretty obvious positive signs in the Washington State win, but we've seen UCLA show effort and focus at times this season only to fall back to old habits in subsequent contests. The Bruins now go on the road for three straight games, at USC, at Arizona, and at Arizona State, and they'll likely be dogs in two of the three games. If UCLA plays hard and focused, the Bruins could absolutely sweep through those three games, especially now that UCLA has shown a willingness to start Bolden over Parker.