UCLA lost by 19 points to USC on Thursday, and perhaps the most distressing thing for UCLA fans is just how business-like it was. The Trojans methodically built a lead throughout the game, UCLA never really threatened, and it was clear to anyone watching which team was the fundamentally better one, even throwing out our season-long mantra about focus and effort.
USC was simply a better team -- more athletic, more poised, more focused, more intense. The Trojans dictated the pace of the game for long stretches and simply out-classed UCLA in many different areas. UCLA neved led in the game, and the game was never tied after the opening tip.
The game underscored many of the failures UCLA had on the recruiting trail through Steve Alford's first three years in Westwood. This time, instead of Chimezie Metu going off for 21 points as he did in the last matchup between these two teams, it was Elijah Stewart, another local prospect UCLA was late on, that poured in some critical buckets off the bench. Jordan McLaughlin, a point guard who UCLA didn't prioritize to the extent it should have, keyed a number of fast break baskets with his quick hands on defense, and then kept the up-tempo Trojans under control on the offensive end. If you squinted at the screen, you might almost have convinced yourself you were watching an alternate world UCLA team, one where the Bruins had spent the last three years prioritiziing the West Coast in much the same way that they seem to be doing in 2016, 2017 and beyond.
UCLA's effort and focus wasn't actually an eye sore in this one, judging on the relative scale of this season. As Rob Carpentier pointed out in his preview, though, playing hard and focused wasn't going to be enough, in and of itself, to beat the Trojans -- USC would need to have an off game. USC absolutely did not have an off game, and instead played probably the best defense that UCLA has faced this year. The Bruins were limited to just under 35% shooting despite pulling in a pretty impressive 17 offensive rebounds that should have resulted in a number of putbacks. The only player who was able to get clean looks consistently was Aaron Holiday, and it's no coincidence that he also happens to be the quickest and most athletic UCLA player.
The Bruins did turn the ball over a ton, but most of that was due to the active defense of USC. The Trojans do really simple things, like keeping their hands up and active, that prevent basically any easy passes. UCLA guards turned the ball over a number of times in this one attempting simple entry passes over or around the man in front of them. In total, UCLA had 14 turnovers, including 10 by Holiday and Isaac Hamilton, who had his worst game since the early going of the season.
Bryce Alford didn't shoot the ball well, missing 10 of his 13 shots, and while he gave better effort on defense than he has at times this year, USC made some obvious attempts to get him caught in mismatches at times, with Stewart and Katin Reinhardt both using their size at times to shoot over him or, in Stewart's case at one point, somehow getting Alford lined up on the low block in a post situation. Alford controlled the ball better than the other UCLA guards, but this was a game where UCLA really needed him to hit more of his shots, with so many other players, including Hamilton, unable to hit much of anything.
Hamilton pressed more in this one. He's been so good this year, since the opening five games of the season, at picking his spots and not forcing the issue, so this was an unfortunate return to old habits for him. The athleticism and length that USC had on the inside seemed to hurt him a bit, and it forced him to do more of his work from the perimeter. When he tried to drive, his handle issues were apparent, and, again, the length of USC bothered him. Hamilton's confidence is key, and hopefully this performance doesn't have too much of an effect on him, since he's been having a very good year.
Holiday, like we mentioned above, was the one UCLA player who seemed to fit on the court with the USC athletes, and he was able to make an impact on both ends. He was basically the only reason the game didn't get completely ugly from the opening tip, scoring UCLA's first seven points and assisting on the eight and ninth. His effort was exceptional most of the game. He did have some unfortunate turnovers, as we mentioned, but he was absolutely a net positive for the game.
Thomas Welsh is approaching enigma status, particularly when it comes to rebounding. On the offensive end in this one, he was tenacious on the glass, repeatedly going over or around USC players to clean up the boards. On the defensive side, though, he was passive, allowing the same thing to happen to him and not effectively boxing out or using his size to clear space. Defensively, there were just too many times when USC players were able to drive into the lane unmolested, and Welsh simply needs to alter more shots as a 7-footer. There's plenty to like about him, obviously, with his very good jumper and fundamentals, but he needs to play with more strength and toughness inside.
Jonah Bolden was plagued by foul trouble, which was really unfortunate because it took away one of the UCLA players who could hope to match the athleticism of USC. In his place, Gyorgy Goloman got many more minutes, and that wasn't a great trade off. It seems like UCLA might have a different idea about Goloman's skillset than anybody watching, or perhaps Goloman doesn't have a great idea what his role should be, but let's be clear here: UCLA probably shouldn't be ending any offensive possessions with Goloman jump shots at this stage of his development. His shot doesn't look good, and, more importantly for the results-driven folk, his shot doesn't go in much. He actually did nice work on the glass, and showed good toughness inside, so hopefully that's something to build on.
Speaking of guys who don't seem to have a great feel for their role at this point, Prince Ali really seemed out of sorts against USC. Again, along with Holiday and Bolden, Ali is the one athlete for UCLA who can hope to match up agains the Trojans, but he was out of control for most of the game, taking deep jumpers when that's really not his game at this point and then driving to the hoop when there wasn't an obvious opportunity to do so. One of his missed threes toward the end of the first half led to an immediate run-out for McLaughlin, who found Reinhardt for a wide open three that he nailed to make the score 30-19. At this point, you'd like to see him just embrace the idea of being a good defender and use that to fuel his offense.
Tony Parker again brought relatively good effort and intensity in his second game off the bench, so you have to give him credit for that. He again had trouble finishing inside against the length and athleticism of USC, but he was the most efficient UCLA post player and finished with 13 points in just 14 minutes.
Anyway, the Bruins are in pretty rough shape as far as NCAA Tournament resumes go. UCLA, at 13-10, has eight games remaining, including four on the road, and probably needs to go 5-3 or better to have a shot at an at-large bid to the Tournament. That'll be tough to do, but obviously stranger things have happened in the history of UCLA basketball.