UCLA beat Colorado handily on Saturday night thanks to a very effective zone defense and torrid shooting that was the result of some of the best ball movement UCLA has displayed in quite some time.
The final score was 77-53, and it really didn't even feel that close. UCLA shot the ball extremely well, especially from three, and Colorado, thanks to a combination of really bad offensive play and really good defensive play from the Bruins, shot extremely poorly, making just 10 of 36 two-point shots. The only reason the Buffs were even in it for a stretch of time was because they were pretty good from three, hitting 50% of their shots.
This was an absolute must-win for UCLA (just like every other game remaining this season), and the Bruins played one of their best games of the season.
Steve Alford made a few changes in this game that seemed to pay dividends. First, Tony Parker moved into the starting lineup in place of Thomas Welsh. That seemed to get Parker going a little bit offensively, and he was much more engaged overall than on Thursday, when he looked like he was sleep-walking a bit. He finished with 16 points and six rebounds, and even shot the ball somewhat well from the free throw line, hitting four of six foul shots. Welsh played well, too, so it's hard to say how much of a factor switching the lineup was, but if it helped Parker remain engaged, it was a good move.
The second move was more significant, and that was switching primarily to a zone defense for this game. It might seem counter-intuitive to zone a team that shoots as well from three as Colorado, but, as Steve Lavin pointed out on the telecast (and holy god, it feels awful to cite Lavin), the Bruins were flexing the wings up a little bit to deny the three more than a typical zone. That opened up the mid-range for Colorado, but the Buffs were basically unable to hit with consistency from mid-range all game. UCLA's length on the interior seemed to bother Colorado all game, with Jonah Bolden making a pretty big impact defensively even if he didn't do a whole lot offensively.
UCLA limited Colorado's true post players (Josh Scott, Wesley Gordon, and Tory Miller) to five of 24 shooting. It seemed like UCLA had scouted Colorado pretty well, as the Bruins basically allowed Miller to do anything he wanted with the ball on offense, and all too often, he did something really bad, like forcing a bad running shot or turning the ball over. Colorado actually got a good amount of offensive rebounds in the first half, but they often bounced into the hands of the post players, who didn't kick it out and instead forced up bad, quick shots.
Even if UCLA hadn't been incredibly efficient offensively, UCLA's defensive effort probably would have been enough to beat Colorado. That UCLA was so incredibly efficient offensively made this game a laugher pretty early in the second half.
Isaac Hamilton had an unbelievable first half, making 7 of 8 shots, including 3 of 3 from three, to finish the half with 17 points. He looked very comfortable on offense, as he has much of this year. He only took four shots in the second half, but still finished with 22 points. If it had been a more competitive game, he probably could have pushed for 30.
Bryce Alford and Aaron Holiday did a great job distributing the ball on Saturday. The two guards combined for 16 assists, and overall, UCLA had an exceptional 3:1 assist to turnover ratio. Holiday had a few of those unforced turnovers, but this was a better performance than he's had in a few games. He didn't force shots, nailed a couple of threes, and actually distributed well. Alford, for his part, also did a great job facilitating, especially in the first half. He also played with good defensive effort for the most part.
Once again, Prince Ali just looked more under control than he did earlier in the year. His free throw shooting definitely needs some work. He missed all four attempts on Saturday, and just seemed very rushed in his routine. With his game being built so much around powerful drives to the hoop, you would just assume he was a better free throw shooter than he is. He once again nailed a three on Saturday, and also played solid defense.
As a general caveat, yes, UCLA played one of its good games on Saturday, but Colorado also played one of its worst games. Rob wrote in his preview about motivation, and a big question for this game was whether UCLA, coming off of a disappointing loss at home, would be more motivated than Colorado, coming off a devastating loss to USC after squandering a double-digit second half lead. Very clearly, UCLA was the more engaged and motivated team on Saturday, by a wide, wide margin.
As we wrote above, this was a must-win game for UCLA. Any possibility UCLA has of earning an at-large bid based on its regular season performance will be dependent on winning out, and the Bruins got the first leg of that job done on Saturday. The thing is, the remaining four games are not easy ones. The only bad team left on the schedule is Stanford, and the Cardinal, like most teams, can be a bit frisky at home. California is playing as well as anyone in the conference right now, Stanford beat Oregon at home just a week ago, Oregon is a terrible matchup for the Bruins, and it's always a question whether Oregon State's disciplined play will be too much for a team like UCLA to handle. The point is, it's nowhere near as easy a stretch as UCLA had to close the year last year, when the Bruins beat Washington, Washington State, and USC in the final three games.
If UCLA can somehow sweep through those four games, I'd go so far as to say the Bruins would pretty likely be in the NCAA Tournament field. There are three top-50 RPI teams left on the schedule, including Oregon, which is top 10. California is top 20. Oregon State is comfortably top 50. If you add in those wins to the Kentucky, Arizona, and Gonzaga victories, that's a better resume than UCLA had last season, when the Bruins made the Tournament.
We haven't seen anything to indicate, though, that the Bruins are capable of winning the next four games. If we've learned anything about this team, it's that they cannot be counted on for anything consistently, especially effort. At this point, I'd guess that UCLA splits both of the remaining series, with a win over Stanford and a loss to California, along with a win over Oregon State and a loss to Oregon. That would put UCLA at 17-14, and at that point, the only hope the Bruins would have of making the Tournament would be winning the Pac-12 Tournament.
It was a nice win over Colorado on Saturday, but we haven't seen anything from this team to believe it was anything other than a brief peak on this weird roller-coaster of a season.