If you were one of those fans holding out hope that suddenly, over the last four games of the season, the Bruins would rid themselves of their bad habits and drastically elevate their play, Thursday night's 75-63 loss to California was a wake-up call.
In what was probably the biggest game of the year for the Bruins, UCLA gave a sporadic, disjointed effort that was marked by some inattentive defense, bad shots on offense, and just the overwhelming sense that Cal -- somehow, some way -- was simply a better, more athletic team.
Cal's length and athleticism on both ends of the floor might have been too much for UCLA to handle even if the Bruins gave one of their best efforts, which they did not. Especially on defense, it seemed like every one of UCLA's guards had a longer, stronger player guarding them. The only UCLA guard who played particularly well was Aaron Holiday, and that stands to reason given that Holiday is one of the few Bruin players who has the athleticism to match up against teams like Cal. The Bruins finished the game shooting 40% from the field, and it was really only that high because Cal fell into a few defensive lulls in the second half.
It was kind of a weird game from a coaching perspective. UCLA played mostly man defense in the opening three or four minutes, which was probably questionable. The only player on UCLA's roster with a hope of guarding any of Jaylen Brown, Ivan Rabb, or really even Tyrone Wallace effectively is Jonah Bolden, and as far as we know, UCLA hasn't completed the cloning process with Bolden yet. This game screamed for a zone, and the first four minutes underscored that, as Cal shot out to a 13-1 lead. Coincidentally or not, that ended up being the margin of defeat. The zone really stymied Cal shortly after that, and the Bruins played the Bears basically even the rest of the game, but that opening stretch, when UCLA was mostly in man, was a killer.
This game also marked the unfortunate return of November Isaac Hamilton. Hamilton, who has played so well over the last three months, had one of his worst games in a while on Thursday. That stats say he only had two turnovers, but it felt like at least a couple more, and he forced the issue on offense a number of times in the second half, trying to hit a variety of fall away runners. That seemed to snowball a little bit on defense, too, where he wasn't as energetic as he's shown he can be this season. It's not uncommon to see players start to gun it a little bit toward the end of a disappointing overall season, but it's still not fun to watch. Hopefully that's not what's happening here.
Bryce Alford was guilty of many of the same issues as Hamilton. He hit a couple of shots in the second half after having a really poor first half shooting the ball, and then he just started launching, which went predictably poorly. He and Hamilton really killed UCLA's momentum in the second half when, down by 7 at around the 12 minute mark, the two combined to miss three forced jumpers and a bad turnover for Hamilton. Alford missed way too many free throws down the stretch as well. His defense was also very poor, even in the zone, where he was very lethargic and rarely got into a defensive position. It was a really poor game for him.
Tony Parker actually had a better offensive game than I thought he would against Cal's long shot blockers. He was able to power through Cal a fair amount to score, and UCLA probalby should have tried to work the ball through him even more than they did considering the success he had. Defensively, he had the typical Parker issues, where he'd get caught napping on occasion. Thomas Welsh hit the glass really well, but wasn't efficient offensively, and missed too many of his mid-range jumpers. He looked rushed on a few of them -- there was one where he looked like he shot it off the heel of his hand.
Jonah Bolden, like we said above, also fit on the court with the Cal athletes, and he was a big part of the zone success UCLA had inside, with his length bothering Cal on a lot of their drives to the hoop. He had one really egregious play where he saved the ball under UCLA's hoop and passed it to a Cal player for a dunk, but otherwise he did a lot of nice things defensively.
Holiday was probably UCLA's best player on both ends, though. He helped get UCLA back into it late with a couple of really solid minutes that pushed the score to 59-55, and he was one of the few Bruins who tried on defense the entire night. He only turned the ball over twice, which is impressive for him against Cal's length and athleticism. Holiday had been slumping a little bit of late, so hopefully this game was a sign that he's ready to finish the year strong.
Prince Ali had a poor game and just didn't look ready for the stakes of a game like this. He air balled a three, had a bad turnover, and just looked completely out of sorts. Gyorgy Goloman didn't make much of an impact, and he really needs to work on his positioning so he doesn't get called for as many fouls.
UCLA is now 15-13 on the season, and the Bruins are 6-9 in conference, which will ensure that UCLA does not end up with a winning conference record in year three under Steve Alford. At this point, the odds of making the NCAA Tournament are extremely remote. To get an at-large bid, you'd have to figure that UCLA would need to not only win out through the regular season, but probably make it to the championship game of the Pac-12 Tournament. That would entail winning six straight games, and that's just, point blank, not something this Bruins team is capable of.
So, really, the hopes for the NCAA Tournament rest on what UCLA does in Las Vegas. Stranger things have certainly happened than a team with as many talented pieces as UCLA suddenly getting hot in a single elimination tournament, but it's hard to see it at this point. This team struggles far too much with the basics of quality basketball to think that it can suddenly beat a lot of teams that have blown it out this year.
On the bright side, we'll maybe get to finally settle the question of how many UCLA fans will show up to a home NIT game in March.