The UCLA basketball team ran over an over-matched and pretty bad NAIA team in The Master’s Tuesday night in an exhibition, 100-58.
Of course, given the level of the competition, there’s very little to take away from the game.
If you watched just the first 10 minutes, perhaps, you could see:
-- The offense is going to be a potent one, with scoring capable coming from both inside and outside, and in transition. UCLA made a concerted effort to get Welsh touches early, and he responded with some nice turn-around jump hooks that look better and more fluid than last season. Welsh ended with just 10 points but played only 20 minutes. If the Bruins can stay disciplined in transition, and not force too much, there will be a huge amount of potential points there, particularly with Ball feeding his array of shooters with good looks from three.
-- The team obviously looked very comfortable together. It’s probably a benefit of the Australia trip, that they seemed to have a feel for each other that would usually be a few games into the season.
-- Ball flashed some brilliance at times, mostly with his instincts and passing capability. Having played in such a wide open style in both his high school and AAU life, you can see he’s most in his element in the open court, and is especially potent because of his ability to rebound himself and then advance the ball up the court quickly for an easy basket. That’s not to say he didn’t look at ease and fluid in the half-court, which he did. He tied for the second-most minutes played at 32, scoring 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting, had 10 rebounds and 6 assists. Of course, in the half-court the issue for him will be his outside shot, going 1-for-6 from three against the Master’s. He’s going to have to take the three if he wants to keep defenses honest in defending his ability to put the ball on the floor. But his impulse to take the forced three is what might get him into a little bit of trouble. It will probably be the theme of the season for Ball – his ability to stay under control and disciplined, and not erode into street-ball type of play.
-- Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton were the same as we know them to be, very good streaky shooters. Alford finished with 22 and Hamilton 17, with Alford 4-for-7 from three and Hamilton 3-for-6. With Ball at the point and doing much of the ball-handling, a key will be to try to keep Alford limited to a few bounces. He doesn’t have to force drives this season with so much offensive potency around him. He'll be devastating if he keeps himself to just catch-and-shoot or just two bounces and shoot.
-- Leaf is clearly very talented – future-NBA talented. He was the primary one early on trying to feed Welsh, with the high-low working a couple of times within the first few minutes of the game. He’s very good in transition, with his length able to get him to the rim more effectively than you might think. In just 20 minutes he had 19 points and 7 rebounds.
-- Aaron Holiday came in off the bench and forced some things, turning the ball over and committing some quick fouls. He looks bigger physically, and is still the primary supplier of athleticism in the backcourt. Hopefully Holiday will transition into his role of first-off-the-bench with composure, because he's going to be needed to be the defensive spark.
-- UCLA’s bench is extremely limited. Relieving Welsh at center is Gyorgy Goloman and we’re skeptical whether he truly is a center and whether he can provide meaningful minutes against good opponents. Alex Olesinski also subbed in for the frontcourt and the level of his talent didn’t overshadow the Master’s players like the rest of the Bruins. Goloman and Olesinski will occasionally do something good, like Olesinski hitting a three, but until freshman center Ike Anigbogu returns from his meniscus tear, when UCLA tries to give Welsh and Leaf a rest there’s going to be a considerable drop-off. The #1 thing to avoid this season: Welsh getting in foul trouble. In the backcourt, the bench is only Holiday until Prince Ali returns. UCLA’s depth has already been impacted by the injuries to Anigbogu and Ali; any more injuries this season, particularly to its front court, could be devastating because of the lack of a good bench.
-- Again, if you were still watching by the time the game clock was under 10 minutes in the first half, you were doing it not to get anything from it but just to watch UCLA roll over a very weak opponent and see some alley-oops. The game devolved quickly, which was a shame because it was really interesting to watch UCLA’s first handful of possessions when they were still under control and trying to run an offense. After that, it was an up-and-down AAU-style game. UCLA, in getting hyped up to run against such a poor team, got sloppy, committing 20 turnovers, most of those in transition.
Last year, UCLA’s defense was pretty abysmal, and this year how improved the defense is will be the biggest determining factor in how far this explosive team can go. We’re always skeptical about the notion of any team whose mission is to win by always just out-scoring its opponent, rather than playing sound defense. This team will obviously be able to score; it’s just going to be a matter of whether they can defend, and it was impossible to discern anything defensively about the Bruins Tuesday night. They played man for those first decent 10 minutes of the game, and it seemed the team was trying to exert some energy defensively, but there were some effort-lapses in staying in front of the ball and getting back in transition. If Holiday isn’t on the floor, there will probably be the same issue of perimeter defenders being able to stay in front of their man. Ball has some capability to do that because of his length, but when he matches up defensively against quick guards he could be challenged, especially since he tends to take risks defensively instead of playing sound, disciplined on-ball defense. We could see, again, UCLA utilizing a zone quite a bit this season, with the length of Ball and Leaf lending itself to it, and the inability of UCLA’s backcourt to defend in man.
The major takeaway from the Master’s exhibition is that this is Steve Alford’s purely most talented first six since he’s been at UCLA, even given the talent that’s gone through the program in the last three years. Ball and Leaf are probably the most talented combo to see the Pauley Pavilion floor in Bruin uniforms in Alford’s tenure, and they should be fun to watch.
But again, our long-standing mantra: Defense will determine how far this team goes.