Thursday was, at least according to our preview by the great Rob Carpentier, UCLA's first game against a real opponent this year, but it certainly resembled the cupcake slate in terms of its result, with the Bruins winning comfortably 99-77.
It wasn't a completely easy win, though, as the first half saw UCLA in a fairly close one against the Pilots, with Portland taking the lead a couple of times thanks to a barrage of three-pointers, and some slight offensive stagnation for UCLA. Portland had some decent size inside, and some good shooters outside, so those two factors provided a decent first-half test for UCLA.
UCLA's first-half defense was very bad, with the Bruins defending ball screens very poorly. Basically all of the guards, but especially Bryce Alford and, weirdly, Aaron Holiday, did a poor job both rotating and fighting through screens, which left Portland with countless wide open jumpers. Luckily, even before UCLA started defending screens slightly better in the second half, Portland started to go cold toward the end of the first half, which gave UCLA an 8-point halftime lead that the Bruins would not relinquish.
Alford's issue was mostly that he was more or less absent on help side defense, which has been a theme for him throughout his UCLA career. Holiday, for his part, struggled to get around screens, and as was called out on the broadcast, got caught up too easily by the screener. Basically everyone was bad, though, and the end result was a lot of wide open perimeter shots for Portland. UCLA is trying to run a form of packline defense, but it wasn't much of a success on Thursday.
Last year, we could easily imagine this turning into a really competitive game down the stretch of the second half, but this team is quite a bit more potent offensively, and the Bruins were once again a very good three-point shooting team. So much of that has to do with the incredible ball movement that is becoming the norm, through this cupcake slate at least. Lonzo Ball's passing has been contagious, and while he had 11 assists, guys like Isaac Hamilton, Holiday, and even T.J. Leaf all shared the ball well and made the extra pass to find the open man. The Bruins basically blew the game wide open to start the second half, and never looked back.
We do have to just take a second to talk about Ball's passing again. This point was made on the broadcast, but it bears repeating -- he has such a natural feel, that he not only throws pinpoint passes so that guys can start shooting basically immediately after the catch, but he also is such a maestro that he finds guys at their most natural spots on the floor. Thomas Welsh is standing approximately 14 feet from the basket and facing it? He gets the ball. Hamilton is drifting on the perimeter with his man playing a few feet off of him? He gets the ball. We'll continue to throw out the caveat that he hasn't faced real high major defenders yet, but given how well he's played offensively through these five cupcake games, we're inclined to believe he'll be just fine. He's a special offensive talent.
Leaf showed a lot of skill around the basket in this one. It wasn't his highest scoring game, but he made some nice shots off the glass and showed good touch. If Ball weren't such a revelation, Leaf would be getting quite a bit more attention, because he's been very good so far this season as well. Welsh, for his part, had his best game of the season going against Portland's legitimate size, shooting a blistering 8 of 10 and also affecting quite a few shots on the defensive end (credited with only one block, but those little guards for Portland were basically forced to get theirs from the perimeter because of Welsh's length).
On the flip side, this was probably Hamilton's worst game of the season, and probably Alford's as well. Hamilton has improved in so many aspects of his offensive game, but he's still not a good ball handler and he got in trouble when he tried to take more than a few dribbles. Unless he has a wide open lane to the hoop, he shouldn't take more than a couple dribbles, especially playing alongside a passer like Ball, who will surely find him on cuts to the hoop. Alford, for his part, forced some shots and didn't play great defense against screens, like we talked about earlier. His effort looked a little better at points, especially in terms of positional defense, but any time he has to rotate or pick up someone else, the defense seems to fall apart.
Holiday pressed a bit both times he came into the game, forcing up a couple of quick shots, but he settled down each time and played pretty good offensive ball. It's going to be a challenge for him all season to accept this role, but if he can embrace it, he will give UCLA's second unit a really interesting change of pace, since he plays defense better than anyone in the starting lineup, and is probably the best driver on the team, even if he did press a few times in this game.
It's going to be really interesting to see this team against elite high majors. We liked Portland before the game, and the Pilots could end up a pretty good WCC team, but it obviously remains to be seen exactly how good they are. They certainly seemed a bit more competent than the Long Beach States of the world, so there's that. We're mostly circling that game against Kentucky now, since that's the obvious step up in competition.
This is a genuinely intriguing team right now. While we don't think this team can realize its fullest potential until it becomes at least an average defensive team, and commits to playing hard on that end, this offense is probably the best of the Alford era, and our thinking is that'll give UCLA a minimum of a puncher's chance against even elite teams that play great offense and great defense. Obviously, if this team doesn't start to play better defense, and history says that the Bruins probably won't, this team could prove to be incredibly frustrating, because the offensive potential is clearly immense.
But it's been fun to watch through the first five games, and given how unwatchable the football team has been this season, we're willing to settle for fun, at least for now.