Friday night's win over Nebraska was encouraging in many ways, but discouraging in a few others.
First, on the encouraging side of things, UCLA notched a double-digit win over probably its best, most athletic opponent of the season. Nebraska looks like a solid, mid-tier Big Ten team, with some good athletes, especially at the guard spots, and the Bruins were able to handle that to the tune of an 11-point win. That's good -- beating big conference opponents, even ones without much basketball tradition like Nebraska, is always a good sign.
UCLA also did that while being forced to play mostly a half court, grinding style of game. Nebraska clearly came into the game with a mission of uglying things up for the Bruins, playing tough half-court defense and using a ton of shot clock, especially in the first half. The Cornhuskers actually opened things up a bit more in the second half to cut UCLA's lead, but for the period when the game was truly a slowdown, ugly game (effectively the entire first half), UCLA had a 13-point lead. While Nebraska looked like they'd maybe overthought things in the first half, and weren't really running their offense while trying to run out a full 30 seconds of the shot clock every time down the court, UCLA's defense also had something to do with that, as the Bruins came out with probably their best half of defensive effort this season.
The issues really popped up in the second half, and it probably had something to do with Nebraska adjusting its offensive approach for the second half. After going perhaps overly patient in the first half, Nebraska went much more to simple attacking drives, isolation plays, and pick-and-roll in the second half, and that attack -- again, by a mid-level Big Ten team -- dismantled UCLA's man defense. After the Bruins had a 13-point lead at the half, UCLA found itself up just 2 with under ten minutes to go in the game.
There were many culprits for UCLA's issues during that stretch. First, you have to give credit to Nebraska for recognizing the problem with its offensive approach in the first half and then correcting it. But UCLA's effort level also wasn't as good in the second half as it was in the first half -- and while we don't want to give benefit of the doubt to an Alford-led UCLA squad with respect to defensive effort, since that's been his bugaboo for years, keep in mind that this was the fourth half of basketball UCLA had played in about 24 hours. Coupled with that, UCLA just wasn't as sharp defensively, with guards getting beat off the dribble with ease (Lonzo Ball, in particular, had some issues staying in front of his man) and the bigs having trouble rotating over to help.
Ultimately, UCLA had to go with a zone for most of the last ten minutes, and while we think it was sharp for Steve Alford to recognize that he needed to do that from a tactical perspective, it's a significant concern that UCLA had to zone, again, a mid-level Big Ten team to pull out the win. Alford said before the year that he wanted this to be about an 80% man defense team, but it's hard to see UCLA getting to that point without some major improvements over the coming weeks -- and we're really skeptical those improvements will come, since we have three years of data under Alford indicating that his teams don't improve a great deal defensively.
Now, UCLA won a game over an opponent we freely acknowledge is decent, so you might, rightly, ask why we're focusing on the negative. Here's the thing: the goal of this season is not simply to beat the Nebraskas of the world and get to a Sweet 16. It's pretty obvious that Ball, T.J. Leaf, and, at least from a brief glimpse, Ike Anigbogu are a special group of freshmen, and the offensive production of this team is potentially world class -- the kind of offense that could propel a team to a Final Four and a shot at a national championship. But the defense is going to be the limiting factor if the Bruins can't get it corrected. Right now, according to KenPom, UCLA's defense is 60th in the country in defensive efficiency. The last team with that poor of a defense to make the Final Four was VCU in 2011, and the last team before that was Marquette in 2003. Maybe UCLA can buck odds and ride in with a top 60-ish defense, but history is not in the Bruins' favor unless they can improve their defense and get it at least into the top 30 range. And it's clear that the offensive talent and potential is that of a Final Four team, so it'll be very frustrating if a consistent lack of defensive effort and focus keeps UCLA from making a serious run.
But, for this game alone, the encouraging things probably outweigh the discouraging things. As with Portland, we could have easily seen this game being a loss last year, but UCLA was able to put together enough offensive production to keep Nebraska at bay for most of the game. This was a relatively poor shooting night for the Bruins by the standards of this season, and UCLA still shot nearly 40% from three and 50% from the field. Bryce Alford missed all six of his three pointers and still UCLA won the game by a double-digit margin.
Ball continues to be very impressive offensively. He was clearly a bit more tired in this one and wasn't quite as sharp to open the game, but he was UCLA's most reliable three-point shooter (he's now shooting 50% on the season) and still had seven assists. He obviously needs work in man defense, but the effort has mostly been there this year, and for a freshman, that's pretty good.
Leaf is probably not getting enough attention for how good he has been this season, and this wasn't close to his best game, but he still did a lot of good things offensively. We were concerned that the spacing on the floor would be an issue when he was playing alongside Welsh, since they both love the mid-range game, but Leaf has shown he can comfortably work anywhere on the floor. He has a really nice stroke on his jump shot, but also has shown the ability to work around the hoop with good skill. He's the most well-rounded offensive four UCLA has had in a long time.
Isaac Hamilton followed up his poor game against Portland with another iffy game against Nebraska. He missed a lot of open shots, which happens, but once again put the ball on the floor too much and showed off his general lack of handle. He played within himself so well in the back half of last season, and it would be a shame to see him backslide into what he looked like at the beginning of last year. Hopefully he's just in a bit of a funk and will snap out of it. His defense, for what it's worth, has been decent, relative to the rest of the guards. Aaron Holiday played within himself more than he has this year, which was good to see.
Alford, even though his long range jumpshot wasn't falling, made some key shots down the stretch to keep Nebraska from ever closing within striking distance. He made a lot of tough mid-range shots and layups in this one, and he looks physically stronger than he has during his UCLA career, which allows him to make some tougher shots close in than he would have been able to in years past. It can be frustrating to watch him play hero ball at times, but in this game, he made a lot of the shots and helped carry UCLA to the win.
Thomas Welsh and Ike Anigbogu didn't provide much of an interior presence for that weird ten-minute stretch to start the second half, but prior to that and after that, they adjusted quite a few shots and blocked a few more. Welsh also reliably knocked down his mid-range shots and cleaned up the defensive glass well. We liked what we saw out of Anigbogu, though it was only a glimpse. He's a big, athletic guy, and if his one jumpshot is any indication, he's made progress in his offensive game since even his senior year. Gyorgy Goloman also contributed with a couple of blocks, but as Anigbogu gets more comfortable, we would imagine Goloman's minutes will reduce.
Now, UCLA advances to take on Texas A&M on Sunday, and the Aggies should provide another solid athletic test for the Bruins. Obviously, the biggest thing to watch going forward is how UCLA handles high-major teams defensively. If UCLA has to go heavily zone against the Aggies as well, that's a worrying sign, because, again, that might put a hard cap on UCLA's potential this season.