It was just about the performance you’d expect in a trap-type situation, with UCLA eventually blowing out a pretty bad UC Riverside, 98-56.
Riverside might have been the worst opponent UCLA has faced so far this season. It was almost as if they didn’t have a frontcourt and Thomas Welsh and T.J. Leaf were doing shadow rebounding drills. The players Riverside put on the floor for 20 minutes or more were 6-1, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3, 6-5, and 6-10. The 6-10 player was Alex Larsson, and he played 20 minutes, scored three points and hauled in a total of 2 rebounds. Their other person of size, Menno Dijkstra, who is 7-0, played 16 minutes, scored 2 points and had 3 rebounds. Riverside's two leading rebounders on the night were guards, Chance Murray (7) and Secean Johnson (6), and they got 13 rebounds merely because Riverside didn’t have anyone in the paint rebounding and the ball just occasionally bounced to them, as it will.
If you look at a boxscore, you’d take away that Isaac Hamilton was the difference-making player for UCLA, scoring 27 points on 7 of 12 shooting from three. And it’s true, it was an absolutely fantastic shooting performance from Hamilton.
But really, the difference in this game was UCLA’s size. Welsh and Leaf dominated the basket, with Riverside scoring just 14 points in the paint. When a team that can’t shoot well has any shot from within 12 feet taken away from it, it’s going to shoot 30% from the field, which is what Riverside did. At one point pretty deep into the first half, Riverside was 1 for 13, which amounts to a shooting percentage of 8%. Welsh and Leaf could probably throw a rock from Pauley Pavilion’s roof and hit a couple of post players who were better than Riverside’s.
Both Welsh and Leaf came away with double-doubles, with Welsh scoring 12 and getting 12 rebounds, and Leaf 18 and 10, in just 25 and 27 minutes.
It’s clear that, since his return, freshman center Ike Anigbogu is going to take up a good deal of the bench post minutes, and it was a good thing to get him some work in this game, even though he could have gotten better competition by walking into any rec game in the West L.A. area. He only played 10 minutes, and perhaps he’s on a minutes limit while he still recovers, because it would have made sense to play him 20+ just to get him more court experience. Gyorgy Goloman didn’t play against Riverside after spraining an ankle against Texas A&M, and it was good to get him rested up because he would have gotten nothing out of playing this game.
The other aspect of the game that stood out was the great synergy between Leaf and Lonzo Ball. While Ball is a player who has synergy with just about anyone on the court (heck, if he played with Riverside’s frontcourt he’d probably make them look good), it appears that he and Leaf are having a type of E.T./Elliott psychic connection, playing off each other like they are 10-year NBA teammates. Ball, of course, is a great passer, so he makes it all happen, but you have to give a huge amount of credit to Leaf, who has an uncanny knack of anticipating where he should be and making great cuts to the basket in anticipation of a Ball pass. Man, if you're Leaf, that sounds like so much fun. There was one play with about 4 minutes left in the game, when UCLA was up by 40 or so and at at time in a blowout when nothing that happens on the court means anything – but this was different: Leaf cut to the basket on the weakside of the court and Ball found him with a needle-threading chest pass that had about a mili-second of a chance to reach a cutting Leaf. That might have been the prettiest play I’ve seen from a UCLA team in 9 years. There is so much synergy here between the two that Leaf, who is an excellent passer for his size, is giving back to his buddy Ball, throwing alley-oops to him, like he did in this game.
For years we’ve been using the word “feel” when evaluating a recruit, and it sounded so much like empty jargon to a reader, but Ball and Leaf are illustrating just what a feel for the game really is at its highest level.
Don’t look now, but while Ball is climbing various NBA Draft projections for 2017 (he’s shot up from late Lottery pick to top three in most projections), the guys who do those projections would be remiss not to have Leaf listed somewhere in the first round. He, of course, needs to get so much stronger to play in the NBA, but the League is now drafting players on pure upside, and we’d have to think by the end of the season, if he continues to play like this – or even get better, which is absolutely possible and probable – he’s going to start appearing on some 2017 NBA Draft projections.
Against Riverside, the Bruins showed an ebb and flow of effort and intensity. At one point mid-way through the first half, the energy on the court was the equivalent to one of those sleep machines that play calming music. Everyone seemed like they were in slow motion, and it appeared that UCLA was resting up for the Kentucky game – literally on the court while they were playing Riverside.
At about the five-minute mark, the score was 31-25, and UCLA was playing at about half-speed. Luckily, the media timeout happened at the 3:35 mark, and UCLA came out of that timeout like coach Steve Alford had given them a shot of expresso (I think I saw the trainers handing them out on the bench during that break). UCLA put together an 11-0 run from that point on, mostly by turning up the energy on defense. Riverside didn’t convert on five straight possessions, the Bruins went to the half up 42-27 and the rout was on. In the first five minutes of the second half, the intensity level wasn’t quite what was in those last 3 minutes, but Riverside pretty much rolled over. UCLA just about doubled Riverside's first half point total in those first five minutes of the second half, going up 53-31.
It happened in an avalanche mostly because Riverside couldn’t get any kind of decent look from anywhere within 15 feet of the basket because of UCLA’s size inside, Riverside didn’t seem to recognize that Hamilton was going on a near-career bender and left him wide open for Ball to find, and that synergy between Ball and Leaf.
Aaron Holiday, again, had a typical Holiday game. He makes some mistakes, turns over the ball after driving to nowhere, but then goes through a sequence in which he’s the best player on the court. He has become a dead-eye shooter, shooting a scorching 52% from three, going 3 for 5 in this game. His stat line was very revealing – 18 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds and 5 turnovers. He had 5 of UCLA’s total 12 turnovers. His role of coming off the bench with so much energy, defense and scoring ability is absolutely deflating to opponents. When he comes in the game, usually at the 13-minute mark of the first half, he’s an Energizer bunny playing against an already fatigued opponent’s backcourt.
Bryce Alford is getting in a bit of a pattern, starting off games not shooting well, and not necessarily looking for his shot. So far this season, he heats up later in the game, but that didn't happen against UCR. He scored just 5 points on 1 of 6 shooting, and Riverside concentrated on taking Alford out of this game. Right now it appears that opposing defenses are doing this, to take away his outside shot as much as possible, and Alford is struggling a bit with that at times. The good thing that comes out of this: if defenses are trying to take away Alford's offense, it's leaving other Bruins open to score. And to his credit, Alford is less and less trying to "get his." He's forcing shots and drives less, seemingly buying into the Ball culture of unselfishness. Being just as effective as a decoy as he is a scorer, if he can continue with this buy-in, and hopefully doesn't at one point think he needs to "get his," this is a significant contribution to the team winning that doesn't necessarily show up on the boxscore.
One of the coolest, most-refreshing stat lines I remember seeing on a UCLA box score is Ball’s from this game – 5 points (on 2 of 3 shooting), 13 assists and 1 turnover. Ball didn’t take a shot in this game until a breakaway dunk after a steal with just a couple minutes left in the first half. He had five assists in the first five minutes. After getting some national attention since his MVP performance in the Wooden Legacy, Ball could have come out against Riverside gunning it, and put up 30 to grab more headlines. But he clearly wanted to set up his teammates and work on that offensive synergy, and it appeared to pay off, with that connection between him and Leaf blossoming before our eyes.
Another cool stat: UCLA is leading the nation in assists per game (24.8), and is three assists ahead of second-place Memphis, and that clearly is because of Ball. Not only because of his own assists, but because he’s infected the rest of the team, who is now looking to pass and over-passing to find the open shot. When this UCLA team does that in the half-court, rotates the ball with efficiency, and the possession is finished off with a made wide-open three, it truly is a thing of beauty.
Defense, though, is another story. Against Riverside, UCLA’s intensity on defense ebbed and flowed. There are times when UCLA has a combination of players out on the floor and their defensive energy and work ethic are actually good, but most of the time it’s hit and miss, and it goes in trends. UCLA started out this game with a decent amount of defensive effort, then started sleep-walking halfway through the first half, which allowed Riverside to hit some shots. As I said, the last three minutes of the first half, UCLA turned on its defense, and then coasted from there. One worry here: Given UCLA’s overall poor on-ball defense, the strategy now seems to be to almost concede penetration and let UCLA’s bigs clean it up in the paint. It actually probably isn’t a real strategy so much as a crutch, and UCLA’s perimeter players, when they are playing with low energy, rely far too much on UCLA’s bigs cleaning up their mess. That will absolutely work against the Riversides of the world, and probably most of the Pac-12, but not against the Kentuckys, when they can feed their future-NBA bigs after UCLA’s posts have to step in to help, or kick it out to future-NBA guards and wings to hit threes. We understand that sometimes on-ball defense is dependent on athleticism. Okay, fine, let’s say there’s a limit on how good UCLA could get at that based on its overall athleticism in its guards. But we’d be happy if UCLA’s guards merely improved in playing against ball screens, which is almost purely based on coaching and effort. This is the Achilles Heel of this UCLA team and it could be the ceiling on the season. It’s too bad that the difference between a Sweet 16 appearance and something better might come down to just more intensity and focus in its on-ball defense.
So now UCLA takes its show on the road for the first time. It’s the first time this UCLA team will actually board a plane this season. It heads to a big nationally-showcased game against #1-ranked Kentucky in Lexington. It’s Lonzo Ball on the big stage for the first time, with some considerable hype, playing against the best team he’s ever gone up against. It’s too bad that so much of UCLA’s success is dependent on how he performs – but that literally is the case here against Kentucky. In the Wooden Legacy final, he came out against the best team he had faced up until that time, Texas A&M, a little sped up and out-of-sync. Hopefully that experience will keep him composed enough to turn in a good performance in Lexington. If not, all is not lost. It could be a learning experience, something for him to build on for March. Or it could be the moment when Lonzo Ball becomes a nationally-recognized star.