If you were just following the score instead of actually watching UCLA's game against Oregon State on Sunday, you might have come away from the first half with the conclusion that UCLA was sleepwalking its way through an early afternoon home game against a very bad opponent. After all, the Beavers tied the game at 24 with just a few minutes to go in the half, and for a team that bad to be tied with UCLA just before half time -- well, we've seen that movie before, right?
Actually watching the game, though, it was obvious that wasn't the case. While UCLA's offense was certainly far colder than usual to start the game (and you have to give some credit to a well-coached Oregon State defense), UCLA's defense, and effort on that end, was arguably better than it has been all year. That first half, from a qualitative perspective, might have been the best defensive half UCLA has played this year, and for that sort of effort to come against a team as bad as Oregon State is completely out of character for UCLA under Steve Alford, and very encouraging.
UCLA led 32-27 at the half, and the 27 points Oregon State scored actually felt somewhat lucky. There was a prayer banked 3 in that collection of points, as well as a couple of other very tough jumpers. Tactically, UCLA caused a lot of issues for the Oregon State offense with a hedging, trapping approach to ball screens in the first half that really harried the Beavers' ball handlers. Toward the end of the first half, UCLA went to a 1-2-2 zone with Lonzo Ball at the top that helped the Bruins extend the lead entering halftime. It was an excellently coached first half, as Steve Alford recognized the lack of skill OSU had and exploited it by forcing the Beavers to make tough passes with a high pressure defense.
The effort was also very good, and much of that was also due to some good work from the coaching staff. Thomas Welsh and Bryce Alford both seemed to play a little soft on defense early, and very quickly Ike Anigbogu and Aaron Holiday came in to shore up the defense. That seemed to be a theme of the game, with Anigbogu especially coming in at moments where OSU seemed to start to get things going around the basket. The physicality he provides inside is something that Welsh simply hasn't been able to bring with consistency in his UCLA career.
The 1-2-2 is a really interesting look for UCLA, as we've talked about previously, and UCLA went to it significantly in the second half. While there were points where it got a little soft, particularly on Alford's wing of it (not necessarily an effort issue, he just doesn't have the ideal length and quickness you'd want), having Ball at the top, with his instincts and length, makes it very tough for teams with weak playmakers to do much of anything. If UCLA had just one other true small forward type, at 6'6 with some length, that type of defense could be tough against pretty much anybody. As it is, if UCLA brings this sort of effort every game, that 1-2-2 could provide a very turnover-friendly look for UCLA to employ at times.
But, that's all tactical. The real reason this was encouraging was that the effort was good, and especially so because this wasn't a marquee game. UCLA showed good effort against Washington a week ago, and then followed that up with a very good win over Oregon at home, and has now followed it with arguably its best defensive effort of the season against Oregon State. We've been bitten too many times to say that this is a major trend for UCLA, but it is encouraging to see this happening with the regular season winding down.
Offensively, UCLA had a very tough first half, struggling to hit shots that it normally makes. Welsh missed a couple of jumpers, Alford and Isaac Hamilton were quiet from three, and there wasn't much besides Ball on offense. In the second half, UCLA started to hit more shots, as you would have predicted, and T.J. Leaf, who seemed a little subdued offensively in the first half, started to assert himself more as a playmaker and on drives. You have to give some credit to Oregon State in the first half, since they are well coached and they were doing a decent job of guarding in the post especially, but UCLA was also just missing a lot of decent, open looks. That just wasn't going to keep up for long.
But, again, the beauty of this game is that even if UCLA hadn't started to hit shots in the second half at the rate the Bruins did, they were still going to win this game by 10+ points. Now, some of that is that Oregon State just isn't very good, but a big part of it is that the defensive effort was very solid basically until laugher time at the end. It's why, even with this exceptional offensive team, we constantly discuss the defense, because effort on that end can be a constant to pull teams through games where they don't hit shots. This team obviously hits shots at a better rate than basically any UCLA team we can remember, but there are still going to be occasionally cold nights.
Ball was brilliant, as is usually the case these days, and he seemed to make a conscious effort to get inside more than he usually does in this one. While he sometimes struggles with really quick players on defense, he is looking more and more like UCLA's best defender as the regular season winds down. His effort and length stalled Oregon State's offense so many times that the steals and turnovers he forced are almost an afterthought -- he just made it really hard for them to run much of anything.
UCLA controlled the glass for much of the game, and did a nice job of controlling the defensive glass when the game was in doubt. Oregon State is no great rebounding team, but, again, it was encouraging to see the effort on the glass from the Bruins.
This game probably won't win UCLA any style points, and I wouldn't expect UCLA to rise too much in any ratings systems. The offense was a little too cold in the first half, and the defense got a little too lax up by a lot late. But when this game was in doubt, UCLA played with the best effort it has played with over 30 or so minutes maybe all season, and that was very good to see.
Now, UCLA gets a week off before a rematch with USC, and, as with every game over the remainder of the season, it's a must-win. UCLA has the potential to still secure a top two seed in the West if it wins out (and gets a little help from Arizona or Oregon losses), but it'll mostly likely require winning out through the end of the Pac-12 Tournament.
And with the way UCLA has played of late, that isn't completely out of the question.