Don't look now, but UCLA might truly be rounding back into non-conference form.
The Bruins turned a competitive first 15 minutes against USC into a laugher over the last 10, blowing the Trojans out and asserting such a level of dominance over the last 8 minutes that UCLA players were quite literally laughing their way up the court after made baskets. The final score was 102-70, with UCLA finishing the game on a blistering 31-9 run over the last 7:55.
It was one of the better combined efforts of the season for UCLA, especially over the last 25 minutes, with the Bruins playing effective defense against the Trojans, limiting USC's ability to move the ball and find good shots, while also putting together their usual excellent offensive game.
A big part of the improved defense was, again, the extended, trapping defense that UCLA has shown more and more of over the last few games. Over the first ten minutes or so, we would have argued that USC was simply missing some wide open shots, but those open shots became very hard to come by over the last 30 minutes, as UCLA defended screens better and stayed home on shooters like Bennie Boatwright quite a bit better. Once USC couldn't get as many open three pointers, the Trojan offense basically stagnated.
The final eight minutes were basically a symphony of offensive basketball, with Bryce Alford primarily acting as the conductor. Alford finished with 26 points, and 15 of them came in those final eight minutes. It wasn't just threes either -- Alford made a variety of tough shots in the lane, and also added a couple of nice assists and a rare block. What goes a little unnoticed with Alford, especially this year with how well he's shooting from three, is that he has gotten progressively stronger physically throughout his UCLA career, and has developed some ability to finish through contact, which he didn't really have early on in his career. That was on full display late, where he made a couple of tough runners in the paint while getting bodied a bit. Alford has certainly shot better in games this year, but we'd have a hard time finding a game where we felt he played better overall. Defensively, he was more than solid and showed good effort throughout, and offensively, he was not simply zeroed in on the basket, but was facilitating and looking for the open man. He finished with six assists, which is tied for his season high.
All five starters, actually, played very good games. Thomas Welsh, though, deserves some special commendation. This is going to sound strange to say, but his defense and physicality in the paint really changed the offensive game plan for USC. The Trojans are mostly a perimeter dominated team, but they've had some success using Chimezie Metu and his athleticism as a big piece of the puzzle offensively against UCLA, and naturally, they thought this game would be no different. Welsh really stepped up to the challenge of dealing with the athletic Metu, and his presence in the paint helped to turn Metu into far more of a jump shooter than USC would ideally like. Metu finished with 14 points, but it was an exceptionally quiet 14 points, and a huge credit for that has to go to Welsh. His block of a Metu jumper in the first half was picture-perfect, and seemed to set the tone for UCLA. This was also one of Welsh's best rebounding performances of his UCLA career, especially on the defensive glass.
Offensively, Welsh had one of his automatic games, nailing basically every mid-range jumper he took. You almost expect that, but what was noticeable was just how active he was on the offensive end. Sometimes, you'll notice him getting a little passive, but in this one he was very active around the basket as well, and even had an impressive one-handed tip slam at one point (something Ike Anigbogu tried and failed to do twice). This might have been a blueprint type of game for Welsh, who has not necessarily played as physically as necessary at various points of his UCLA career. Perhaps this game will give him the tools to play with a little more of that swagger.
Anigbogu struggled in this game, succumbing to the vagaries of freshman post play. This kind of game, with both teams playing pretty fast and in kind of a frenetic way might not be the ideal setting for a freshman center still trying to figure things out. In any case, he was mostly a non-factor defensively, but he did contribute six offensive rebounds. A big priority this offseason has to be getting him to pay more attention to the defensive glass (assuming he's still in Westwood), as he had zero defensive boards Saturday.
Lonzo Ball made some of his usual ridiculous Lonzo Ball plays (including a how'd-he-see-that drop down pass to T.J. Leaf for a layup and his customary end-of-half three pointer from the volleyball line), and flirted with a triple double, as he often does. He did have an uncharacteristic number of turnovers, as USC seemed to have scouted some of his passing tendencies fairly well, with the Trojans often jumping into his passing lanes. UCLA tried to post Ball up at one point, which was a really interesting move, but it resulted in a turnover. With his skill and size, we wouldn't be opposed to seeing more of that, especially given the amount of attention he gets from opposing defenses, but it didn't work this time.
The great lost story of this game is: how significantly would Isaac Hamilton have broken out of his almost season-long slump if he hadn't picked up three fouls by the opening few minutes of the second half? He started out looking great and in-rhythm in the second half, and seemed poised for an explosive half. As it was, he finished with a solid 13 points on 12 shots. In any case, he didn't contribute at a nil or negative level like he has in too many games this year, which is a big positive step for him.
Leaf was excellent as well, throwing in a couple of threes while also doing his usual work around the hoop. It's so stunning to watch a player like him in today's climate, because he really does force nothing. He had at least two other opportunities to shoot trail threes, and they would have been completely justifiable shots, but he instead used the open space in front of him to find a better shot for someone else. He's such a shotmaker from so many different parts of the floor that you get the feeling he could take at least four or five more shots per game without losing much efficiency, but he plays the game with tremendous unselfishness. Being able to play with Ball and Leaf, with their unselfishness, has to be one of the best experiences you could have on a basketball court.
UCLA's starters were so good in this one that the Bruins didn't really require much from the bench. Gyorgy Goloman has become a very solid post defender, and he showed that off in this one again, but he also flashed some offensive game. One of our concerns heading into this season was that Goloman might not be good enough to play the 10 to 15 minutes per game that he'd need to, but, overall, he's been pretty consistently solid, especially through Pac-12 play. Obviously, you wouldn't want him playing 25 minutes per game, but especially given Anigbogu's up and down play, Goloman has provided some steady play.
Aaron Holiday had one of those games where he forced a little too much and probably dribbled too much against the zone. Notably, though, he was in the game for two big UCLA runs with Ball off the court (UCLA went from 23-23 to 35-30 in the first half and then 69-59 to 81-61 in the second half with Ball off the court and Holiday on it). That's probably just some noise, but it is very good to see UCLA play with that level of competence offensively with Ball off the court. Ball won't be able to play 37 minutes per night in a Tournament setting, so seeing the way the offense continued to flow with him off the court was very good to see.
UCLA has now played with encouraging defensive effort in four straight games (we'll give the Bruins Oregon, even if the first 20 minutes were not great). Offensively, UCLA has continued to play very well, and Hamilton showing signs of life is, again, encouraging. The Bruins have a real chance to finish the season on a torrid run, with a trip to the Arizona schools and then the Washington schools at home. If UCLA wins out, the Bruins might still not be the Pac-12 regular season champions, but with late season wins over Oregon and Arizona, they'll have a pretty good claim to being the best team in the conference. And then, if UCLA does win the Pac-12 Tournament, we can absolutely see the Bruins getting picked to remain in the West as a 2 seed over Oregon or Arizona.
Three weeks ago that would have seemed wildly hopeful, but if UCLA can play with this level of effort every game, 7-0 is absolutely a realistic possibility.