It wasn’t a memorable win compared to some this season, but UCLA held serve in cruising to an easy put-away of undermanned Arizona State Thursday, 87-75.
It wasn’t a game that provided you many takeaways. UCLA had to be clearly looking past ASU to the Arizona game on Saturday. The Bruins didn’t need to put out much effort to get the W in Tempe, especially with the Sun Devils utilizing only one player over 6-5 for the entire game. UCLA rotated a front line that went 7-0, 6-10, 6-10 and then another 6-10er, with three of those guys being future NBA players. So, with UCLA probably not completely invested in the game mentally and easily dominating the Sun Devils, there isn’t much to glean.
Probably the biggest takeaway is that this UCLA team is so good it can conserve energy and coast to a win with the outcome never being in doubt, which wouldn’t have been the case in year’s past.
In the collection of this season’s offensive performances, it wouldn’t be ranked among the best, not even an honorable mention. It was a bit sloppy, especially in the first half when UCLA had has many turnovers – seven – as made baskets at one point (finishing with a respectable 13 turnovers). There was a little bit too much looseness in Lonzo Ball’s passing and ballhandling, and he, Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday had three turnovers each. UCLA shot a mediocre 49.5% from the field and just 30% from three. T.J. Leaf had a team-high 25 points, but those were pretty much 25 expected points since ASU had only 6-5 Kodi Justice to defend him. Maybe that's not entirely fair, and we're taking Leaf for granted; he did play exceptionally well offensively. Holiday’s 17 points came from his 4-of-7 shooting from three, and that was good to see, that Holiday is continuing to shoot well from three late in the season. There were the UCLA-typical number of alley-oops, thrown up by Ball and Holiday – to Ball, Leaf and Ike Anigbogu.
The reason UCLA could conserve energy and coast was its height advantage in the paint and on the boards. UCLA got a whopping 49 rebounds (to ASU’s 30) without that much effort from UCLA’s front line on the glass. There were times that UCLA center Thomas Welsh looked like he was playing in his driveway against a neighbor kid, getting a couple of offensive rebounds before laying it in over Justice’s head. Welsh finished with 11 rebounds, Leaf with 9, and Anigbogu had 6 in just 21 minutes. Ball finished with 11.
UCLA had been playing some improved defense in its previous four games but, honestly, you couldn’t tell if they still were against ASU. They did keep the Sun Devils to 39% shooting from the floor, but ASU did find some success from behind the arc, shooting 41% from three. ASU wing Torian Graham scored a game-high 28 points on 7 of 14 from three – really the only thing that kept the Sun Devils from getting blown out. And it did appear that he had a little too much open space around him and there were some lackluster Bruin close-outs. Graham found room to shoot against both UCLA’s man and zone defenses, so it’s not as if you could point the finger at either. You could say, though, that in the first half UCLA was trailing ASU for the first 12 minutes or so but took the lead after its zone forced a couple of turnovers and a stop.
Leaf absolutely had a pretty offensive game, but it has to be said that his defensive performance was fairly abysmal. The unathletic Justice is pretty much exclusively an outside shooter and not exactly known for his ability to put the ball on the floor, and he took Leaf off the dribble a number of times throughout the game, and then also took advantage of Leaf sagging off him, making 5 of 9 from three. The thought of what Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen could do with the same opportunities is a bit frightening.
You wouldn’t say Ball had a mediocre game, because even when he scores 4 points he still impacts the game with his approach to the game – and those 11 boards.
Bryce Alford had a cold shooting night, going 3 for 10 overall and 3 for 9 from three, but to his credit he didn’t force it and he looked to pass and made some nice dishes, finishing with 6 assists against just 1 turnover.
Welsh played just 18 minutes, mostly because you could get him some rest against ASU to prepare for Arizona’s frontline. In his stead, Anigbogu got 21 minutes and played well, scoring 12 points with those 6 rebounds. While, again, you can’t take away much since Anigbogu was posting up much smaller players, he did show some good post moves offensively, and he continued to assert himself defensively, with 3 blocks and playing more physically.
If you’re one to worry, it perhaps would be appropriate to do so about Hamilton. He just hasn’t really gotten out of that mid-season slump, sporadically playing well, but then playing poorly an equal amount of minutes since. ASU’s guards are fairly athletic, and he didn’t match up well. Defensively, he didn’t help matters by playing without great energy. We're not going to blame all of Graham's 28 points on Hamilton because it was kind of a team effort, but a good deal of them were his responsibility. And then offensively he was the mid-season-slump version of Hamilton, finishing with 2 points on 1-of-5 shooting.
It can’t be appreciated enough, then, that Holiday has shaken off some of the slump-like symptoms he experienced about a month ago. He had been shooting an astronomical 50+% from three early on this season, then came back down to Earth. After going 0 for 4 against Oregon State two games ago, it’s good to see him get back on track with a 4-of-7 performance. Holiday’s ability to come off the bench and keep the UCLA three-point shooting barrage going has been a key to the team's offensive potency all season, and with Hamilton a bit of an unknown, it was good to see Holiday have a shooting performance like he did against ASU.
This Bruin team has been showing some of the type of elements you want to see in a team gearing up for March -- a recommitment to its pass-first style of offense, a new commitment to defense and an overall sense of purpose. Thursday's performance against ASU, we're thinking, isn't an indication of any kind of setback from that course, but was part of process of gearing up for the now-biggest game of the season against Arizona. We're hoping it was kind of just a little light jog before it runs the marathon against the Wildcats Saturday.