C Thomas Welsh (USA Today)

UCLA Hoops: This Is What A Title Contender Looks Like

Feb. 26 -- UCLA earns the biggest win in the Steve Alford era, a 77-72 victory over Arizona that might push UCLA all the way to a 2 seed...

For so many reasons, UCLA's 77-72 win over Arizona was the biggest and most impressive win of the Steve Alford era.

It was a win over UCLA's real basketball rival on the road. All apologies to the try-hards at USC, Arizona is UCLA's basketball rival, and winning this game on the road, over a clearly very-good-to-elite Arizona team, was extremely impressive.

It completed a road sweep in the Pac-12. Prior to this year, Steve Alford hadn't had a road sweep in the Pac-12. He has now notched three this season, but this was obviously the most impressive, taking down a scrappy Arizona State team on Thursday and then felling Arizona on Saturday.

It demonstrated the increased effort and tenacity UCLA has shown since its loss to USC seven games ago, and demonstrated it in the most impressive way. The way UCLA attacked the glass and went after loose balls was not necessarily reminiscent of the exact way that the 2005-06 team played, but, for whatever reason, it was reminiscent of the feeling I had watching that team, especially down the stretch. UCLA just very clearly wanted this game more than Arizona -- and Arizona wanted it quite a bit.

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It was for real stakes. While UCLA has no real chance of winning the Pac-12 regular season title, the Bruins are very much alive for the Pac-12's seed in the West regional, and this game is yet another data point that of the teams still competing for that seed (Oregon, Arizona, and UCLA), the Bruins are playing the best basketball right now, and they're the only one to have played the two other contenders twice each (Oregon and Arizona only played each other once).

And, perhaps most importantly, it might have, by itself, pushed UCLA up to 2 seed range, regardless of which Regional UCLA ends up playing in. UCLA has to finish the season with wins over the Washington schools, but assuming that happens (and both Washington schools are very bad, with Washington looking like it firmly quit on its season several weeks ago), UCLA, even if it loses immediately in the Pac-12 Tournament, will have two road wins that stack up better than basically any other team's road wins: at Kentucky and at Arizona. Coupled with what would be a 28-4 record, it's hard to envision a scenario where UCLA would be any less than a 2 seed (especially with some of the chaos that's taking place among the higher ranked teams).

There were so many positive signals from this game that it's still difficult, 12 hours later, to quantify them all without simply listing them, so that's why you get that word dump to start. If you throw in the simple fact that Gonzaga, unexpectedly, lost to BYU at home last night, which very firmly opens the door for the Pac-12 Tournament winner to earn a No. 1 seed in the West -- UCLA's win becomes even more significant.

This was far from the cleanest and most well-played game UCLA has played this year. The Bruins didn't shoot particularly well, and they turned the ball over a little too much at points, and there were some lulls defensively that allowed Arizona some easy baskets. But the effort UCLA showed on the glass and tracking down loose balls going out of bounds (find a stat to track that, please) was so over-the-top that it really didn't matter that the Bruins weren't at their peak offensively.

The sequence from about 4 minutes to about 2:30 left in the game was maybe the most indicative of UCLA's effort. With 3:56 to go, Allonzo Trier made a three to bring Arizona within 8, and at that point, it was wholly conceivable that Arizona would make a run and tie up the game -- that much time to go is an eternity. On the ensuing possession, UCLA drained a bunch of clock to set up a Thomas Welsh jumper (which he missed), but then T.J. Leaf recovered the offensive rebound, and UCLA drained more clock. Then, after Leaf missed, UCLA once again collected the offensive rebound (this one ending up in Welsh's hands), and the Bruins drained MORE clock, before a Lonzo Ball jumper (that he missed), and then UCLA earned another possession on the ball falling out of bounds off Arizona. Now, UCLA didn't finish the trip with a basket (Aaron Holiday missed a three-pointer with 2:43 to go), but UCLA forced Arizona to play defense for over a minute, and, more importantly, kept Arizona from cutting the lead for almost a minute and a half thanks to their sheer effort on the glass.

All told, UCLA had 14 offensive rebounds, which is just an insane number -- since UCLA missed 35 shots, it means UCLA earned a second shot on 40% of its misses. That's just goofy! Coupled with that, on the defensive glass, UCLA was at its best, allowing Arizona a measly 4 offensive rebounds.

This was Welsh's game in a huge way. He set the tone in the opening minutes, cleaning up the glass on both ends with the tenacity he's shown over the last few weeks. Some sort of light has turned way on in terms of his physicality and effort, because he's rebounding out of his area in a way he never has before. Then, in the second half, he took it to another level, and also provided maybe the most steady scoring force on the team with his ability to knock down jumpers. He also hit a couple of tough hook shots, and showed off excellent hands and a great feel for when to shoot and when to pass. Sometimes, he can force up his mid-range jumper a little too much, especially against size, but Saturday he was perfectly in the flow of the offense, and was also a terror on the glass. His defense was good as well (though he was put in a tough spot a few times by drivers from the wing who weren't impeded on the way).

For a guy who turned his ankle two nights ago, Ball looked extremely fine and healthy. Again, I'm going to own being very wrong about one thing with Ball -- the guy really is a very good athlete. It's a little deceptive since he can change speeds so well, but when he turns on the burners (and he does such a great job of picking his spots when he'll do it), he looks quicker and more explosive than anyone on the court. Those moments where he just decides to take over a game are breathtaking, like the sequence in the first half where he blocked a shot on the defensive end and then hit Bryce Alford for a skip-ahead three. Watching him in those moments is like watching a video game where a player has a turbo meter.

In other words, he was very Ball-like. If there was one mis-step from a coaching perspective, we think it was probably taking Ball out in the first half and then not using a timeout to get him back in earlier. He ended up sitting from the 6:09 mark in the first half (when UCLA went up 32-25 on an Alford three) until the 2:19 mark (when UCLA was hanging on to a 38-36 lead). Steve Alford was clearly waiting for the dead ball timeout that didn't come, and finally took the timeout to get Ball back in, but it probably would have been best to do that a minute or so earlier. Then, when Ball picked up his second foul, Alford sat him for the final 48 seconds of the half, so he wasn't in for his patented step-back three pointer to end the half. Arizona was up 43-39 at the half and seemingly in control, largely because Ball sat.

Now, that might be nitpicking, because Ball was then able to play the entire second half, and there's no telling whether he'd have been able to do that if he hadn't gotten some rest in the first half. There's no question that this was a game where UCLA needed every bit of his instincts and basketball IQ, and having him available for the entire second half was critical for UCLA to win the game. It seems like every game now he has anticipatory steals that literally no one else on the court could have made, whether it's stealing an in-bounds or just knowing where a pass is going before it's thrown. Screw the turbo meter analogy -- he's like playing with cheat codes.

Now, even if the Ball substitution pattern was a slight mistake in the first half, we have to highlight the excellent decisions Alford made otherwise with his sub patterns and defenses. Switching primarily to a zone for a stretch in the first half and for a longer stretch in the second half more or less changed the game. Arizona was flummoxed with the 3-2, as many teams have been since UCLA has started using it extensively over the last few weeks. Especially with Ball in the game at the top with his length and instincts, it's very tough to get much going without getting the ball into the corners or into the paint, which, with Leaf and Welsh playing with good activity all game, was no easy feat. It's worth noting that UCLA is back in the top 100 in defensive efficiency (per KenPom) and has made steady progress over the last two weeks.

Alford also limited Isaac Hamilton's minutes, after Hamilton showed he wasn't going to have a positive impact on the game. It's a shame, because in the opening minute it looked like it might be a good Hamilton game, as he was under control, hitting a shot and then getting an assist to Leaf in the paint. But after that, it was mostly not very good, with a couple of head-scratching turnovers and some badly missed shots and poor decisions. Aaron Holiday was also not good in the first half, so our biggest concern in the second half was: which one of these two is going to step up?

Aaron Holiday (USA Today)

In the end, it was Holiday, in a huge way. It's so weird watching him this season, because he so often opens games pressing a little, forcing the issue offensively and turning the ball over too much. In this game it was very much like that, and if Holiday and Hamilton had both continued to play poorly in the second half, it would have been very difficult for UCLA to win the game. Luckily, Holiday stepped up. From the 9:58 mark to the 6:51 mark, Holiday scored two threes and also picked up an offensive rebound off a Ball three for a layup. During that stretch, UCLA extended its lead from 56-55 to 67-57, and so much of it was due to Holiday's offensive explosion and effort.

This was such a fun game to watch because there were so many moments like that where a guy would just take over for a stretch. No one had a perfect game, except maybe Welsh, but there were so many key contributions. Leaf, who looked like he was pressing for most of the first half and into the second, still had a sequence where he just clearly decided to say screw it and take the ball directly at Lauri Markkanen. He had a pretty lefty hook over Markannen, and then also blocked him on the other end. He helped put him in foul trouble deeper into the second half as well. So even though he was pressing (he had three turnovers and wasn't the offensive force he typically is) he made obvious positive contributions.

Bryce Alford didn't have a perfect game, but again, he made some very key contributions offensively. His three-pointer to put UCLA ahead 62-55 in the second half (that sequence that was largely dominated by Holiday) was a huge shot, and he was setting up for it for maybe 10 full seconds. He had a guy basically in his face, but still took the shot and made it. Then, late, he scored on a clear-out with 1:37 to go to put UCLA back up 8. In previous years, we would have dreaded a situation where Alford was on a clear-out driving against athletes late in a game, but to his credit, he has improved his strength enough that there's a better chance for a good result when he goes into the lane. 

Ike Anigbogu gave UCLA really solid minutes in his 14 on the floor, showing great effort and mobility and also hitting a very solid percentage of his free throws. This was a game where UCLA really couldn't afford to have its posts struggle since Markannen is such a force, and Anigbogu played without much drop-off from Welsh, which was great to see. Gyorgy Goloman was a little outmatched athletically, and he should probably be a little more judicious in shooting threes, but he gave UCLA 7 mostly uneventful minutes.

All told, this was the best win of the Alford era, with apologies to Kentucky this year and Arizona in the 2014 Pac-12 Tournament. It likely sets up UCLA for a 2 seed, which neither of those wins did, and if the Bruins win out and take the Pac-12 Tournament, it's hard to envision a scenario where UCLA is not the 1 or 2 seed in the West. With Gonzaga losing to BYU, we could see a lot of pressure on the Selection Committee to put the Pac-12 Tournament winner in as the 1 seed, and with the way UCLA is playing of late, we think the Bruins will likely be the betting favorite to take the conference tournament. 

More to the point, if UCLA continues to play this way (and with three weeks of data now, we wouldn't bet against it), the Bruins look much more like a potential NCAA Tournament winner than they did at the end of January. UCLA's defense isn't going to be a super-elite unit, but over the last few weeks, we've seen it gel into much more of a top 50-looking defense. If you add that to UCLA's offense, and the refuse-to-lose nature of Ball, and the vast improvements that Welsh and, to an extent, Anigbogu have shown in recent weeks, and the resurgence of Holiday in February, and the steady contributions of Leaf...

Well, it might be worthwhile to keep an eye on this page.


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