UCLA wrapped up its regular season with a somewhat lethargic win over a not-great-but-still-competitive Washington State team on Saturday night. Unlike Washington on Thursday, Washington State has clearly not given up on its season, and it showed. The Cougars flashed great effort throughout the game, and if it hadn't been for some cold shooting on wide open shots in the first half, this game could have gone a different way.
Now, if this exact game had come in the middle of the conference season, with T.J. Leaf in the lineup, we would be decidedly more critical of UCLA and its effort, but coming as it did on senior night, without Leaf, and as a relatively meaningless final game (the conference regular season was already wrapped up heading into the game, and the conference tournament seedings were already set), we're inclined to give the Bruins the benefit of the doubt. The effort level and focus did not match what we've come to expect from UCLA over the previous eight games, but it was enough to win the game by 9 (and by the end, it didn't feel that close).
It was senior night, and it was clear that it had a noticeable effect on Bryce Alford. He didn't look quite as comfortable as he has in recent weeks, and he had one of his more inefficient games of the conference slate. There were a couple of forced shots early, one a three from a few feet behind the three-point line and the other a weird twisting layup attempt where he couldn't even see the basket. It's a credit to Bryce, though, that he really didn't continue to force the issue over the course of the game. He ended up only taking 12 shots, and while that led the team, if you had asked us a year ago how many shots Bryce would put up on his senior night...12 would not have been the answer. He has had a very good senior year, and his conference play especially down the stretch has been a huge part of UCLA's run to finish off the season.
It's hard to know how much senior night affected Isaac Hamilton since, unfortunately, he's had games like this one quite a bit this year. He air-balled a three at one point, and also had a handful of fumbled passes where the ball just slipped off of his fingers. He finished with just two turnovers, but it felt like quite a few more (at one point, he had a defensive rebound ripped away from him, at another he let a fast break pass from Lonzo Ball bounce off his hands out of bounds). His stat-line actually didn't end up looking too bad, but in-game he really seemed to struggle.
Ball played really well, and if this had been a hot-shooting night for UCLA, he might have gone for 20 assists. As it was, on a night when UCLA only made 27 shots, he assisted 14 of them, which is bonkers. He went all 40 minutes, as UCLA had to use a lot of its four-guard lineup with Leaf out. His stamina has noticeably improved from the beginning of the year -- in the early going of the season, he'd looked winded 10 minutes into a game, but on Saturday, he only had one moment late in the second half where he seemed to be tired, at one point walking back on defense.
But the big key for UCLA on Saturday was the play of Aaron Holiday. Holiday hasn't been UCLA's most consistent player this year, but in games where everyone else might seem a little off, he has generally stepped up for big plays. In this game, UCLA was down 44-42 when he came into the game in the second half with about 14 minutes to go in the half, and he really seemed to ignite things for the Bruins. A combination of Holiday's presence, and UCLA going to a four-guard lineup, propelled UCLA on a 14-0 run from the 9:48 mark to the 5:40 mark in the second half, and that more or less finished the game for the Bruins. Holiday finished with just 25 minutes, since UCLA was clearly trying to give more run to Hamilton on senior night, so that was one more factor why this game was a little hard to judge. If Holiday played more like the 28 minutes he's been averaging of late, maybe that makes this a more comfortable win.
Thomas Welsh had a decent game, looking active on the glass again, but he probably wasn't quite active enough offensively. Washington State did a nice job defending him, mostly not losing contact with him. At one point, UCLA even ran Welsh off of a baseline screen from Alford, of all people, to get Welsh a relatively open jumper. This would have been a good game for Welsh to come in with a mindset to dominate, since Washington State lacks really talented size and Leaf being out gives Welsh a little bit more room to operate. Ike Anigbogu, for his part, had two pretty bad offensive plays when he first came in, fumbling one pass from Ball and then dribbling another off of his feet, but he made up for it with some good work on the defensive glass and a couple of good blocks.
Gyorgy Goloman is clearly best used as a bench post to bring some defensive toughness onto the floor when he comes in, so it's tough when he is thrust into more extended duty like he was on Saturday. He didn't give UCLA much offensively, and with Hamilton and Alford both also being off, it left UCLA's starting lineup without much firepower.
Defensively, UCLA was pretty lethargic. It wasn't quite first-half-of-conference-play bad, but it wasn't good. UCLA allowed a lot of open shots in the first half, particularly from three, and Washington State just didn't connect on many of them. The 3-2 zone UCLA has used to great effect wasn't particularly active, and especially up top, UCLA seemed to be sagging more than usual, which allowed the Cougars too many attempts at straightaway threes. The man defense wasn't much better, but the Cougars missed enough open shots to make it look like a better defensive effort than it was.
Obviously, looking at the game on Saturday, it's essential to get Leaf back. Offensively, UCLA was out of sync, and if Hamilton and Alford are both not shooting well, and Leaf is also out, it makes the offense simply decent, and certainly not the otherworldly thing it's been all year. Defensively, Leaf brings quite a bit more rebounding ability to the floor than either Goloman or Ball (as the undersized four), even if he gives up something to Goloman as a pure defender. His presence also keeps UCLA from having to experiment with weird lineups like Anigbogu/Welsh, or from having to play Ball way too many minutes as a four.
But enough analyzing a game that really doesn't matter in the grand scheme of the universe! UCLA finished the regular season 28-3, wrapping up its first truly elite regular season since the 2007-2008 team that went on to the Final Four. Through the vagaries of chance, unbalanced schedules, and the bottom half of the Pac-12 being terribad, UCLA went 15-3 in conference and somehow finished in outright third place in the conference standings. But that's fine! Las Vegas has generally been kind to UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament, and this is the first time since the conference tournament has moved to Vegas that the Bruins will be a clearly elite team with title aspirations entering play. Given the attendance spikes UCLA has seen in conference play as fans have wakened to this being a truly elite team, we're interested to see exactly how partisan the crowd in Vegas ends up being for the Bruins.
To be sure, winning the Pac-12 Tournament is not just icing at this point; to ensure that UCLA stays West for the NCAA Tournament, winning the conference tournament is a virtual necessity. To do so, UCLA must beat the winner of USC and Washington, and then run through, likely, Arizona and Oregon again. That won't be easy, but UCLA might be the hottest team in the country right now, winners of nine straight, including wins over each of their likely opponents next week.
It certainly sets up for what should be a very exciting week in Vegas.