Tracy's article on surreality from the USC recap seems altogether fitting for this one as well.
Once again, we saw bizarro world UCLA playing to the tune of Bill Walton's fever dreams, and once again UCLA played like a version of itself we really haven't seen much this year, falling to Arizona 86-75.
Obviously, as we pointed out earlier in the week, the stakes were huge, and losing this game means that UCLA will be seeded in a non-West regional. Whether that is as a two-seed or a three-seed remains to be seen, but it's basically immaterial. Very likely, at this point, the Bruins will have to go through Kansas in Kansas City, or Villanova in New York, or North Carolina in Memphis.
If they want something to blame for their fate, there's plenty to point at.
Friday night's game was inarguably the worst game that Lonzo Ball has played in a UCLA uniform, considering everything at stake. He was off kilter from the opening tip, missing an alley-oop with an overthrown pass, turning another ball over on a ball thrown at Bryce Alford's feet off of a curl, dribbling another off of his foot, and generally just looking not at all like himself. The play where he hurt his thumb was even a little odd -- when have you seen Ball caught off-guard by the way a ball caroms? He was marginally better in the second half than the first, but still not brilliant.
Coupled with that, Bryce Alford, for the third game in a row, was basically ice cold, shooting 1 of 10 from three. Arizona did a great job guarding him, as Alford rarely caught the ball with space if he was anywhere close to three-point line. He took too many contested, quick threes, so it looked more like the version of Alford we saw the first three years at UCLA. That might have been more circumstantial than anything -- there was basically no ball movement, Ball was way off, and T.J. Leaf looked out-of-sync in his own right, so of course Alford was going to try to shoulder more of the scoring load. And it should be noted that he wasn't just missing contested jumpers -- he missed at least four or five wide open threes as well. Again, just off.
Leaf, as he has done in games against Lauri Markkanen, seemed to be pressing. He also looked more hampered by the ankle than he did against USC, and had significantly less lift. Unusually, he left a lot of his shots short. Hopefully, the week off gets his ankle in much healthier shape for the NCAA Tournament.
So, UCLA's three first team All Pac-12 selections all played poorly. It was the first time that's happened all year, where all three played well below their average.
Defensively, UCLA actually played with decent enough energy and execution for big portions of the first half. Steve Alford probably stuck with the zone a little long against Arizona when they made a lot of threes, but that wasn't really on the players (though, we don't really like the zone look when it's Aaron Holiday up top instead of Ball -- just not enough length). In the second half, UCLA's attention waned at times. Twice, UCLA defended really poorly out of an inbounds, with Holiday losing track of his man and having to foul, and Ike Anigbogu not marking Markannen at one point which allowed him an emphatic dunk.
Overall, though, defense isn't why UCLA lost. It was far from UCLA's best defensive effort of the season, but it was also far from the worst.
The biggest issue was that UCLA's offense was just at its absolute nadir, and that's an even more significant issue since UCLA's offense hasn't looked like a super-elite unit in three games now. UCLA shot very poorly, and some of that was guys just being cold, but a bigger part of it was just the complete lack of ball movement. Alford took a number of contested shots, but Ball and Holiday both took a number of pass-less shots as well, particularly from three. You have to give Arizona some credit for defending well, but you also have to acknowledge that UCLA just didn't look right, whether that was due to Ball's thumb, Leaf's ankle, or the existential weight of the eventual heat death of the universe.
The fact that Isaac Hamilton (Isaac Hamilton!) was UCLA's most consistent perimeter threat for a second game in a row just contributed to the surreal nature of UCLA's trip to Las Vegas. He also had three tough offensive rebounds, and just looked more active and confident than he has in a while. Since we probably can't expect Leaf, Ball, and Alford to all play this poorly again, perhaps one good thing that came out of Vegas for UCLA is Hamilton finally waking up after his nearly season-long slumber.
Thomas Welsh was perfect from the field. The issue that Walton focused on, in his lucid moments, was an important one -- why didn't Welsh have more shots? He only shot the ball five times, after shooting 10 times the last time these two teams played. The lack of ball movement and energy offensively seemed to affect him the most. Alford and Holiday both looked like they could have gotten the ball to him more, but we think the biggest culprit was Leaf, who forced up a lot of shots and didn't seem to be looking to pass nearly as much as usual. Weirdly, Welsh only played 25 minutes, with Anigbogu notching a full 15. Anigbogu was fine and played with good energy, but his defensive lapses cost UCLA a couple of times. This seemed like the kind of game you would have wanted your best five to play as much as possible, so it was a little odd to see Welsh, who wasn't in foul trouble, off the floor as much as he was.
Holiday had another poor game, looking for his own shot way too much at the expense of looking anywhere else. With Ball off, Holiday needed to step up to initiate the offense and get the ball moving, and he really didn't do that. He also wasn't at his best defensively, overplaying a few times at the top of the zone and, like we mentioned above, losing sight of his man off of an inbounds.
We should note, since it's gotten a lot of pub, that Sean Miller (who, in the best of times, looks and behaves like a warthog) called a timeout with .9 seconds to go in the game last night. It was a really emphatic way for Miller to put a punctuation mark on a game in which UCLA shot worse than it has all season with its two best players nursing injuries and Arizona still only won by 11. He marked the moment with a little flip of the ball onto the court, which might be what he does to get over the feeling of inadequacy of never having been to a Final Four in four trips to the Elite 8. We all have our coping methods.
UCLA now heads into the NCAA Tournament without nearly the kind of momentum they built over the last month. The last three games have been a bit sobering after we watched the Bruins tear through the back half of the conference schedule. With a week off, hopefully Leaf and Ball can both get their bodies in good shape for the grind of the NCAA Tournament. It's worth noting that the NCAA Tournament is a little less taxing on the body than the conference tournament, since the games are not on back-to-back nights. The dead legs UCLA showed Friday are still a bit of a worry, though.
On the bright side, UCLA, whether it is a 2 seed, 3 seed, or even a 4 seed, has still done enough to secure a Sacramento pod for the first two rounds, which should give UCLA a boost. That should give the Bruins a manageable path to the Sweet 16, and by that point, hopefully UCLA will have found its mojo again. The Bruins have been good on the road this year, so a non-West regional doesn't appear quite as daunting as it would in other years.
But we can't get over that this feels like a big missed opportunity. Even with how poorly UCLA played, if the Bruins had just shot badly from three (33%) instead of abysmally (16%), they would have won the game, and locked up a 2 seed with a chance at the West regional. Hopefully, it doesn't prove important, and UCLA makes a run through a different regional, so we don't have to spend the next several decades thinking about the vagaries of joint health.