The hope heading into the NCAA Tournament was that UCLA would look looser than they have over the last couple of weeks (especially in Las Vegas) and play with more of the energy and execution they displayed through the back half of the conference season.
If that is coming, it's going to wait another game. Friday night, UCLA looked very much like the uneven team it has been over the last few weeks in its 97-80 win over Kent State.
Now, you might see a 17-point win and a 97-point explosion and think that UCLA played really well. But, really, the margin was largely built on a 5-7 minute explosion of offense between the 10-minute and 2-minute marks in the second half. Other than that surge and UCLA's customary opening salvo to start the game, the Bruins scuffled, looking slow and generally lethargic.
The Bruins were absolutely abused on the offensive glass all game. Thomas Welsh and T.J. Leaf had their worst games in recent memory on the defensive glass, and also seemed to have no answer for Kent State's post play inside. Admittedly, Kent State is an elite offensive rebounding team, and they sent two or three guys to the glass basically every trip down court, which is something UCLA rarely has to deal with. In addition to that, UCLA was in a tough position, because depth issues with Ike Anigbogu out and Leaf and Ball still somewhat ailing forced the Bruins to play quite a bit of zone. Against a team that crashes the offensive glass as well as Kent State, it's really not a good solution to zone. UCLA played quite a bit more man defense in the second half, and that seemed to stem the flow of second-chance points for Kent State.
The defense wasn't atrocious outside of the rebounding, but the rebounding was so bad that it made the defense, overall, pretty close to atrocious. UCLA was probably not as active on the perimeter in its zone as it has been in the past, which allowed a poor three-point shooting team to get a little hot at one point, but Kent State still shot a really low percentage and didn't get all that many wide-open looks.
Luckily, for all that Leaf gave up on the defensive end, he more than made up for it on the offensive end. Kent State really had no answer for defending him, and even lost track of him a few times, which you don't really want to do with UCLA's leading scorer. For the first time in seemingly weeks, UCLA did a nice job of using Leaf as a perimeter shooter (by the percentages, he's UCLA's best three-point shooter at 46%), and he knocked down a couple of threes. Inside, he was also unstoppable, with a flurry of dunks and floaters.
The biggest concern coming out of the game aside from UCLA's continued overall lethargy (at least compared to that great stretch to end the regular season) was the new injury to Lonzo Ball. He fell hard on his hip on an attempted alley-oop, and just watching it live, it's hard to see a scenario where he doesn't have a nasty bruise on that hip this morning. He was limping for a decent portion of the second half, and coupled with a thumb that still is obviously not completely healed (he had a wrap on that hand all game), he's very clearly not at 100%. Sunday's matchup could really hinge on how Ball's treatment goes today and tomorrow morning.
That said, Ball was excellent to open the game, and was a huge part of the second half surge that put the score out of reach. He was electric early, helping to push the Bruins to an early 15-point lead at about the 13-minute mark. His left hand looked quite a bit better than it did last week, and he looked to be able to dribble with that hand. What's more, his shot didn't appear affected, and he even hit a mid-range jumper!
Neither Isaac Hamilton nor Bryce Alford gave UCLA a whole lot on Friday. Hamilton was back to regular season form for the most part, which isn't a good thing. He forced up a few shots (at one point throwing up a wild mid-range shot when he had Ball wide open for a kickout three). He scored some points, so that was something, but he took two more shots than Leaf and six more than Welsh, which just shouldn't happen on a night like that where UCLA had an offensive advantage inside. Alford also didn't explode offensively, but he wasn't forcing it, which is better than what UCLA got from Hamilton.
With all of UCLA's post issues inside defensively, Gyorgy Goloman's minutes actually ended up pretty critical, and he responded in a big way. He was easily UCLA's best defensive post (low bar, we know), but he changed the tone of the game a little each time he came in, playing with a little more physicality on defense and actually getting a couple of stops. Offensively, he even did some nice things. You really couldn't have asked for a better game from Goloman, considering the circumstances.
After scuffling in Las Vegas, Aaron Holiday had his best game in a long time. He really only forced up one shot that we saw, and otherwise was finding the open guy and showing the willing passing ability that has made him so good at times this year. In just 29 minutes he had 11 assists, including a really nice one to Leaf for a three where he easily could have forced up his own jumper. If UCLA can get that kind of play from Holiday consistently in this tournament, it could help to make up for a scuffling Hamilton.
It's no shock that Kent State was able to hurt UCLA on the offensive glass. UCLA isn't a great defensive rebounding team, Kent State is a really good one, and the Bruins were down a post. Still, the talent differential should be such that the Bruins at least play a team like that evenly on the boards, and that really didn't happen. The only reason this was a game for such a long stretch was Kent State's ability to generate second-chance points. Cincinnati, UCLA's opponent on Sunday, is a little more talented and is also a very, very good offensive rebounding team. As Duane Broussard said after the game, Cincinnati is Kent State on steroids.
All that said, this was an opening round game between a highly seeded UCLA team and a scrappy Kent State team that had five days to prepare for the Bruins (look at how efficiently Kent State worked the ball around against UCLA's zone -- you don't do it that well without having practiced against it for a week). Cincinnati, for its part, won't have had that sort of preparation time, with a tough opening round game against Kansas State likely occupying its attention. So, that's the positive side of this -- UCLA got Kent State's best effort and won by 17, and Cincinnati probably won't be quite as prepared for what UCLA can do.
On the other side, if UCLA brings the same sort of lethargic effort, and if the Bruins continue to get very little from Hamilton and Alford on the perimeter, the game on Sunday could be a real challenge. Cincinnati is a legitimately good team -- not as good as UCLA, but good enough to beat a better team from time to time. UCLA will have to find a way to get back to the level and energy of play they showed in the back half of the conference season -- and they'll have to find that way quickly.