UCLA’s first enjoyable season in quite a long time came to an abrupt, unenjoyable end when the Bruins lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 Friday, 86-75.
It’s kind of fitting that the game that ended UCLA’s season was really easy to analyze. It came down to the very simple things we’ve been pointing out are the weaknesses of this team – and Steve Alford’s program – for the last four years: athleticism and defense.
It doesn’t take a great basketball mind to have watched that game and see it very plainly. Kentucky had wide-open shots all night, while also its stud freshman point guard De'Aaron Fox was able to drive at will and get into the lane. It was because this UCLA team lacks athleticism, and thus can’t play a tight man defense. So, when UCLA was in man D it either sagged excessively to try to prevent Fox from taking Lonzo Ball off the dribble, which miserably failed, or it allowed some wide-open looks from three, which Kentucky exploited by shooting 10 of 23 from behind the arc. UCLA then opted for a zone, to try to switch it up and also protect its center Thomas Welsh who was in foul trouble. The hope was it would help to eliminate the dribble-drive penetration, but Fox and Friends are just so athletic – and talented – it didn’t slow them down a bit. In fact, the 1-2-2 zone that had been relatively effective for the Bruins through the latter-half of the season was essentially throwing gasoline on the fire, opening up even wider swaths of the floor in which to shoot threes and drive into the paint.
It was stunning how much UCLA had to compensate for its lack of athleticism and inability to defend Kentucky. It sagged its man defense to a few feet within the three-point line. Conversely, on the other end of the court, Kentucky’s athletes picked up their man defense about four feet beyond the three-point line.
That was the most stunning illustration between the two different levels of these two teams. One is made up of top-level athletes and the other below-average athletes – and in the end athleticism was the difference. It allowed Kentucky to plan an extended, pressure man defense and forced UCLA to sag off in either its man or zone.
Voila, that’s the ball game, folks.
There are probably a few footnotes in game analysis.
The pedestal we all had delicately placed Ball on this season was rocked a bit by Fox. He scored 39 friggin’ points, mostly on being able to take Ball off the dribble. While we absolutely believe Ball is a once-in-ten-years type of player, that he has very uncommon gifts offensively, he was exposed some Friday night by a very athletic fellow freshman that proved that he might be very competitive in terms of NBA Draft status. Fox is listed at 6-4 and 190 pounds, while Ball is commonly listed at 6-6 and 190, but Fox looked like he was physically bigger and stronger than Ball. Perhaps it was just an illusion by how easily Fox did just about anything he wanted all night.
It was kind of a fitting last game for UCLA’s senior guards, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton. The match-up showed just how limited they are playing against high-level athletes. In the first half they were shut down, with Hamilton scoring just three points and Alford blanked. They couldn’t get a good look and they absolutely couldn’t drive anywhere near the basket with Kentucky’s athletes lurking. It was exactly what we’ve been maintaining – that the lack of athleticism by Alford and Hamilton won’t be an issue against 80% of the college basketball teams out there. They’ll be able to get some space against the mid-majors on UCLA’s non-conference schedule, and the bottom two-thirds of the Pac-12. But it won’t get it done in the NCAA Tournament against elite teams. To their immense credit, however, they ultimately showed the toughness that has gotten them this far and in the second half worked hard to get off their shots, and made some – both good ones and bad ones (which is also very fitting). Hamilton had 14 points in the second half to finish with 17, and Alford had 13 second-half points. The game overall was kind of a microcosm of UCLA’s issues (the lack of athleticism ultimately dooming this team), and it was also a micro-microcosm of the careers of both of Hamilton and Alford: it showed their limitations but also displayed their resiliency. It was a fitting farewell game for them.
It was probably also a good snapshot of the level of player T.J. Leaf is. While some of his teammates were struggling with the Wildcats, he pretty much showed he can play at that level. His consistent scoring throughout the game kept UCLA in it, finishing with 17. It’d be an incredible thing if he decided to stay at UCLA for another season, but this game showed quite clearly that he’s ready to take on the next level of basketball challenge.
It also exposed Aaron Holiday a bit. We are Holiday fans, able to accept his transgressions of some lapses in judgement for his athleticism, defense and hard-nosed play. But going up against athletic Kentucky negated his athleticism a bit and exposed him for being a very good 6-foot basketball player.
It’s a shame that Welsh got into foul trouble, because his unique game is something that can match up against even Kentucky-level talent. His ability to catch and shoot from midrange is something tough to defend, even for the most talented teams. It takes a unique defender who can defend the post but also find Welsh when he pops out for the catch. Getting Welsh into foul trouble didn’t even seem like it stemmed from any genius coaching by Kentucky’s John Calipari, but more of a by-product of so many Wildcats getting into the lane. Welsh finished with 9 points and 7 rebounds in just 18 minutes.
A big shout-out to Gyorgy Goloman, who took advantage of the big stage and the six minutes he was on it. During a sequence in the first half, Goloman looked like Kevin McHale, throwing down two dunks in the halfcourt over Kentucky’s athletes. On the first, it was the play of Goloman’s life, when he took Edrice Adebayo off the dribble and then threw it down over Isaac Humphries. Goloman has shown this season, in his continued development, that he can be a very good role player at UCLA, especially as a post defender, and it was great to see him get that moment in the limelight.
Freshman post Ike Anigbogu played 15 minutes filling in for the foul-plagued Welsh, and struggled some. But again, Anigbogu has shown all season that he’s a beast-in-training, and even though there is a little worry he could put his name in the NBA Draft, since NBA scouts love his upside, we look forward to seeing him next year.
You could maybe second-guess the decisions of Steve Alford in this game a bit. He coached by rote, straight out of the coach's handbook, going to a zone so much to protect Welsh. But perhaps it was worth the risk of Welsh fouling out, since you do have Anigbogu, to have played more man, not sag as much and possibly slow down Fox and Malik Monk, who poured in 21 points on 4 of 9 from three, mostly on open looks. Alford had absolutely no solution for Fox or Monk, and didn't attempt any kind of dynamic adjustment. But, then again, nothing probably would have worked when you're trying to scheme against a team that is so much more athletic.
Perhaps fans are wondering how UCLA can beat Kentucky actually pretty easily in Lexington earlier in the year and then be so manhandled in this game. It’s a nice, little illustration of the upside of athleticism. Kentucky has really developed as a team as its players have developed their games and learned how to exploit their athleticism. It’s actually a credit to Calipari, who is known as a great recruiter and personality manager, but not necessarily a great coach. You have to give him credit for providing his very talented players the opportunity to grow and improve within the course of a season. They clearly are a much better team than they were on Dec. 3rd. While, on the other hand, with two senior guards who have pretty much hit their ceiling and an overall lack of athleticism that keeps that ceiling kind of low, UCLA is just about the same team it was back in December.
So, even though it was from a very objective point of view a fitting end to the season, since it really emphasized so much about what we all knew about this team, it was nonetheless incredibly deflating to end this season this way. There was the hope that Ball was that transcendental player, and that he would almost levitate off the arena floor at some point and miraculously lead UCLA to its 12th national championship. It was the realization that this was the best team UCLA has put together in probably 10 years and that it didn’t take full advantage of it. There was that beautiful, sublime offense, with the pretty, unselfish over-passing, which was literally the best offense college basketball had seen in maybe 20 years.
It was the knowledge that it was the last game of Ball in a UCLA uniform. The magic of Ball is now gone, a memory, and the Bruins will return to Earth after levitating for most of the season as a result of his talent.
It was a fun carpet ride of a season.