There’s a reason the unofficial slogan of March Madness is “Survive and Advance”.
UCLA came into the tournament as a trendy pick to win it all, or at least make it to a Final Four, what with their historically-great offense and having Lonzo Ball, the best NBA Draft pick in the tournament and best PG in a tournament that rewards great PG play. But at the same time, UCLA went into the tournament with injuries; both Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf were not at 100% by the end of the PAC-12 Tournament, and news came out yesterday that Ike Anigbogu had sprained his foot and would end up inactive for today’s game. Throw in the firing of Indiana coach Tom Crean and subsequent flurry of “Steve Alford is the top candidate” news, and suddenly things could look a bit dicey.
So, with all that said, is it any shocking that UCLA looked so listless in a game that they ultimately won by 17?
It’s definitely a win that isn’t going to alleviate any concerns from the more pessimistic section of Bruin fans; the Bruin defense was reminiscent of the unit that allowed inferior teams to score at will, and in particular got dominated on the interior by Kent State’s frontcourt (though we should maybe note that Kent State was the best offensive rebounding team in the NCAA this year). Bryce Alford in particular was a sieve on the defensive end, and we’re once again led to question how he got to 34 minutes of game time considering his overall play.
UCLA was outrebounded 34-31 in this game by the Golden Flashes, including 13-5 in offensive boards. Simply put, that cannot happen going forward if the Bruins want any chance at making a deep tournament run.
On the opposite end, the Bruin offense look the best it has since a blowout victory over Washington. UCLA realistically was able to do whatever it wanted against the Golden Flashes, shooting 62.7% (37-59) from the field, including 50% (7-14) from distance. 5 Bruins made it to double figures in this game, and the Bruins had 25 assists compared to Kent State’s 10. And you’d have to consider it a good sign that the Bruins did all of this despite another poor night from Bryce Alford, the 5th most prolific scorer in UCLA history.
Of course, the big story coming out of this game will be the health of Lonzo Ball. Ball took a spill on a hard foul late in the first half, landing hard on his hip. Lonzo was able to limp through the half, and looked fine in the second half, but it was a scary moment for UCLA’s championship aspirations. Ball’s health is going to be THE story going into Sunday’s meeting with Cincinnati.
TJ Leaf led the Bruins with 23 points. Thomas Welsh led the team with 8 rebounds, while Aaron Holiday led the team with 11 assists. Jaylin Walker led Kent State with 23 points.
- Player of the Game: Aaron Holiday - Boy did UCLA need this version of Holiday back. Holiday had 15 points on an efficient 6-9 shooting, and added 11 assists in the game. Simply put, he was the spark that the Bruins needed him to be. It’s especially great to see this return to form for Holiday considering his previous 3-game streak of poor play. UCLA is that much more dangerous if Aaron Holiday can come into games and dominate opposing benches, so here’s hoping he keeps this up for 5 more games.
- Bad Bryce Remains a Liability - The book is out on how to stop Bryce Alford: stay up on him and don’t give him space, and then watch as he struggles to create his shot. Simply put, Bryce isn’t athletic enough to create consistently with the ball in his hands, and if you don’t believe me, consider how much better Bryce has been this year primarily as a catch-and-shoot gunner. But on top of that, if Bryce isn’t scoring, he actively hurts the team, because his defense isn’t even close to adequate. Kent State constantly targeted Bryce on drives for easy baskets, which has become a theme in the past week (and for a few years really). Bryce can’t be putting in 30+ minutes of in-game time if he isn’t contributing on the offensive end, full stop.
- Steve Alford Breaks a Streak - The big story heading into today was the chatter surrounding Steve Alford and the now-open Indiana job, but there was a smaller thread that got ignored: Steve Alford’s record coaching a 3-seed stood at 1-2 entering tonight, and that doesn’t including a loss he suffered as a player at IU while a 3 seed. So considering all of the distractions, Alford got the Bruins to avoid the upset, and in March, that’s all that matters.
UCLA will play the #6 seed Cincinnati Bearcats on Sunday. Gametime should be out later tonight.