Well, that was an anticlimactic end to one of the more fun seasons in recent memory.
UCLA really played a game that was emblamatic of their season, in many regards: they were sloppy, shot well, and couldn’t play defense to save their life. Any realistic Bruin observer could have told you something like this was bound to happen, and it has happened already this season (such as in the losses to Arizona and USC).
Still, even the most pessimistic of Bruin fans wanted this team to go far. That’s just the nature of fandom after all: your team can frustrate you to the ends of the earth, but you still want them to succeed despite all of that. And maybe that’s what stings the most. This UCLA team, warts and all, still had people believing in them.
There are a lot of things to talk about in the wake of this game. Lonzo Ball was much too quite in such a big game, getting completely dominated by De’Aaron Fox in their high-profile matchup. A stat line of 10 points and 9 assists isn’t atypical from Ball, but in big games you need big performances from your best players, and Lonzo wasn’t able to provide that.
The biggest issue was, of course, the defense. We’ve talked about improvement from the defense since the back to back losses in January, but this still remained a poor defensive team, and it showed as Fox was able to have his way with the UCLA defense. Poor exterior defense led to easy floaters and layups for Fox, and allowed him to kick the ball out for easy 3-pointers from Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins, and Malik Monk. Monk himself put on a show of his own at one point, able to get any shot he wanted against the porous UCLA defense.
And of course, we should at least talk about UCLA’s offense, since that’s what got them to this point in the first place. UCLA ended up shooting 52.7% in the game, including over 60% in the second half. Unfortunately, turnovers were a factor in limiting the amount of shots the Bruin offense would take, as the Bruins would rack up 13 turnovers to Kentucky’s 6. The Bruins played too loose at times, which has served them well throughout the season but ended up costing them against a stout defensive team.
So, now the question becomes: Where do we go from here? Normally, you’d say the program would build on this season, but UCLA sits in a state of flux. Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford are gone, having given 4 solid years to the Blue and Gold. Lonzo Ball, by all accounts, should be gone, unless the craziest return in the one-and-done era happens. T.J. Leaf is more of an unknown, though we’d lean towards him being gone as well. Ike Anigbogu and Aaron Holiday also have decisions to make. A top-rated recruiting class next year helps, but with Thomas Welsh as the only sure returning player, UCLA could be right back at square one.
More importantly is the question of Steve Alford’s continued employment at UCLA. Alford seems destined to end up in Bloomington, which changes the question to where UCLA looks for their next head coach. Or, if Steve Alford does choose to stay at UCLA (where he easily is in a better situation), if he can change things up and fix the flaws made known over this past season.
In the end, this was still a special season. It isn’t often that you get to watch such a special team with special players put on great performances on a nightly basis, but that’s what we got with the 2016-2017 UCLA Bruin basketball team. Do we wish it could have ended better? Absolutely. But it doesn’t take away from a fun season of basketball.
T.J. Leaf and Isaac Hamilton led UCLA with 17 points apiece. Leaf also tied with Thomas Welsh for the rebounding lead with 7, and Lonzo Ball led the team with 9 assists. De’Aaron Fox led the Wildcats with 39 points.
- Player of the Game: TJ Leaf - Really, Leaf did all he could, and was a unique matchup nightmare for Kentucky. Leaf demanded defense from the outside, hitting his only 3 point attempt early, and was able to do what he wanted inside. If that was his last game as a Bruin, you couldn’t have asked for a better effort.
- Welsh again the barometer for success - In 4 games against Kentucky, Thomas Welsh has acted as a barometer for UCLA’s success or failure in the game. In the original matchup 3 years ago, Welsh was a non-factor, and the Bruins were blown out. In the previous 2 meetings, Kentucky had no answer for Welsh, and the Bruins were able to pull ahead. In this game, Welsh got in foul trouble and fouled out after a grand total of 18 minutes, only scoring 9 points on 3-5 shooting.
- Aaron Holiday a non-factor as well - In the first meeting this year, Holiday almost single-handedly kept UCLA in the game in the first half, being a difference maker off the bench. In this one, not so much. Holiday only took 4 shots from the field, went 1-3 from the free throw line, and wasn’t able to slow down Fox on defense (though to be fair, neither was anyone else). If there’s any positive to take from Holiday’s performance, it’s that he seems more likely to come back next year for an increased role, which the Bruins desperately need.