This news roundup of UCLA’s 77-72 win over Arizona will be a bit different. Nirya has an excellent summary of the game, so this roundup will focus on what it means for the season and, hopefully, postseason. There are three themes: Defense, how good is this team, and Lonzo Ball.
Here at Bruins Nation we have been among those critics who have been critical of UCLA’s defense. ESPN’s C.L. Brown has an interesting take on what the first loss to Arizona meant to that defense:
Had the Bruins beaten the Wildcats in a shootout when the teams met last month in Pauley Pavilion, their indifference toward defense likely would have continued.
Instead, the Bruins can thank Arizona for hanging 96 points on them on Jan. 21. That did what coach Steve Alford was unable to do through just talk: It got the Bruins' attention and started a defensive renaissance.
. . .
The Wildcats got buckets at will in their win over UCLA. They shot 50 percent from the field and 45 percent from 3-point range and scored a blazing 1.32 points per possession. . . .
[In contrast to last night:] In fact, Arizona looked disjointed offensively through much of the second half. Its normally reliable 3-point shooters, who entered shooting 40 percent from behind the arc, made just five of 18. The Bruins held Arizona to just 1.07 points per possession this time.
UCLA hasn't allowed a team to reach 80 points in a game during its current seven-game win streak. Compare that to its first 20 games of the season, in which it allowed eight teams to reach that mark, including Pacific in the season opener.
Personally, I think it was the Arizona loss coupled with the Southern Cal loss that did it. And for Bruins’ fans that pay attention, this has happened before during the Steve Alford era. In the 2014-15 season, Oregon destroyed a UCLA team that did not play defense and Norman Powell lost it on his teammates for their lack of effort on defense. UCLA turned it around and went to the Sweet 16 after looking like they would miss the tournament.
In any case, I think the chip the Bruins have on their shoulder on defense is important. As Bryce Alford stated:
Everyone has been killing us on our defense all year. Anytime we get killed on an area you try to work on it. We are a very hungry team. We know we’re not perfect and we have a lot of work still with a long way to go. But people have been killing us about it and I think we were pretty good on the defensive end lately.
UCLA is now playing defense at a level that can win championships, which brings me to my second theme. Let’s talk about the ultimate bandwagon reporter Bill Plaschke on UCLA:
Two weeks before the unveiling of this year’s March Madness brackets, these Bruins showed that it would not be unwise to pencil them into your Final Four.
Twenty-two years after UCLA’s last national basketball championship, these Bruins have resoundingly offered enough evidence for their fans to begin seriously dreaming about another one.
They are 7-0 in February after losing their last two games in January, which means something, because the last time they were undefeated in this month, they won that 1995 national title. . . .
They are not only 26-3, but they have now avenged all three losses, which means something, because they have beaten every team on their schedule.
Of course, the chip on the shoulder should not be gone. Joe Lunardi only moves UCLA to a three seed from a four seed in the tournament. Of course, he also shows his anti-UCLA bias when he forgets that UCLA beat the Oregon Ducks (he says we lost our one encounter with them). With Gonzaga’s loss and UCLA possessing two of the best wins of the season, on the road at Rupp and McKale, UCLA has a realistic chance of finishing the season ranked #1. That has to be more than a three seed right?
Steve Alford said (emphasis added):
We’ve just improved things in the month of February. It’s been a long time since UCLA has had an undefeated February. I’m just proud of our guys. To go through the schedule that we’ve gone through and we are 26 up and three down and this is as good of an environment as there is. We have a win at Kentucky and at Arizona in the same year is pretty special.
Speaking of special, I can’t emphasis how special Lonzo Ball is. Mark Whicker of the Orange County Register writes:
Lonzo Ball plays like Sgt. Joe Friday on “Dragnet.” Just the facts, ma’am.
For such a crowd-pleaser he rarely aspires for the spectacular. The intriguing thing about him, and also about UCLA, is that he leaves you wondering just how much is underneath, in times of emergency.. . .
Recently Lonzo’s dad, LaVar, has said some grandiose things. He said Lonzo was better than Steph Curry – “put my boy on Golden State and put Curry on UCLA and see what happens,” he said. He was quoted as saying Ball should play for the Lakers next year.
. . .
Earl Woods used to talk about Tiger Woods the same way. As it turned out, he was understating.
Lonzo may be the best UCLA player since Ed O’Bannon. The only question in my mind is which list does he go on? The list of MVPs of championship seasons or MVPs of teams that did not win it all. I hope the answer is decided with a win in April.