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UCLA Basketball: Bruins Capture First Two of the Three Must Win LA Games

The Bruins took a step back from the brink of a season collapse by deliberately sticking to an inside-out game plan and reining in the guards. Next up is USC on Wednesday night, and then its on the road in Oregon including a match-up with surprising Oregon State. Did the Bruins really find the "way forward" and can they stick to it when they hit the road?

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

We said these three games in Los Angeles were must win or as Steve Alford wrote on the board in the team meeting room, "three wins in nine days." The Bruins are two thirds of the way to meeting that goal with the final LA leg at USC on Wednesday night.

Stanford, Berkeley and USC are not great teams, but after the two spectacular beat downs by Kentucky and Utah, and more importantly, losing winnable games to Oklahoma, Alabama and Colorado, winning these games is a start.

Bruins fans got worried a bit when it was announced that Jabari Bird be playing for the Golden Bears for the first time in ten games, but of course he was rusty, and had to sit when a hamstring seem to act up. Berkeley has been in trouble without him, losing to Bakersfield, Washington State, USC and now UCLA. After Tyrone Wallace, Jordin Matthews and sometimes David Kravish, there is no scoring and no interior presence.

I have to give major props to Wallace. His defense on Bryce was the best I've seen this year. Though Bryce finally had 11 points, in the first half, when it was still a game, he was 0-7. We know that's not unusual for Bryce lately, but Wallace was denying Bryce the pass in a good spot and not allowing him to raise the ball for a shot.

UCLA still has only one win outside of Pauley, UAB in the B4A, so we have to limit the celebration until they prove they can play under the lights away from home. I thought the Bruins had a chance for five straight, but Oregon State, 10-0 in Gill Coliseum, beat Arizona last night, so their match-up on the road for the Bruins looms as the next test.

Most importantly, the Bruins changed their style of play -- or at least they stuck to the game plan for most of 40 minutes. In broad strokes, the winning game plan is to play inside-out, take the transition when it is there, and have the guards show patience and be more selective with their shots. Here's one of the most telling statistics: the average time of possession was 18 for Stanford and 17 for Berkeley compared to the season average of 12.

Here's what I liked yesterday:

  • The guards came out looking for Looney and Parker and continued to do so for most of the game. There were possessions were I actually thought they were over-passing. The scoring was balanced from Bryce with 11 to Kevon Looney, the leader, with 15. Hamilton also had 11, Parker 13 and Powell 14. Parker had trouble finishing in the first half, going 1-6 from the floor and 1-3 from the line, but you have to like his continuing tenacity. I don't understand why Steve Alford felt the need to call him out in his first line of the post-game presser.
  • Looney showed excellent moves to the hoops: he drove on his defender (who isn't Willie Cauley-Stein) three time and finished, but was also able to freeze the defender and hit jumpers with space. Here's an in-depth look at Kevon's x's and o's from CBS Sports. Sam Vecenie talks about Kevon's slashing about midway through -- he's going to have to update those paragraphs.
  • The defense continues to improve. It appears to be close to 90% man-to-man now, but the best thing, again, is the work of Parker and Looney. They are switching on the high ball screen, making aggressive plugs (if there is such a thing -- the plug is very close to the ball), and effectively clogging the lane. I was amazed when Tony drew a charge on Wallace.
  • Norman "Willis Reed" Powell was a warrior. Thumbs, hips, whatever.

I didn't like this so much:

  • Did Steve Alford listen to the scouting reports? Stanford's Chasson Randle had 32 points including 7-13 from three. Bill Walton and Lorenzo Romar (four nights before) saw that Randle couldn't go to his left. That makes it easier to deny his shot. Steve Alford rotated defenders all night, but Bryce, Isaac and Norman all gave Randle space. Matthews was Cal's only shooter. One person to worry about!
  • The handle from Bryce and Isaac is very shaky, and won't change this season, but what should change is the over-penetration and dribbling on the baseline under the basket. I think Tony has gotten used to this, but more often than not, a turnover, bad shot or at minimum seconds eaten off the shot clock is the result. If the elder Alford did have a heart-to-heart with Alford the younger, he seems to have left this important part of the conversation out.

The beat writers had the same Looney/Parker dominance and "way forward" theme (KartjeWang and Helfand).