Instead of a preview of the game tomorrow night, I thought I would take my stab at answering this question that NBC asks that sums up the way many of us feel:
So what do we make of UCLA?
I'm seriously asking you.
Because I don't really know.
They beat Kentucky ... when Kentucky was missing their best big man and their starting point guard was banged up. They won at Gonzaga who isn't really the typical Gonzaga this season while they were missing their best big man. They've lost to Monmouth at home, lost to Wake Forest in Maui and got worked over by Kansas.
There is a ton of talent on that roster in a year where the Pac-12 is wide open, but I can't convince myself to fully trust this team just yet.
So is UCLA for real?
Yes*. First on offense, UCLA is an elite team. UCLA has four players who on any given night lead UCLA in scoring and are capable of scoring over 20. Tony Parker on the college level is a legitimate back to the basket post, a rarity these days. Thomas Welsh is a seven footer who has a deadly midrange shot which is a difficult matchup. Bryce Alford will take a couple bad/wild shots a game but is a very good shooter who excels at drawing fouls. Isaac Hamilton is a scorer who may be one of the best fourth options in the nation and will make teams pay if they ignore him. UCLA should be able to score on anyone.
Now on defense. I thought UCLA was hopeless in this regard. I thought the twin towers would never work on defense. And in a sense it does not work. However, that is where the next two players come into play. Aaron Holiday is a good defender of the point guard. That helps our defense immensely. However, two of our three best wins were keyed by the defense of Jonah Bolden. Further one of losses, to Monmouth, Jonah Bolden did not play. And yes, I think Bolden could have made a difference.
Bolden made the 1-2-2 or 3-2 zone work and completely flummoxed UNLV for a half. Against Gonzaga, Kyle Wiltjer was killing us as Parker could not cover a stretch four that far out. Bolden came in and limited Kyle Wiltjer. He was the biggest factor in two of our wins and possible one of our losses.
I said from the start that Bolden was the x factor. The guy we needed to play well. I thought Bolden was a great athlete who was at least a year away. But Bolden is key on defense now. Part of Steve Alford's job as coach is to get Bolden to buy into both making defense his priority and being a four not a "big guard." Against Gonzaga Bolden had two nice passes and two nice plays in the post. If Bolden can commit to playing down low, he is one of UCLA's best players. He is the best athlete and potential best defender.
Of course, UCLA is still weak on defense. Bryce is a bad defender. Isaac is limited. Thomas Welsh is a good help defender but he is too slow to play anywhere outside the paint and can struggle defending a strong post. Tony Parker is a good interior defender but can struggle covering a stretch four.
However, the emergence of Bolden as a defensive force gives UCLA a chance to be a very good as he gives UCLA a player (coupled with Holiday) that can defend every position.
So what has changed from the Wake Forest game when things looked so grim? Two things. On offense, the Bruins have realized they should take advantage of match ups. UCLA has four legitimate guys who can score 20 on any given night. Isaac and Bryce are playing unselfish. Uniquely UCLA is not a team that is going to get easy transition baskets. It is a team that is best taking what the defense gives it. Against Kentucky it was Welsh, against Gonzaga it was Parker and Hamilton.
However, more important is the emergence of Jonah Bolden. When one of the bigs go out (and Welsh and Parker have to rest, they cannot play the minutes that the guards are playing), Bolden makes UCLA better on defense. Against Gonzaga, Bolden even looked very good on offense at times.
Bolden has been a revelation. He has changed UCLA's potential fortunes around by being a very good defender and giving UCLA depth.
So why the asterisk? Good defense takes a team commitment. Our perimeter defense is still weak. Our best wins were over teams that were weak at guard (counting Kentucky Ulis as hurt). We have had some good luck with our best opponents missing key people. Our offense requires unselfish play realizing that no one is so good that on any given night a team can take away him.
That said UCLA has the weapons and ability, barring injuries, to be real.