This.....was not a good game for UCLA.
The Bruins took Western Michigan’s best shot and still won, but boy howdy did they look bad doing it. The Bruins played sloppy from beginning to end, looking uninterested in their opponent and very much looking like a team thinking about the upcoming Pac-12 slate.
Let’s be fair up front: while Western Michigan kept the game close throughout the second half, there never seemed to be a point where the final felt in doubt. That’s a good thing, especially considering how the Bruins have performed in previous non-conference games. And let’s not take anything away from the Broncos, who played very well. WMU’s Thomas Wilder in particular did whatever he wanted against the UCLA defense.
But at the same time, that underscores the problem with this game. UCLA entered the game as the #2 team in the nation, so fairly or unfairly, we have to start grading their performances based on whether they live up to that ranking.
So, if you’re looking at why I (and judging from #UCLATwitter, I’m not alone here) were pretty upset with this game overall, you’d probably have to point at UCLA’s shooting. The Bruins ended the game shooting 50% from the field, which is....fine. It’s not as good as they’d been all year, but compared to the rest of college basketball, it was fine. But the Bruins also shot 6-22 from deep, which just can’t happen going forward. It wasn’t like the Bruins were missing contested shots, either; UCLA just couldn’t knock down their outside shots at the level they had this year, which let the Broncos stay in the game.
The defense...well it was what it was at this point. I don’t know if UCLA has it in itself to be a good defensive team. To be sure, they have their moments, and they’re great at defending around the rim (9 blocks tonight), but opponents are going to get open shots against this team. Thus far, that hasn’t been a problem, simply because UCLA’s offense, in an era of defensive dominance, has been so historically-good, but at some point the Bruins might want to try something new, because Western Michigan took advantage of UCLA’s poor defense on screens to attack UCLA constantly.
So yeah, UCLA finishes the non-conference schedule undefeated, a first since the 1994-1995 season, which is really good! But there’s a lot to clean up going forward.
Bryce Alford led the Bruins with 22 points, TJ Leaf and Isaac Hamilton both tied for the rebounding lead with 8, and Aaron Holiday led the team in assists with 7. Lonzo Ball led the Bruins in minutes with 37. Thomas Wilder led the Broncos with 22 points.
- Player of the Game: Aaron Holiday - Aaron gets the nod today, but again no Bruin really stood out in this game. Aaron did provide a spark off the bench, though, and he also had the highlight dunk in a game full of good contenders when he drove down the lane and absolutely destroyed the rim. Also, I know there are some people who love counting minutes, so I’ll point out that Bryce had 32 minute compared to Aaron’s 29, as UCLA decided to go small more often than not in this game.
- Ball has an off night - If you wanted to look at a secondary problem with this game, it’d have to be Lonzo Ball’s night. Ball finished with only 7 points on 3-7 shooting, including missing all 3 of his 3-pointers, and he only recorded 4 assists. So much of UCLA’s offense runs through Ball’s hands, so you can forgive him a bit for some of the other Bruins missing shots, but this was the kind of game that you’d have liked to see Ball take over in the second half, and it never seemed to happen. TJ Leaf was similarly off for most of the night, but the Bruins seemed uninterested at involving him in the first half (only 4 shot attempts, including 2 threes) so I’ll back off a bit thre.
- Screen defense has to be better - I talked about it a bit up top, but it bares repeating here: UCLA just was not good at defending on-ball screens in this game. Too often, the Western Michigan player would use a screen to get an open jumper, or even worse drive for easy points around the basket. UCLA looked discombobulated while defending it, too often trying to go over the top on the screen. Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday got picked on repeatedly here, especially surprising for Holiday, who is normally a solid defender. I don’t know if the game plan was the keep Western Michigan from shooting threes, but whatever the case, the Bruins need to go back to the drawing board here.
UCLA begins conference play next Wednesday, with a road matchup in Eugene against the Oregon Ducks. Tipoff is scheduled for 6:00 PM.