So, normally I would do a sort of overall recap up here, go into some sort of detail, before going into 3 Takeaways. But I’m not going to do that today, because this was such an uneven performance that sticking to that format would not do it justice.
So instead, welcome to UCLA Victory Talk: Positives and Negatives.
One of the big glaring weaknesses of the team coming out of the Oregon game was the defense. Or rather, the lack of any defense. Oregon was able to do what they wanted, constantly attacking UCLA’s subpar perimeter defenders. So it stands to reason that, when UCLA actually looks like they understand basic defensive concepts, we should talk about it.
I think this starts with Bryce Alford. It’s no secret that Bryce is the worst defender on the team (even though Isaac Hamilton is doing his best to challenge that recently). It’s not just that Bryce lacks athleticism to be an elite defender; more often than not, you can point to moments where Bryce just seems uninterested in putting out any effort on defense. Not so in this game - it felt like Bryce took the repeated beatings by Oregon as a direct challenge, and looked much more active on the defensive end.
That effort cascaded down the lineup, as UCLA had their best defensive outing of the season. Maybe the Oregon game was a wake-up call; they say winning can cover up flaws, but losing brings those flaws to the forefront. Either way, I still need to cover and say that UCLA’s defense in this game still wasn’t great, but with how good UCLA’s offense can and will be this season, playing this level of defense should be what the Bruins need to get to that next level.
As far as players, it was nice to see TJ Leaf and Lonzo Ball have a bounce-back game. I thought both guys played ok against Oregon, but not at the level they had been at in previous games against good opponents. TJ Leaf had a double-double, with 21 points on 9-13 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds, while Lonzo Ball led the Bruins in scoring with 23 points to go along with a team-leading 7 assists. Let’s also give a shout out to Bryce Alford and Aaron Holiday (in spurts) for doing a good job on defense. Holiday in particular did good recognizing his struggles from distance, and switched into attack mode, drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line.
We need to have a talk about Isaac Hamilton.
Hamilton was 0-10 in this game, including 0-5 from distance. Hamilton hasn’t made a 3 pointer since the Ohio State game. Since that game, Isaac is 6-27 from the field, and hasn’t looked comfortable in the slightest. What’s worse is that his defense has regressed during the slump, as teams have been attacking him nearly as much as they do Bryce. Simply put, Isaac’s inability to get anything going offensively is starting to become a problem.
On the one hand, I want to give Steve Alford credit for allowing Isaac the opportunity to shoot his way out of a slump against an inferior opponent (sorry Beaver fans), especially just 2 days removed from his disappearing act against Oregon. But at this point, Alford is going to have to find a new way to get Isaac going, because Cal is a good enough team that letting Isaac continue to stink up the joint isn’t going to fly.
On a less-urgent note, we need to have a smaller talk about Aaron Holiday. Aaron does a lot of things great - he’s a great defender, good ball-handler, and a great source of energy off the bench. The biggest issue lately has been Aaron’s shift into the hero-ball that we (rightly) criticized Bryce for last year. To be fair, Aaron has the ability to drive with a power no one else on the team really has, but too often in the past few games has he driven towards the basket without a clear strategy, and ended up either turning the ball over or forcing a bad shot. I need to stress that this isn’t as big of an issue as Isaac’s shooting woes, but it’s something to consider going forward.
This last negative may be a bit of a personal preference bit, but Thomas Welsh only had 2 shots in this game after his 20 point outburst on Wednesday, and that is way too little attempts. Yes, Welsh was in foul trouble in this game, but Welsh’s only points came off a tip-in. Welsh is a weapon on offense, and should be utilized more, as his presence opens up the outside game even more.
UCLA returns home on Thursday to take on UC Berkeley. The game is scheduled for a 6:00 PM tipoff.