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UCLA Men's Basketball Roundtable: Rocky Mountain Sweep Edition

UCLA earned its first road trip sweep of the Steve Alford era last week, returning home with an 8-1 record after completing the first third of the Pac-12 season. The writers and editor of Bruins Nation discuss the opening 3 weeks of Pac-12 action.

1. After splitting the road games in Oregon, winning a pair at home against the Bay Area teams, and winning both games in the Rockies, are the Bruins where you expected them to be at this point in the Pac-12 regular season?

DCBRUINS: Yes. Oregon was a tough matchup and an "understandable" loss. They were underrated at the time and healthy for the first time all season. That said we almost won.

AnteatersandBruins: No. Honestly, I thought they would have lost at least one more game by now! It’s nice to see that they are holding their own even on the road. And the Oregon loss was a tough one.

Joe Piechowski: That depends. If you had asked me before the season started, I don’t think I would have said that they would be where they are right now. So, in that respect, the team has exceeded my expectations.

Nirya: Honestly, I’d probably say no, because I didn’t expect a sweep of the Rocky Mountain road trip. Only 3 teams in Pac 12 history have managed the sweep in 6 years, so I wasn’t willing to give this team the benefit of the doubt, even with their prior play up to this point. That said, I will happily take the 5-1 record.

Bruinette88: Yeah, pretty much. UCLA didn’t get a chance to ease into the Pac-12 season (like Arizona), so it’s not really surprising that the Bruins have one loss. If the Bruins can reach the halfway point of the conference season with just loss, they’ll be in great position to challenge for the Pac-12 regular season championship.

2. The Bruins have already been involved in a pair of Pac-12 games decided in the final seconds: a loss to the Ducks and a win over the Utes. What have you learned about this team from those two games?

DCBRUINS: We can beat anyone anywhere. Again, Oregon is a top 10 team and we came within a couple free throws and a last second three pointer from winning on the road and a hostile environment. The Kentucky game was not a fluke.

AnteatersandBruins: Alford is learning when he needs to pull Bryce. He’s a clutch player when it comes to shooting, but if we’re on a defensive stand, Bryce needs to be subbed out.

Joe Piechowski: Well, the one thing I’ve learned about this team from this season so far is how good Lonzo Ball is. I’ve also learned how selfless this team has been playing. I was a little concerned at the end of the Utah game that Bryce would play hero ball and that Steve wouldn’t pull Bryce for a defensive sub, but, in both case, my fears were not realized.

Nirya: This team hasn’t been challenged much late in games, so to see genuine growth from the Oregon loss to the Utah win was encouraging. UCLA realistically only has one more challenging road game left on the schedule, but having a team that has learned how to handle adversity is going to be beneficial down the stretch.

Bruinette88: I have to give the team a lot of credit for holding on against the Utes. After the really tough, last second loss to the Ducks, the Bruins found themselves in the same situation in Utah, but this time around, they found a way to win. Lonzo Ball (and to a lesser extent, Aaron Holiday) deserves huge credit for coming up with big plays down the stretch. And of course Thomas Welsh deserves praise too for hitting a pair of free throws under pressure.

3. Let’s talk about a few of Steve Alford’s coaching decisions. Against Oregon with 20 seconds remaining in the game, Steve Alford had Bryce on the court for defensive purposes. Against Utah with 6 seconds remaining and with the Bruins needing a defensive stop, Steve Alford subbed out Bryce for Aaron Holiday. Which of the decisions (none, one, or both) do you agree with?

AnteatersandBruins: See my answer to #2!

Joe Piechowski: Definitely agree with Steve subbing Aaron Holiday for Bryce when they HAD to have a defensive stop. Bryce’s defense is terrible. He’s proven to be pretty amazing at the 2, but his defense is awful. That’s just a fact. So, I’m glad Steve subbed Aaron in on Saturday.

Nirya: I actually agree with both, but for different reasons. In the Oregon game, Isaac was playing so poorly that he was playing a worse defensive game than Bryce, and Bryce (despite the missed FT) was playing much better offensively. The thing I’d question instead was deciding not to foul and send an Oregon team that was 72% from the line to shoot 2, then give yourself the opportunity to either rebound or get a last-second shot, but that’s more hindsight. In the Utah game, bringing Bryce out was the correct call, especially because Utah had been picking on him in particular on drives, so having the more athletic Holiday to prevent that worked.

Bruinette88: I’ve been complaining about Steve Alford’s inability (or unwillingness) to intelligently manage defensive substitutions for three years, so I reject the proposition that Alford "calculated" that Bryce would be a better defender than Hamilton at the end of the Oregon game. For three years, Steve Alford has consistently used his son as a defender when the team has needed a defensive stop even though there were better defenders on the bench. Therefore it strikes me as extremely implausible that at Oregon, Steve Alford carefully considered his options before sending Bryce onto the court. Of course we have no way of knowing if the Bruins would have got a stop with Isaac on the court instead of Bryce, but we know that Steve Alford’s choice didn’t work.

But assume for a moment that Steve Alford is a supreme game tactician. If so, why did he choose to have the ball go to his son on the Bruins’ final possession knowing that Bryce had not been shooting free throws well in the previous three games? After all, if Steve Alford is constantly calculating the best course of action based on the latest data, then he wouldn’t have (as always) put the ball in Bryce’s hands in the last seconds of the game.

I don’t know what happened between the Oregon game and the Utah game, but Steve Alford finally made the right call against the Utes by sitting Bryce on the bench when the team needed a defensive stop. And again, we don’t know what would have happened if he’d left Bryce on the court, but in this instance, we know that his decision worked. I hope that this marks a change in the way Steve Alford manages the end of close games, because it’s a big change for the better.

4. Against Colorado, the Bruins were up by 19 with about 4 and a half minutes left, and were up by 21 with a little over 2 and a half minutes left, but Steve Alford never chose to go deeper than his 8 man rotation. What’s your take on that decision?

DCBRUINS: Generally: What is deeper than the eight man rotation? I am not trying to be facetious but with Olesinski and Ali redshirting there is not much beyond eight to go to. Ikenna Okwarabizie is not a Pac-12 level player and, while he has size, seems athletically limited. As far as the Colorado game specifically: he should have rested guys like Ball and emptied the bench in garbage time. He kept Bryce in to give him a shot at scoring 40, supposedly told him one more shot. I guess I am okay with that, but year he should have rested guys at the end, especially Ball.

AnteatersandBruins: I keep wondering why we don’t see more players in garbage time, but my only guess is that he wants big wins and wants to keep them conditioned to play entire games. We also don’t want to see the score slip away and end up with a close game like we’ve seen happen.

Joe Piechowski: I think it would have made sense to go more than 8 deep, considering the quick turnaround and the altitude and, if we had lost to Utah, it would have been a very valid point of criticism because he should have tried to keep the starters fresh.

Nirya: I’d agree with the shift in getting Bryce to 40, except Lonzo was the primary instigator in that, repeatedly passing up easy shots to force the ball to Bryce. But I’d probably say the biggest issue is there isn’t much beyond the 8-man rotation, especially with Ali and Olesinski redshirting. Had even Olesinski been back, it would have made sense to go with a lineup of Holiday, Hamilton, Olesinski, GG, and Anigbogu. I think there is a case that could be made to lower the minutes played for Ball/Alford/Leaf in blowouts, but I don’t think there’s a possibility of going past the 8 man rotation unless the game really is out of hand.

Bruinette88: I think it was pretty short-sighted. Knowing that the Bruins had a less than 48 hours before their next game, which was another contest played at high altitude, it would have made sense to give the starters as much rest as possible. Of course, if one of the starters had been injured in what can reasonably be called garbage time, Alford’s decision would have received serious scrutiny. And more to the point, when a team is up by 21 with 2 and a half minutes to play, it’s time to clear the bench. No team that’s ahead by 20+ points with 2.5 minutes left to play should need to play its starters to seal a victory.

A little more troublesome from my perspective, though, is the clear shift in purpose in the closing stages of the game: the goal suddenly seemed to become helping Bryce score 40 points. To be clear, this has nothing to do with Bryce or accusations of nepotism because I’d have the same objection to elevating personal goals above team goals if the player in question had been Hamilton or Holiday. I’ve criticized Coach Close and our women’s basketball team for similar loss of focus. Steve Alford is responsible for elevating the needs of the team above individual goals. Against Colorado, he failed in that respect.

5. How much do you think the Bruins will be hurt this season by the decisions of Alex Olesinski and Prince Ali to redshirt?

DCBRUINS: Not at all.* The asterisk is if someone gets hurt. For what it is worth, I am impressed with Steve Alford for not pressuring those guys, especially Ali. We saw in the first half of the Utah game when both Holiday AND Hamilton were in foul trouble GG playing guard in the 3-2 zone was a nightmare. There is a likely another very brief time this will become relevant. So I think it was the best decision for Ali personally, but for the Bruins there will probably be another time where we could use an athletic guard if only for a few minutes.

AnteatersandBruins: Not much. The talent is clearly there this year and we seem to be doing fine without them. It will be nice to have them next year when our one-and-dones move on to the NBA.

Joe Piechowski: Well, if the worst case scenario that DC describes happens, he can always burn one of their redshirts, even if I’d prefer he didn’t.

Nirya: Yeah, I have to commend Alford as well for letting both Ali and Olesinski make the decision to redshirt on their own and not pressure them. Ali would definitely been more helpful if only because Steve Alford likes running his 4 guards at 3 positions on the floor, but I don’t think the decision to redshirt is going to cost the team (of course, an injury could change that, but if that happens, I’d guess one of those redshirts would get burned).

Bruinette88: I’m not questioning the decisions made by either player, but in my opinion, given the fact that Alford hasn’t shown the ability to field an effective lineup with three frontcourt players, we could be a bit thin in the backcourt. I think we can survive a short term injury to any of our big men, but I’m not sure the same is true if we were to lose a guard for a few games.

I’m less inclined to give Steve Alford a lot of credit for allowing the players to make the decision to redshirt. Generally speaking, nowadays those decisions tend to be left to the players. It’s awfully rare to hear of cases in which players complain about being pressured to play rather than redshirt. However, if there is an injury and both players continue to redshirt, then Alford deserves credit for looking out for the interests of those players.

6. The Bruins host the Arizona schools this week and play Southern Cal in the Galen Center the following week. How badly would UCLA’s chances of winning the Pac-12 regular season title be dented by a loss in any of those games? Do you expect the Bruins to win all three games?

DCBRUINS: Yes. ASU is not a good team. Arizona the crowd will be rocking and we will be up. I WAS scared of SUC. They are on paper a tough matchup for us, more so than say Cal, but they have fallen apart recently.

AnteatersandBruins: I hope to God we win all three and really stick it to Southern Cal. U of A is our basketball foe and, in my opinion, has taken over as the conference leader in basketball in the recent past. In order for UCLA to continue proving their worth, they need to win them all. I think losing to Arizona will really hurt their chances for the conference title, especially if Oregon continues to roll.

Joe Piechowski: I think all three games are "must-win" games for the Bruins, but for different reasons. We need to beat ASU because the Sun Devils are not a very good basketball team. We need to beat Arizona because we need a quality win against a team that will likely be headed to the Tournament. We need to beat Southern Cal for the same reason and because this team needs to make a statement that last year’s three losses was not acceptable.

Nirya: I think UCLA has the edge in all 3 games. ASU isn’t very good, and that’s obviously the game where you’d like to see UCLA get some starters some more rest. Arizona has been riding an easy schedule to this point, and while they’ll be a defensive test, I don’t believe they have the offense to keep up, especially on the road (this will be a recurring theme all season, really). And while USC is very athletic, they are also very not good, and I think the Bruins will take out last year’s frustrations on the Trojans. I guess in that respect, all 3 games are must-win, but only because it’s hard to see them as losses (Arizona game excepted).

Bruinette88: A loss to Arizona would shrink the Bruins’ margin of error considerably. That’s a game that UCLA really has to win, and should win. I have a little bit of concern about the following game against Southern Cal, but I think that the probability is high that we will be 8-1 when we reach the midpoint of the Pac-12 season.