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UCLA Basketball Outlasts Georgia Tech in China, 63-60

The Bruins showed that they have more than a few kinks to work out.

Kris Wilkes speaks with Roxy Bernstein and Bruin legend Bill Walton after UCLA’s season-opening win over Georgia Tech

Any expectations I had for this team coming out of the CSULA game went right out the window on November 7.

I only note that because I suddenly have to treat this as a brand-new UCLA team, one that is suddenly lacking in front-court depth, and needs to relearn how to play together, especially on an increased minutes load.

There’s a lot to talk about in this game, so let’s get to this:

Georgia Tech, despite missing a ton of players, is still a Power 5 program, so this was always going to be a solid test for the Bruins, and that was before losing a ton of depth a few days before tip-off. Ben Lammers is a legitimate contender for the Wooden Award (don’t take my word for it, check out Mark Titus’s season preview for more on the center), and it turns out Josh Pastner is a pretty good head coach.

Still, I think you could make the argument that the story of this game was more how UCLA let the Yellow Jackets stick around than anything else. The Bruins had 14 turnovers, couldn’t dominate the boards in any meaningful way, and were 14-21 from the free throw line. Last year, the offense utilized motion to get open looks for great outside shooters; this year, the offense seems to rely on more attacking drives, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but it is clearly a work-in-progress. Jaylen Hands and Aaron Holiday had issues in this game, turning the ball over and taking wild shots more often than not; the 11 assists the Bruins totaled as a team were only 3 more than Lonzo Ball averaged the entirety of last season. There are even moments where you can see how much this team wants to press in transition, but they’re clearly not as smooth in that department yet either.

Also, I have nowhere else to put this, but Steve Alford went with Prince Ali over Jaylen Hands near the end of the game when looking to close out the Yellow Jackets. Make of that what you will (personal opinion: Alford trusted Ali, who has been in the system a few years and has shown a willingness to play within himself so far this season, over Hands, who was fairly erratic in his first start against a P5 opponent, and I don’t really blame him).

That’s not to say there weren’t positives as well. UCLA’s defense looks much-improved, even though there remains some familiar issues on that end (particularly, UCLA’s penchant for leaving the corners undefended). The length of this team showed to be a problem for Georgia Tech at times, as the Bruins were able to close up passing lanes and contest shots throughout the game. And even the offense showed enough positives that I can’t completely write it off as anything more than a work-in-progress.

Also, and this isn’t an excuse, but the combination of trip to China and legal issues for three of their teammates seemed to have an affect on this team. Guys had to adapt to an increased workload, and for the frontcourt in particular, it looked as if guys were playing much more passively. There was an unmistakable timidity that had to have been a shock for any UCLA fan or casual observer who had watched this team last year. There’s also an obvious different between opening the season at home against a cupcake and opening the season in a foreign country against a Power-5 opponent, so either way this probably ends up as a good win.

Maybe that’s the biggest takeaway that we should take from this game; in the end, UCLA came away with a victory. It might have been closer than we’d all collectively had liked, but 1-0 is still 1-0, no matter how it happened.

Kris Wilkes led the Bruins with 18 points. Thomas Welsh led the team in rebounding with 8, while Aaron Holiday led the team in assists with 7. Ben Lammers led all scorers with 24 points.

3 Takeaways

  1. Player of the Game: Kris Wilkes - On a night where the biggest story was the absence of 3 members from UCLA’s heralded freshman class, it seems appropriate that another freshman stole the show with a big night of his own. Wilkes led the team with 18 points, and went 4-6 from 3-point range, showing exactly why UCLA fans were so excited about his commitment. Wilkes was a force on both offense and defense, and without his performance in this game, UCLA very easily could have lost this game.
  2. The Big Issue: Interior Play - With the loss of Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, UCLA found itself thin in the front-court, with only 3 true big men active on the roster remaining. This game was a good indicator that this situation could prove problematic; the Bruins tied in rebounds, with Georgia Tech’s big men outrebounding their UCLA counterparts 20-16. Foul issues in the second half left UCLA fans contemplating how Steve Alford would react if multiple big men needed to sit for long stretches. And none of this gets into how easy it was for Ben Lammers for most of this game. UCLA’s big men will need to step up going forward, no ifs, ands, or butts.
  3. Upperclassmen Need to Step Up - Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday were unusually quiet in this game, and that’s a problem. Midway through the second half, Welsh had only taken 4 shots, and was mostly a non-factor, while Aaron Holiday was not the aggressive, attacking player he was last year. I noted in the exhibition game that Holiday was quiet there as well, acting as something of a safety net for they younger players, but this game drove home just how important these two are to the offense, and UCLA really cannot afford for both of them to have a quiet game.

UCLA returns home on November 15 for their first official home game of the season, with a matchup against the Central Arkansas Bears. This should provide the Bruins an opportunity to work out some of the kinks. Tip-off is set for 8 PM PST.

Go Bruins!