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UCLA Escapes with Win Over Central Arkansas, 106-101

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The Bruins struggled mightily to put away an outmatched opponent.

NCAA Basketball: Central Arkansas at UCLA Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Nope.

Nope nope nope nope nope.

I’m literally writing a postgame recap about a game against Central Arkansas that went into overtime. None of this is good.

Let me give credit real fast to Central Arkansas, because the bright lights of Pauley weren’t too bright for them. Jordan Howard was unconscious down the stretch, hitting 3s from everywhere and anywhere, and finishing with 35 points, going 8-15 from distance. Every time it looked like UCLA was on the verge of pulling away, Central Arkansas would mount a run of their own, and even held a lead with 3 seconds left in regulation.

Just think about that last part real fast. Central Arkansas came into Pauley Pavilion and was leading by 1 with 3.7 seconds remaining. That’s less than ideal.

For UCLA, nothing worked. Thomas Welsh was awful - his outside shot wasn’t nearly as automatic as it has been in the past, and against a team as small as UCA is, he wasn’t nearly as dominant inside on offense as he could have been. Plus, he was countered pretty hard by the outside shooting ability of UCA’s big men, and he’s not a great defender on the outside. Aaron Holiday was awful - his 10 free throws at the end of the game will mask the fact that he went 5-15 from the field and showed a complete lack of effort.

I’m not joking about that last part. During the second half, a loose ball rolled around at midcourt with both UCLA and UCA defenders on the floor trying to grab it. Except for Aaron Holiday, who stood in the middle of the entire event and tried to grab the ball as casually as possible.

Here’s another point to make: this year’s freshman are not nearly as polished as the trio of Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf, and Ike Anigbogu were when they arrived on campus, and it shows. Well, Kris Wilkes has a case for not being lumped in here, but Jaylen Hands hasn’t figured out how to play under control yet, while Chris Smith is a huge work in progress, showing flashes but nothing complete yet (which says nothing of the Hangzhao 3, who I almost bet will see an increase of support for minimum suspensions after this game, because vocal reactionaries gotta vocally react). In overtime, UCLA ran out a lineup of Holiday, Wilkes, Welsh, Prince Ali (who was maybe the second-best player after Wilkes in this game), and Alex Olesinski. Now, Alex was fine in this game, very good even, but if Alex is in the closing unit of this UCLA team that has this level of talent, that’s a pretty good sign of how much work the freshman need.

AND I HAVEN’T EVEN GOTTEN INTO THE ACTUAL OFFENSE AND DEFENSE YET! Seriously, this game was the worst....

On offense, I know it’s only 2 games but it’s becoming clear that last year’s offensive output was more on Lonzo Ball than anything Steve Alford did. You can see this unit trying to do some similar things from last year (for example, 50% on 10-20 shooting from 3!) but too often the offense got bogged down as players just stayed in one spot dribbling. There’s no real motion on any consistent level yet.

As for the defense, I guess that maybe it wasn’t a personnel problem that was causing all the defensive woes under Alford the last few years, but a scheme problem. Case in point: Central Arkansas very clearly recognized that there is a big problem in how UCLA guards the 3 point line, and took advantage of that, shooting 35 3s in the game and making 18 of them. And these weren’t contested looks by any means. UCLA was bad on rotations, bad on recognition, just bad in general on defense.

Look, I knew this team would be a work of progress compared to last year. Hell, I’m even willing to cut them some slack considering all of the events of the past week and a half. After all, they were just reunited with their teammates after the whole China ordeal last night, if not this morning, and I can understand if the focus wasn’t completely on the basketball court.

But that cannot continue.

UCLA just finished game one of what will be a whirlwind sprint of 4 games in 7 days, and with the suddenly-smaller bench, they need to put lesser opponents away early, if only to save energy. What this game showed me, personally, is that this team has a long way to go before we even consider that a possibility.

Aaron Holiday led the Bruins with 24 points. Kris Wilkes led the team in rebounds with 12, while Jaylen Hands led the team in assists with 6. Jordan Howard led all scorers with 35 points.

3 Takeaways

  1. Player of the Game (UCLA Edition): Kris Wilkes - I have to qualify it this time, because if we’re being honest, Jordan Howard was the best player on the court in this game, but Wilkes showed exactly why he was a top prospect. 20 points on 8-17 shooting, including 2-3 from distance, to go along with his team-leading 12 rebounds is one hell of a performance. It’s a shame the rest of the team didn’t want to join him.
  2. Big Issue (because I had to pick one): 3 Point Defense - UCLA has struggled with this in the past, and the hope was with more athletic, longer players, UCLA could finally fix this issue. Wrong. The same problems still exist: teams know to take advantage of UCLA’s poor defensive switching to get favorable matchups and find open shooters. If UCLA is going to have any shot at making a run this year, the 3 point defense HAS to get better.
  3. Free Throws a Problem! Again! - There’s a belief among NBA scouts that you can tell how good a shooter someone is by looking at their free throw percentage. If that is true, then UCLA is an awful shooting team, because they were abysmal from the charity stripe in this game. Aaron Holiday and Alex Olesinski saved this from looking like a total disaster by going 10-12 and 5-6 from the line, mostly in overtime, but the rest of the team combined to go 5-14, which really helped Central Arkansas stick around for long stretches of this game. This is just me throwing some ideas out there, Steve, but maybe just do free throw practice for an entire hour? It can’t hurt at this point.

UCLA plays again on Friday, when they host South Carolina State at Pauley. Tipoff is scheduled for 6 PM PST.

Go Bruins!