Maybe Joe Lunardi was right.
UCLA looked like a team that didn’t belong on the same court as the Wildcats, and honestly there wasn’t much that went right for the Bruins, to the point where I don’t know where to begin.
How about with Lonzo Ball? This was easily his worst game of the season, which wasn’t helped by a thumb injury when Lonzo mishandled a Lauri Markkanen airball. We’ve said it multiple times this year, but this team goes as Lonzo goes, and he can’t afford to have an off night if the Bruins want to go far. Is that an unfair position to put an 18 year old freshman? Absolutely, but it’s also the position UCLA has been in all year.
Bryce Alford? Awful. Absolutely awful. Alford wrote an article for the Player’s Tribune that was published yesterday, and he backed that up by going 4-22 in the tournament, including 3-17 from 3. Throw in a 4-12 performance in the final Pac-12 regular season game against Washington State, and this is easily one of the worst stretches of play in Bryce’s UCLA career. And if Bryce isn’t hitting his shot, his defense isn’t good enough to justify the amount of minutes he gets.
That said, what might justify those minutes is the continued poor play of Aaron Holiday. Holiday was 3-11 from the field, and managed to kill multiple attempts at a run with his patented “drive to the basket with no plan whatsoever” move. Holiday has essentially been a security blanket for this team all season, providing starter-level play from the bench and making the Bruins that much deeper, so to play at a GG Goloman-esque level just can’t happen. I’m not saying he has to carry the load offensively, but he has to play much, much better than he did these past two games.
Also, let’s talk about that defense. A lot of media people and myself have given credit to the Bruins for their renewed focus on that end of the court, but tonight was a sobering reminder that this team is still not a good defensive team by any stretch of the imagination. Arizona shot 50% (!) from the field, including 50% (10-20) from the 3 point line.
UCLA’s zone defense, which has been lauded in recent weeks for sparking the turnaround, was finally exposed by a team patient enough to attack the weak points. Specifically, the corner. UCLA’s zone necessitates putting a slower forward/center like Thomas Welsh in a position to have to guard both the paint and the corner, and the Wildcats routinely took advantage of that.
It also didn’t help that UCLA had no answer for Lauri Markkanen and Alonso Trier. Both Markkanen (29 points) and Trier (20 points) went off in a variety of ways, finding success both beyond the arc and on drives to the basket. Poor TJ Leaf, still coming off that ankle injury from last week, was taken to the woodshed consistently by Markkanen, and UCLA didn’t have a wing defender that could do much of anything against Trier.
And to add insult to injury, that last-second timeout. Look, this is going to sound like I’m taking Sean Miller’s side, but if Steve Alford is going to start something with his little timeout at the end of the game at Tuscon, you don’t get to get mad when the opposing coach does the same thing to you. That’s called talking the talk, and Miller showed exactly why he got Pac-12 Coach of the Year instead of Steve Alford by taking Alford’s lunch money coaching-wise in this game.
If there’s a positive, it’s that UCLA at least gets an extra day to rest before the tournament, and considering both TJ Leaf’s ankle and Lonzo Ball’s thumb, that’s a big deal. Especially considering the Bruins seem destined for a 3 seed outside of the West, which is going to make a potential trip to the Final Four that much more difficult. The second season starts now.
Isaac Hamilton led the Bruins with 20 points, TJ Leaf and Thomas Welsh tied for the rebounding lead with 8 each, and Lonzo Ball led the way with 6 assists. Lauri Markkanen led the Wildcats with 29 points.
- Player of the game: Thomas Welsh - All I’m going to say is that it was absolutely criminal how few touches Welsh got in this game. Welsh went 5-5 from the field, had 8 rebounds, and got passed over multiple times so that Bryce could rush a 3 point attempt. Over the past few years, UCLA has won this matchup whenever Welsh is allowed to dominate, and it is absolutely bonkers that Steve Alford couldn’t recognize this fact.
- Rebounding a secondary story - One of the reasons UCLA was able to win at Tuscon was because of their dominance on the boards, particularly on the offensive end. This game? Not so much. Arizona won the rebounding battle 38-32, and in particular had 12 offensive rebounds to the Bruins 7. If you’re having an off shooting night and you can’t steal extra possessions like the Bruins were able to do last time, you aren’t going to win many games against elite competition.
- South Region Here We Come! - The winner of tomorrow’s Oregon/Arizona game is destined to stay out West as one of the top 2 teams. The loser seems to be the favorite to land in the Midwest region, so UCLA looks to be heading out to either the South or East region, most likely the South. That’s not ideal, though the Bruins at least have some experience winning games in that time zone this year. Still, Steve Alford’s quest to get past the Sweet 16 for the first time in his career became that much harder.
Selection Sunday will tell us when and where the Bruins will play next.