I know I’m supposed to be recapping the game for everyone, but if you’ll permit me, I’d like to start by being a bit selfish here. See, this is my 4th year writing at Bruins Nation, and in those four years I’ve been lucky enough to essentially tag-team basketball coverage with DCBruins through the Lonzo season in my first year to the wilderness that was last season. I got to write about some fantastic victories, inexplicable losses, dazzling play, and mind-numbing coaching.
So with that said, I hope you’ll be a bit understanding when I say that this was one of the most enjoyable games I’ve gotten to write about on this website, as the UCLA Bruins took care of business and defeated the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels by the score of 71-54.
Don’t get me wrong - this was not a perfect game by any stretch. From about the three minute mark of the 1st half until about the under 12 media timeout in the 2nd half, UNLV really seemed to be dominating play, with UCLA struggling just to keep them at arms length. The Bruins had 17 turnovers in this game, with 10 of those coming in a sloppy 2nd half. Even Bill Walton seemed to be working through some early-season kinks in this one (though he still had some gems).
But when I say this was one of the most enjoyable games I’ve gotten to cover, I really do mean that. I can fully admit that my feelings may be clouded a bit by the high of no longer having to watch a Steve Alford-coached team, but it goes beyond that. Or maybe it doesn’t, because there was never a point during Steve Alford’s tenure that UCLA ever gave consistent effort throughout the game. That counts double for defense; honestly, UCLA’s first-half defensive effort by itself would have qualified as one of the best efforts of the Alford era.
UCLA held the Rebels to 38.6% shooting on the night, including 4-15 from distance. Things weren’t much better on the inside, with the Bruins blocking five shots while also grabbing eight steals. They did this while playing clean basketball - the Bruins only had 11 fouls all game, with three of those coming on offensive fouls. That allowed the Bruins to keep UNLV off the foul line, as the Rebels only had four free throws all game.
Offensively, UCLA was better than they’ve been. 71 points isn’t exactly a huge amount, and 17 turnovers isn’t a great number to have, but the Bruins shot 49% from the field, including 43.5% from deep. And when the shots weren’t falling, UCLA remained aggressive, getting to the free throw line 16 times and making 13 of them (oh hey, it turns out you actually can have a team that can make their free throws!). The 11 assists were a far cry from some of the gaudy numbers UCLA fans have been used to on that end over the past few years, but at least we can see improvement on a weekly basis.
That’s really what made this game refreshing. It became a running gag over the past few years that the UCLA team that showed up in November would bear a striking resemblance to the UCLA team that showed up in late February. The teams never seemed to grow under Alford, instead stagnating for most of the season despite having a bevy of talent. So far, the biggest calling card for new coach Mick Cronin has been the development and growth that has been on display even through three games. This team went from needing a furious rally to win their first game of the year, to beating the most talented team they’ve faced yet without really having to break a sweat. It’s remarkable, and I have to imagine these kinds of performances and buy-in are doing a lot to calm anyone worried about Cronin’s ability as UCLA coach.
Chris Smith led the Bruins with 16 points and eight rebounds. Tyger Campbell and Prince Ali tied for the team lead in assists with four apiece. Donnie Tillman led the way for the Rebels with 18 points.
- Player of the Game: Chris Smith - My first game of the season, and of course giving this out was a hard choice, because three players really could have laid claim to this. Tyger Campbell was excellent, especially from distance, while Prince Ali had one of his best games as a Bruin. But Smith truly was excellent in this game, leading the team in both points and rebounds while being hyper-efficient from the floor. Smith has long been a tantalizing player for Bruin fans just based on his enormous potential, and so far this year, he looks empowered enough to actually tap into that potential. The future is truly bright for him.
- The defense is good - Folks, I may be beating a dead horse, but I cannot stress enough just how much better UCLA’s defense is now. One of the more underrated aspects of the defense so far has been the constant switching in man. At one point, Prince Ali ended up matched up against UNLV big man Cheikh Mbacke Diong on an inbounds, and Ali stood his ground and forced a miss close to the basket. It was emblematic of so many things, but more than anything it showcased the level of buy-in Cronin has already gotten from the players in the program, especially from a 5th year senior in Ali. That’s an excellent sign for the Bruins going forward.
- Reports of the demise of UCLA’s shooting have been greatly exaggerated - Or rather, they’ve been more a victim of small sample size. UCLA wasn’t a bad shooting team last year, and if anything the loss of Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands ended up as a neutral effect on this team, especially considering how inefficient Wilkes could be. Yet one of the sore spots early was poor shooting from the Bruins. So it was great to see UCLA perform much better on this front against UNLV. I don’t know if UCLA will continue to shoot at this level throughout the season, but sitting at about 45% from the field and 40% from deep on the year seems well within reach, which would be solid numbers for a team that seems to be hanging its hat on the defensive end.
UCLA returns to the court on Monday, when they will host Southern Utah. Tip-off is scheduled for 8:00 PM PT.