After his team’s loss to UCLA on Saturday morning, Kentucky coach John Calipari said UCLA “manhandled” the Wildcats.
“We let them out-battle us,” he added. “The factor in the game is they played better than us and they played harder than us.”
“They had more fight than we had.”
Last year, UCLA’s win over #1 Kentucky in Pauley Pavilion felt like a shock upset.
This year? After the Bruins pulled out a 97-92 victory in Lexington on Saturday morning, it felt more like an announcement:
The Bruins are back, and they are for real.
In a back and forth game that resembled a track meet at times, the Bruins were the last ones standing, snapping Kentucky’s 42 game winning streak at Rupp Arena in the process and scoring the most points against Kentucky in the John Calipari era.
They earned themselves a shiny new #2 ranking in yesterday’s AP poll, marking the first time the Bruins have been ranked in the top 5 in 8 years.
Things are looking good in Westwood.
After a shaky early start where the Bruins looked nervy (especially Lonzo Ball, who committed 5 first half turnovers), UCLA punched back to lead 49-45 at halftime. When the offense was not committing turnovers, they were shooting lights out, having finished the first half going 18-33 (58%) in the first half.
Overall, the Bruins ended the game shooting 35-66 (53%) from the floor, including a cool 10-23 from 3 point range.
It was offensive basketball at its finest. Six Bruins scored in double digits, led by Isaac Hamilton’s 19 points. His role in this offense fits his old-man skill set perfectly. He is lethal as a corner 3 point shooter and has enough wiggle to cut into the lane for floaters and layups off the glass, and you could do far worse as a third ball-handler if you’re in a pinch.
Ball, after a rocky first half where he was scoreless for the first 19 minutes and 55 seconds of the first half, scored 11 of his 14 in the second half, including multiple buckets to stem Kentucky comeback attempts. His air of controlled aggression and swagger is something this team missed last year, and you can see it emanate throughout the entire squad. Even amid his first half struggles, which included him being moved off the ball in place of Aaron Holiday, he never wavered, and neither did his teammates.
I mean, this shot to end the first half, a step-back 27 footer with a taller man defending, is just ridiculous.
Lonzo Ball hits his first bucket of the game from way deep 3 to give UCLA a 4 point lead over Kentucky at the half. pic.twitter.com/kAe2nws3bV— Derrek Li (@DerrekLi) December 3, 2016
Speaking of Holiday, he shone brightest in the first half when UCLA needed him most, scoring 13 points in 14 huge minutes filling in at point guard for Ball. He is probably the most over-qualified 6th man in the country, as he would be a starting point guard at nearly every other school in America.
His value as a ball handler and a fearless spark plug proved immense as he picked up for a struggling Ball and willed the Bruins to a halftime lead that they did not relinquish.
Of all the freshmen on the floor in this game between the two teams, TJ Leaf was the most dominant. He was a monster on the glass, picking up 13 rebounds and adding in 17 points. Against a beefy Kentucky frontcourt, Leaf not only held his own, he excelled. He played with a toughness that many doubted he possessed, and when you combine it with his excellent footwork and ball-handling skills, he has first-round NBA draft potential.
“I mean, what [TJ] Leaf did, he basically dominated the game...he killed us.”
-Kentucky coach John Calipari on TJ Leaf
Look at his footwork on this sweet baseline drive against Bam Adebayo. That is reminiscent of prime Dirk Nowitzki.
Not bad for the Pac-12 and National Player of the Week.
Overall, UCLA outrebounded 41-38, a sign of their toughness and relentlessness all game long.
I would be remiss to overlook the rest of UCLA’s rotation. How strange to think of Bryce Alford as an afterthought, but there was just so much good happening around him. It wasn’t Bryce’s best shooting day - 4-10 overall, 2-5 from 3 with 2 missed free throws towards the end - but his presence off the ball is crucial to UCLA’s ruthless efficiency. As long as he’s on the floor, defenders have to keep watch or lose him for a split second while he launches up a 3 pointer.
Big Tom Welsh came up huge down the stretch, scoring on 3 straight possessions with his money baseline jumper that kept UCLA ahead for good. His chemistry with the guards and the way he times his baseline drift as defenders step up to stop the drive is beautiful. He also banged inside and fought hard, and while he fouled out, he held his own against Bam Adebayo and the rest of the Wildcats’ frontcourt.
He also had a ridiculous stat line (soon corrected).
GG Golomon only played 6 minutes, but he stayed clear of the foul trouble that’s plagued him so far. And for the second year running, a UCLA freshman threw down a monster dunk against Kentucky.
Last year it was Prince Ali, and on Saturday, it was Ike Anigbogu.
Ike has quickly lived up to the hype as a defensive eraser after missing the first 7 games of the season, swatting two blocks & picking 4 huge offensive rebounds.
Up until Saturday, I’d been thoroughly underwhelmed by Steve Alford. His hire (which, to be fair, is not on him but on the administration) was strange, his baggage unseemly, and he seemed to not get the most out of the talent he had (two Sweet 16s with rosters that included Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, Norman Powell and Zach LaVine feels underwhelming). His insistence of Bryce Alford at point guard over other seemingly better suited players and the general lack of detail paid to defense added to fan’s frustration with him.
He still hasn’t had a road sweep in Pac-12 play, and his 3 previous teams all had lapses in which they lost games to inferior opponents and looked unprepared against some of the best teams.
But on Saturday, I was happy to eat a healthy portion of crow. He coached a great game - in particular, the Bruins scored on well-designed plays out of multiple timeouts, and Alford never panicked even as his offense was infected by the turnover bug in the first half.
Alford deserves a lot of credit for the roster’s construction as well. You’d be hard pressed to find a better backcourt than Ball, Alford and Hamilton with Holiday off the bench and Prince Ali still to come after he heals. All four healthy guards shoot 40% or better from three.
The frontcourt trio of Leaf, Welsh and Anigbogu is versatile and athletic. Two of the three - Welsh and Leaf - can step out to mid-range and beyond, and Anigbogu is a defensive force and can finish around the basket as well.
Overall, UCLA’s offense averages a whopping 124 points over 100 possessions, a clip that is third best in the country, on a national best (and absurd) 55% field goal percentage.
The defense, which was a concern going into the season, has been serviceable, ranking 58th in giving up 96 points per 100 possessions. That number will have to improve some, especially as the offense inevitably regresses, but the formula of playing rocket-fuel offense and good enough defense is working so far for Steve Alford.
Teams don’t win championships in December, but the road to Phoenix in April is looking less like a mirage in the desert than it might have before the season.