In the first halves of their games against UC Berkeley and Stanford this past weekend, UCLA played like national title contenders.
The defense was swarming. On Thursday, the Golden Bears were held to 24 points on just 30% shooting, and it was easily the best defense the Bruins played all season. Everyone locked in; the help-side rotations were crisp, guys cut hard through screens, and despite Berkeley having considerable talent on its team in the form of Ivan Rabb and Jabari Bird, the Bruins went into halftime up 20. Rabb in particular looked absolutely lost against every double team TJ Leaf, Tom Welsh and the other bigs threw at him.
On Sunday, the Cardinal shot a dreadful 13-36 from the floor, including missing 8 of 11 three point shots. An undermanned (Stanford was without leading scorer Reid Travis) and less talented Cardinal squad looked feckless against the Bruins, who regained their three point stroke and made 8 first half threes en route to an 18 point halftime margin.
In both first halves, the early season magic looked to be alive again, as TJ Leaf yammed on Kingsley Okoroh and killed him on national television on Thursday and Lonzo Ball played a spectacular first half on Sunday.
On both Thursday and Sunday, UCLA came flying out the gates and looked set to cruise on easy victories.
In the second halves on both Thursday and Sunday, UCLA sputtered, coasted and played like a team that would get bounced in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Thursday’s second half was especially concerning. With 16 minutes to go, UCLA built its lead up to 24. From there, the Bruins began to experiment on offense with sets for GG Goloman, took wild and unnecessary shots and let Berkeley reserve guard Don Coleman go 7-9 from the floor and roast everyone in UCLA’s backcourt.
While the Bears didn’t shoot especially well, they wiped UCLA off the boards entirely, collecting 28 second half rebounds to the Bruins’ 17 en route to 47 second half points. They got the lead all the way down to 5 with a little over a minute left and would have gotten a shot at getting closer had they unwittingly not let 20 seconds off the clock before fouling with under a minute left.
On Thursday, UCLA coasted against a team that was too talented to not make any sort of a comeback. On Sunday, the Bruins coasted against a woefully undermanned team that did not get as close as Berkeley did, but still gave the Bruins fits.
Behind yet another backup guard - for Stanford, it was Robert Cartwright who had 13 second half points and 4 assists to go alongside Michael Humphrey’s 25 points and 14 rebounds - Stanford got as close as 9 with 12 minutes left before UCLA eventually kept the Cardinal at arm’s length the rest of the way.
Similarly to Thursday, the UCLA offense became disjointed in the second half on Sunday. There were way too many turnovers - UCLA had 16 for the game and 10 in the second half alone - and too little motion that led to bad shots and bad possessions. As the offense sputtered, the defensive effort slackened, especially on the boards like it did Thursday. Stanford didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, but collected enough offensive rebounds to keep possessions alive and chip away at the UCLA lead.
It’s amazing (and shudder inducing) to think where UCLA would be this year without TJ Leaf and Lonzo Ball. Both freshmen played huge roles in securing the victories over the weekend, as Leaf was the star on Thursday and Ball was the steadying force on Sunday.
Against Berkeley, TJ Leaf had his way against fellow future NBA player Ivan Rabb. For as long and athletic as Rabb is, Leaf gave him the work all night. Whether it was stepping out and driving or just bullying him down on the block, Leaf took Rabb to school and put him in after-school tutoring for good measure.
Cal started to get close and UCLA needed a basket. What did the Bruins do?— Matt Cummings (@mbcummings15) January 6, 2017
Throw it to TJ Leaf and let him bully Ivan Rabb in the post. pic.twitter.com/GXniVXhH9D
On Sunday, Lonzo Ball only shot the ball twice in the second half, but his 5 assists in the latter half showed that he can control games and UCLA’s tempo when things get wonky. As senior Isaac Hamilton continues to struggle mightily from the floor and senior Bryce Alford stays prone to taking heat-check threes, along with Aaron Holiday’s new tendency to drive into nowhere and cause turnovers, Ball and Leaf are the engine that makes this Bruin team go. Let’s enjoy them while we can, UCLA fans, because if they continue this high level of play, we’ll see both in the NBA next season after they both get picked in the lottery.
The obvious takeaway from this past weekend is that while UCLA improved to 16-1 and kept pace with Arizona and Oregon, UCLA will have to put together complete games to not only win a national title, but to also just win the conference. Speaking of Arizona, the Wildcats come to Pauley Pavilion in two weeks, but if the Bruins aren’t careful and continue to play uneven basketball, they could drop a game or two in the meantime to Colorado, Utah or Arizona State.
While conference play is a grind, it can bring out the worst in even the best of teams if they aren’t careful and diligent for a whole 40 minutes.