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UCLA needs to steady the ship to finish Pac-12 play

UCLA is probably out of the running for a conference title, but there is still much to play for.

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Southern California
Steve Alford’s team is having a bit of a wobble, but there is still time to right the ship.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As the Pac-12 Conference season hits the halfway mark, it looks increasingly likely that UCLA will miss out on yet another conference championship.

At 6-3 and 3 losses behind 9-0 Arizona, the Bruins need to not only beat Arizona in Tucson on February 25th, but hope the Wildcats slip up at least twice while they win the next 9. And with rematches against both USC and Oregon to come (though both are at Pauley Pavilion), that will be a tall task.

It’s not impossible, and this team’s offense is capable of letting it rain in a hurry, especially from three point range. But UCLA is wobbling, and there’s not much time to steady the ship.

Yes, UCLA’s defense is not very good, and it has not been for large swaths of the year. It’s especially concerning when the foundation of any defense is effort, and UCLA’s goes missing at times in games. Against Arizona State and Cal, the Bruins let 20+ point first half leads dwindle to less than 8 because the team simply switched off thinking the game was already won. While they won both games, it’s a bad habit that hasn’t been corrected 22 games in.

UCLA’s defense is also problematic since it allows way too many corner three point attempts. In fact, it’s been a staple of Steve Alford’s defense in all of his four seasons; his teams have both lacked side-to-side quickness needed to stay in front of guards on the perimeter and have poor help habits that are conducive to letting shooters find open corners. It’s a frustrating bug that clearly has not been emphasized at any point in four seasons.

But there have been two bigger concerns over the last 3 weeks or so during UCLA’s wobble.

The first is the offense, which had been UCLA’s calling card for the first 20 or so games of this season. Against both Arizona and USC, the Bruins looked stymied. USC’s extended 3-2 zone suckered the Bruins into settling for contested outside looks from three instead of going inside like they did to start the game; after starting the first four minutes with 8 points, Thomas Welsh had 5 the rest of the game. UCLA looked befuddled against the zone and committed 17 turnovers, and there was no cohesion or purpose to the motion in the offense.

Like against Arizona, TJ Leaf was mostly nullified, and as he has struggled, so has UCLA. While Lonzo Ball is unquestionably this team’s best player, Leaf is the engine that makes the offense go, as he’s versatile enough to step out on pick and pops and also play bully ball on the block. But UCLA has too often settled for contested outside jumpers and not looked to get Leaf the ball. Lauri Markkanen and an undersized USC frontcourt kept Leaf mostly in check; in reality, Leaf has been quiet since he took Ivan Rabb to school against Cal three weeks ago.

The second major issue right now with UCLA is that there is a clear leadership vacuum. It is an interesting dynamic; the upperclassmen (namely Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton) aren’t particularly vocal as leaders and have also been especially streaky as players in their UCLA careers. Hamilton and Alford (to no discredit of their own-they just aren’t wired this way) aren’t the types to drag a team across the finish line by themselves; they are much better suited in supporting roles.

Meanwhile, Lonzo Ball is the alpha-type personality, and we’ve seen him try to will his team across the finish in games this season. The Oregon game comes to mind, where in the second half he hit two huge threes to bring UCLA back and to an 8 point lead that they unfortunately relinquished in the last five minutes. It’s fun to watch Lonzo Ball flip the switch and internally tell himself, “there is no way I’m losing this game, even if I have to win it all by myself.”

That fun can also be detrimental. In the last two weeks, Lonzo has been pressing, and especially against USC, his 7 turnovers were a sign of him trying to do too much. While he has scored 44 points in the last two losses, he’s also played 76 of a possible 80 minutes and has a (relatively) pedestrian 12 assists to 8 turnovers. Lonzo’s effort is admirable, but he needs help.

Aaron Holiday is a fiery character, but he’s also prone to playing out of control in his time off the bench. His attempted behind-the-back pass in transition late in the game against USC while UCLA was down a few scores was emblematic of his erratic play. It only made matters worse when USC stole the pass and went the other way for a dagger three pointer that sealed a Trojan victory.

Take a look at what he had to say after the USC game (quotes courtesy of Matt Cummings of the Daily Bruin):

“We’ve gotta come together, and I feel like we went apart. … Adversity hit, and we all split ways.”

Here’s what Isaac Hamilton had to say after the USC game (again, quotes courtesy of Cummings):

“I think on the court when adversity hits, everybody gets in their little shell, nobody talks to each other and that makes it tough.”

This team is shaken, and there’s no obvious team leader right now. As it looks, there may not be one for the season, and it’s something to watch if and when a team in the NCAA tournament or before slows down UCLA’s offense like Arizona and USC did.

The Pac-12 title might be lost, but a top 15 seed and placement in a western tournament site are very much still in play. UCLA has 6 weeks to regain its offensive magic and rebuild its fragile chemistry while playing something other than matador defense. Otherwise, what was shaping up to be a magical season in Westwood could turn into fairy dust on the first tournament weekend in March.