In short, UCLA’s 77-63 loss to Cincinnati on Saturday was a case study in “men against boys.”
Mick Cronin is loud, fiery and can be annoying sometimes, and his Bearcats team played just like him in bullying around a young and shaken Bruins squad. Meanwhile, UCLA played true to the form of their head coach - sloppy, undisciplined and without much of a counter after Plan A was scrapped.
A 18-0 run over 15 stifling minutes of Bearcats defense turned a 5 point UCLA lead in the first half into a 13 point Cincinnati lead early in the second half. From there, Cincinnati kept UCLA at arm’s length and stormed to a win, avenging their loss to the Bruins in last year’s NCAA Tournament.
This game was the worst-case scenario for the Bruins in which the young and inexperienced home team would crack under pressure from a senior-laden squad who would bully the kids off the floor. UCLA turned the ball over a stunning 15 times in the first half, nearly doubling the 8 made field goals they had over the same time frame. The Bearcats’ defense swarmed and hunted in packs, and UCLA looked feckless in the face of it.
What was most discouraging was just how awful UCLA’s offense was. Mick Cronin’s team made stopping Thomas Welsh priority one on Saturday, and the plan worked to perfection. Welsh had no first half field goal attempts and finished with just 4 points and got no help from the guards, who did not make a single successful post entry to him all game.
The day was summed up best when Welsh had his first shot attempt of the game - a defended corner three - blocked in front of the Bearcats’ bench.
Aaron Holiday struggled mightily, having more turnovers than assists and getting beat consistently on defense. It is understandable for freshmen like Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands to struggle on defense, but not the junior Holiday. Without a pass-first guard, Holiday often hunts for his own shot on offense and has not done enough to facilitate as Hands goes through the typical freshman growing pains.
But even while Hands and Wilkes and others struggle on defense, the whole team looked like they never saw a ball fake in their lives before on Saturday.
Which is indicative of a larger problem with UCLA basketball: this is a poorly coached team right now.
Any coach aside from Steve Alford would miss Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf running the show, but it’s a bad look for Alford to have his team look as poorly as did Saturday even with the talent on hand. His team has looked ill-prepared on defense all season, resorting to zone far too early for a team with superior athletes like Holiday and Hands and Chris Smith. Cincinnati shot 8-17 from 3 and was able to beat UCLA off the dribble far too often and take advantage of mishap after mishap.
There is no good reason why a team with two five-star freshmen (Hands and Wilkes) and two heavily recruited upperclassmen (Holiday and Welsh) should look so lost.
Last season, UCLA’s defense was just above average, but its supernova offense papered over a lot of cracks with Ball at the controls. The drop-off from Ball to Holiday and Wilkes has been deeper than a canyon, and neither point guard has done enough to facilitate the offense. More often than not, possessions have devolved into one-man iso plays from Wilkes or Holiday while the team’s most consistent scorer (Welsh) is left to fend for scraps off the glass.
It was maddening to watch UCLA struggle to enter the ball into Thomas Welsh in the post all game and then eventually give up during the first half. UCLA only looked capable of mounting a comeback when they finally got him involved midway through the second half.
The vast drop-off on offense isn’t just explained by the personnel changes from last season to this. It is a coaching issue as well. UCLA’s free-flowing and fire-when-ready offense only works with a capable passer at the helm and sharpshooters around him. Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton flourished last season because Ball was incredible at finding the open man. Meanwhile, Holiday has always been a slashing score-first guard, and Hands is not an elite facilitator yet just 10 games into his college career. And Wilkes especially has yet to develop into a capable passer so far this season.
So take that recipe of a selfish offense and inconsistent defense, and what you’re left with is a wildly talented and yet poorly coached tournament bubble team. UCLA has one more chance to get a signature win for its resume before Pac-12 play against Kentucky on Saturday. If it doesn’t win in New Orleans, UCLA will have to blitz through a middling Pac-12 and hope a strong record over the next 18 games can see it to March.
The Bruins are one of the Pac-12’s most talented teams outside of the state of Arizona and USC. Whether it has the coaching to match that talent is a question that is a question that doesn’t have a clear answer. Saturday’s loss to Cincinnati was a pretty clear indicator of what that question’s worst-case answer might be.