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UCLA’s fun season ends in bittersweet fashion

An memorable season in Westwood ends far too soon as UCLA loses to Kentucky in the Sweet 16.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Kentucky vs UCLA
The agony of defeat.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

UCLA’s 2017 season brought us basketball we hadn’t seen in Westwood in a long time.

But the end felt like just more of the same.

After 37 games marked by incredible offense and suspect defense, the Bruins ended the 2017 season in the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years with an 86-75 loss to Kentucky in Memphis on Friday night.

UCLA scored more than anyone this season, and Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf and company were downright spectacular and did something that hasn’t been done at UCLA in awhile:

Make UCLA basketball fun again.

And yet, for as much fun as this season was, the weaknesses and flaws on defense persisted. UCLA’s defense, which wavered between mediocre and bad all year, was horrendous on Friday night, and it proved to bring an abrupt end to a memorable season in Westwood.

Understandably, Lonzo Ball was the talk of the town before the game, especially after his scintillating second half against Cincinnati in the Round of 32. He’s been a supernova, and his brief Bruin career was brilliant, otherworldly and, ultimately, done in a flash.

But it was Kentucky’s future NBA lottery picks - De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk - who stole the headlines on Friday. Fox, who led the Wildcats with a career high 39 points on 13-20 shooting with 13 made free throws, was unstoppable.

Monk finished with 21 points of his own, and the duo scored 60 of Kentucky’s 86 points, including 38 of 50 in the second half.

UCLA literally had no answer to Fox running the pick and roll. He ate Lonzo Ball’s lunch and made Ball buy him a few extra helpings for good measure.

Consider this: UCLA shot 64% in the second half (it was at 80% at one point), and yet Kentucky extended its 36-33 halftime lead by 8.

In short, it was a bitterly disappointing end to the 2017 season, one that won’t be forgotten by UCLA fans any time soon. And with Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Lonzo Ball, and possibly TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu set to move on to the next stages in their careers, it’s a shame we were only treated to this group for one year.

The question now becomes: was this a successful season?

There are reasonable arguments that support a “yes” or “no” answer.

The final record (31-5, 15-3 in Pac-12 play), the renewed interest in the program (highest attendance levels in 21 years), a top 10 ranking for most of the season and huge wins against Arizona in Tucson, against Final Four team Oregon and Elite 8 finisher Kentucky in Rupp are all indicators of a successful year.

UCLA’s #2 ranked recruiting class for next season also bodes well for a fun future for Bruins basketball.

But above all, this team was also just undeniably fun.

When UCLA dropped 100 or more 8 times and 99 once, it was basketball at its most entertaining. Watching this team take flight in transition and rain down threes brought back a little slice of Showtime to basketball in Los Angeles.

However, despite all the fun, the results fall short of what’s deemed successful by many in Westwood.

After all, UCLA finished just third in the Pac-12 and has now gone 4 seasons without a Pac-12 championship. They were bounced in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals in convincing fashion, blew a late lead to Oregon and got waxed twice by Arizona.

Their season ended in the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years under Steve Alford, and they have yet lead in the second half in any of those games.

And as many Bruin fans in this camp will point out,

“They don’t hang Sweet 16 banners in Pauley Pavilion.”

So what is the definitive answer?

Who knows.

It depends on whether you place more value in process or results. The 2017 process was unlike any we’d seen in Westwood in a long time, but 2017’s results matched those from two of the previous three years.

I don’t think the answer is clear.

However, there is one thing that became more clear on Friday night:

It feels like UCLA will never win big with Steve Alford at the helm.

And with Indiana hiring Archie Miller as its new head coach on Sunday morning, UCLA will have to face that possibility for at least a few more years.

Even with a generational talent at point guard, who himself was surrounded by a litany of shooters from both distance and inside, UCLA still ended its season with a double digit loss in the Sweet 16 as it did in 2014 and 2015.

What is also discouraging is that each of the Sweet 16 losses followed a similar pattern: UCLA’s plodding and unathletic defense was too much for good offense to overcome.

It raises a question that asks whether 2017 marked UCLA’s return to national prominence or if it was an extreme outlier fueled by an extreme talent that is papering over the cracks in a program that’s been stuck in neutral for four years.

For this question, the answer seems clearer. Consider the following:

In four seasons in Westwood, Steve Alford has coached the likes of Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, Norman Powell, Zach LaVine, Kevon Looney, the Wear twins and now Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf. That is a lot of talent deemed NBA-worthy to come through one program.

But the results haven’t matched that talent. In four seasons, UCLA has lost to ranked teams 17 times, 13 times by more than ten points, including losses by 17, 17, 23, 32 and 39 points. Steve Alford’s UCLA teams been outclassed by elite competition too many times.

Additionally, UCLA only completed a Pac-12 road sweep for the first time this season. Before ending this season with a 7-2 road record, Steve Alford was a dreadful 10-17 on the road in conference play.

Setting aside results, there has been a worrying lack of attention paid to defense in four years. Alford’s conservative scheme of dropping back on pick and rolls, mixed with a general lack of athleticism on the floor at all times, makes for a bad defensive combo.

For four years, no matter who wears the Four Letters, UCLA’s defense has been marked by slow rotations, not defending corner threes and uneven effort.

If the defensive breakdowns persisted even with an upgrade in talent over four years, how likely are they to be corrected next season?

2014 was the last time a UCLA team coached by Steve Alford lost a lot of talent after finishing in the Sweet 16. In 2015, they struggled to make the NCAA tournament and got in when they probably should not have.

Will 2017 follow suit, or will the infusion of new talent at all 5 positions - led by five star recruits Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands - break through the ceiling that is firmly stuck on this program? We’ll start to answer that question in seven and a half months.

But in the meantime, there’s too much evidence to be anything other than skeptical.

Which is too bad, because this season deserves to be remembered for the free-wheeling fun it brought over anything else.