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UCLA walks the tightrope during Pac-12 play

UCLA scuffled through the comparatively easy first half of its Pac-12 schedule. That’s a bad sign for a team squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble.

NCAA Basketball: Stanford at UCLA
If things go really south, Steve Alford may be the one outta here in Westwood.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Ten games into the Pac-12 season, UCLA is 6-4. It’s decidedly mediocre, even in an especially down year for the conference.

Arizona is DeAndre Aytons above the rest of the conference. USC has rounded into form and finally looks to be playing up to its potential after horrid nonconference play. Arizona State has plummeted back to Earth after starting the season undefeated, and Oregon, Utah, Washington and Stanford are just as mediocre as UCLA.

It really shouldn’t be this way, given the talent at UCLA’s disposal. Aaron Holiday is having a fine season at point guard, and with talented pieces around him like Thomas Welsh and Kris Wilkes and others, UCLA shouldn’t be sitting precariously on the NCAA bubble.

UCLA shouldn’t be blowing 13 point leads to Stanford late in the second half and losing in double overtime. Nor should UCLA be throwing up bricks and losing to Oregon State or coming out flat against Colorado or being down to Cal by more than 10 points at any point in a game at home.

But it is what it is. And as it stands, UCLA would miss the tournament if the season ended today.

UCLA’s problems through the first half of conference play are largely self-created.

On offense, things are...fine? As mentioned, Holiday is having a fine scoring season, averaging 19 a game and shooting 40% from 3. It is fun to watch him in the second halves of games will UCLA across the finish line and to watch him get buckets when needed.

But it hasn’t been fun to watch him turn the ball over too much (over 3.5 per game), nor has it been fun when the offense stagnates and relies on him to get a shot. Thomas Welsh has been affected by his broken nose against Stanford, but UCLA doesn’t do enough to feed Welsh on every possession.

Speaking of Welsh, he’s been good on offense too, averaging a double-double and shooting 40% from 3 as well. He’s been a pleasure to watch, but it’s also been tough to see him regress just a tad shooting the ball. His baseline jumper that was automatic last year has betrayed him this year.

Guys like Wilkes and Prince Ali are also fine. Wilkes (and Jaylen Hands) rely a bit too much on spot-up jumpers, but they are freshmen, and they’ll grow into their roles next season.

UCLA’s offense is not as consistent as last year’s (though who could be without Lonzo?), but it’s better than 2014 or 2015. It’s not reliable enough to score when needed, but it’s also not the primary issue.

That’d be the defense.

UCLA’s defense is all over the place. On some nights, UCLA will lock in and engage and play stifling man defense. Holiday is a bulldog, Ali has gangly arms, and even bigs like Alex Olesinski and GG Goloman are serviceable down low.

But on other nights, they couldn’t stop your pickup team. Time and time again, close outs to the three line are slow, there has been no awareness of back cuts and UCLA has also gotten bullied on the defensive glass. Cal took a 13 point lead in the first half last week simply because it grabbed all of its misses and played tougher than UCLA. Missing fundamentals like that is unacceptable.

As a result, UCLA will play plenty of zone defense, a 3-2 with either Holiday or Wilkes at top. But UCLA is also prone to lapses in concentration in zone, too. Against Cal, UCLA had a 20-0 run in the first half on the back of that stifling man defense UCLA pulls out of a hat once in awhile.

So naturally, Alford called for a switch to zone, and after taking the lead, UCLA let Cal score 8 points and close the half strong. Why? UCLA was perfectly engaged and playing actual good defense, but in zone, they let off and got gashed again on drives through the middle and bad defensive rebounding.

It was a microcosm of UCLA’s defensive issues. The ceiling for defense can be pretty high, but the floor is subsequently subterranean, and this team’s ability to hit that floor as often as it’s shown over the first 10 games in the Pac-12 is worrisome.

And this was against Cal, one of the worst Power 5 teams in college basketball. Can you imagine what the likes of Arizona, Arizona State and USC could do against such inconsistent defense?

UCLA fans could find out the worst-case answer to that question soon enough over the second half of the Pac-12 schedule.

UCLA shouldn’t be like this, so profligate and sloppy and un-clutch when it’s needed most, but it’s how things are. What’s more, that UCLA is talented but wildly inconsistent is not terribly surprising in year 5 of the Steve Alford era.

This is what UCLA is under Steve Alford. Without godsend talents like Lonzo Ball or TJ Leaf, or without inheriting the likes of Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, Alford has on his resume a below .500 season and one where his team fell backwards into the tournament on one of the softest bubbles ever. That team promptly beat a 6 seed on a phantom goaltend and got to play an upstart 14 seed before getting whomped by Florida in the Sweet 16.

And even with that previously mentioned talent, Alford still couldn’t get beyond the Sweet 16 or win the Pac-12 outright.

It’s no coincidence that UCLA has lost 4 of its 5 Pac-12 road openers under Alford, and this year’s double overtime loss to Stanford was especially egregious.

It’s no coincidence that UCLA is prone to playing down to opponents that it is clearly better than like Oregon State and Cal, and it’s been five seasons since UCLA has bothered to defend a corner three.

It’s no coincidence that UCLA’s defense wavers somewhere between “not great” and “dreadful” on most nights, and that the team is prone to lapses in concentration in zone after playing long minutes in man and vice versa.

This is what UCLA basketball has been under Steve Alford, and it’s downright maddening. Players like Holiday and Welsh are too good and freshmen like Hands and Wilkes are too talented to be on an NCAA tournament bubble team. Don’t be surprised if UCLA were to win against Arizona in Tucson.

Don’t be surprised if you have to make room on your couch for Steve Alford and company to watch the tournament in March, either.