In his first two seasons at UCLA, Aaron Holiday was the odd man out.
As a freshman, he split point guard duties with Bryce Alford as the team struggled and finished below .500. Last season, he was moved to the bench for some dude named Lonzo Ball and became the country’s most electric sixth man.
No more. This season, even amid all of UCLA’s off the court turmoil, on court defensive woes and general inconsistency, Holiday has been ever present. And that’s literally true against USC, as Holiday played 80 of 80 minutes against the Trojans in their two matchups this season. In the first game, he was superb, finishing with 23 points and 9 assists and 5-7 three point shooting.
On Saturday, Holiday was even better, scoring 34 points (including UCLA’s last 9 points to close) with 6 three-pointers and 7 assists and willing UCLA to an 83-72 win over their crosstown rivals.
UCLA needed Holiday on Saturday even more than they already do. Jaylen Hands was a late scratch from the lineup after injuring his ankle in the week, meaning that senior walk-on Alec Wulff was called on for 6 first half minutes as the team’s 4th guard.
Alongside Holiday, Kris Wilkes had a fine game, scoring 22 points on 9-16 shooting and giving USC’s defense the business on slashing to the basket. Wilkes gave USC wings fits taking passes from the free throw line, dribbling diagonally, and either finishing at the rim or passing to a big on the baseline for an open jumper time and time again. If this was Wilkes’ last regular season game at UCLA, he ended on a high note and displayed the potential NBA scouts see in him.
Thomas Welsh continued to look off the pace as he’s done the last 3 weeks. He finished with just 7 points and was the victim of horrendous UCLA defense when switched onto Chimezie Metu or Jordan McLaughlin driving at him. If the Bruins are going to dance in March, Welsh will have to find his form and help Holiday shoulder the load.
Oddly enough, the game flipped in the second half when Chris Smith played at shooting guard alongisde Holiday in place of Prince Ali. While Smith only scored 4 points, he was instrumental in UCLA clamping down on defense and putting UCLA ahead for good. He played his best minutes of the season, as his 6’9 frame and long arms locked up USC on the perimeter and allowed Welsh and GG Goloman to clean up the defensive glass. If his offensive game develops, Smith can be a wrecking ball in March and beyond.
This was a crucial win for UCLA’s NCAA tournament hopes.
UCLA finishes the season 20-10, 11-7 in the Pac-12, which is a disappointing finish given the talent on this team. Without Lonzo Ball, Steve Alford has historically bad in comparison to other UCLA basketball head coaches. Without Ball, his teams have not been ranked in the AP top 10 since he started in Westwood in 2013.
Worth noting that if you disregard 2016-17, Alford's UCLA teams would have been ranked in the top 10 0% of available weeks, which would be tied with Walt Hazzard for the worst % since 1948. https://t.co/xDjxa2PNlU— David Woods (@daviddavidwoods) March 1, 2018
It’s disappointing and unfair to players like Wilkes, Welsh and Holiday that they need to be hoping and praying that their resume will be good enough to be tournament worthy (assuming they don’t win the Pac-12 Tournament of course). It’s a testament to Alford’s lack of commitment to coaching defense and fundamentals that his teams have been boatraced at times this season.
But UCLA has at least another chance to win and make their case for March. With the Pac-12 Tournament starting this week, UCLA got a crucial first game bye as the 4th seed and will only have to win once to make the semifinals. UCLA can feel comfortable if they find themselves in the final against the likes of Arizona on Saturday.
And if Aaron Holiday has anything to say about it, he won’t let this season (and possibly his UCLA career) end without a fight.