LOS ANGELES — Following the Maui Invitational, things were looking bleak for UCLA. A 3-3 start with losses to Wake Forest and Monmouth as well as a brutal six-game schedule forthcoming had placed the Bruins heavily behind the eight-ball. Not only in terms of their NCAA Tournament resume, but also simply in terms of the way they looked on the floor.
But just as the lights started to dim even though it was only one-fifth of the way through the season, things fell into place.
UCLA has ripped off five straight wins, including over Kentucky and Gonzaga, to get out to 8-3 and earn the No. 22 overall ranking in the country according to the AP Poll. That’s how it heads into its final game in this difficult stretch against North Carolina on Saturday in the CBS Sports Classic with about as much momentum as anyone in the country over the last two weeks.
And given who the Bruins have played thus far — with only one team outside of the top-150 in KenPom and three top-30 teams — it’s pretty remarkable they’re at this point.
“This schedule is probably a year early,” coach Steve Alford said after his team beat Louisiana-Lafayette 89-80 on Tuesday. “But saying that with our schedule, it helped us last year and I think it’s going to help us this year. And that’s what we try to do. Like a Louisiana-Lafayette. We try to get teams on our schedule, for the most part, that are picked to either win their league or second or third in their league in these other divisions that we don’t know as much about. That’s a great test for us.”
Alford also points out just how close they are to having one of the best resumes in the sport, but is also quick to note just how just how beneficial the losses were in hindsight to how his team is currently playing.
“We lost by one possession to Monmouth in overtime and by one possession in Maui to Wake,” he said. “So we’re two possessions away from having this thing at 10-1 and being really happy. But I think the Monmouth and the Wake [losses] have allowed us to grow in the last five games, so hopefully we can keep doing that.”
Where have they shown that growth, specifically, on the floor during this stretch? There are two clear places you can look.
Defensive efficiency and limiting turnovers.
Let’s start on the defensive end. The Bruins gave up 106.4 points-per-100-possessions in their first six games, a number that would have been good for 253rd nationally last season. In the five games since, that number has dropped to 98.8 points-per-100-possessions, as the defense continues to learn how to play next each other without Norman Powell around to solve a lot of the issues.
“It’s our defense,” Bryce Alford said when asked about the area the Bruins have improved most since the start of the season. “Obviously our offense has been pretty good. But getting our guys chemistry on the defensive end. It’s been improving. Slowly but surely, it’s been improving. That’s where we’ve got to keep improving, and that’s what the coaches tell us all the time. That’s where we know we can get to where we want to get is through our defense.”
“We’re playing way better defensively and we’re trying to get better and better everyday,” Tony Parker added. “We’re talking, we’re in the right place. We’ve done that a lot more often, and the coaches have done a great job helping us with it.”
The Bruins have also improved at limiting turnovers. Early on, UCLA simply was not in control of the ball enough to create true offensive efficiency. The team averaged 15.4 turnovers per game over their first six games, but have limited that down to 10 per game over the last five.
The biggest difference in what they’re doing schematically there has to do with who they’re playing at the point. Early in the season, freshman Aaron Holiday did a lot of the heavy lifting as far as getting the team into its sets and it struggled. However, in-between the sixth and seventh games of the season, coach Alford sat down Holiday and his son Bryce and decided to allow Bryce to handle the ball more. That’s resulted in more controlled play, which is to be expected when you’re handing the reins from a freshman to a junior.
It’s also worth noting Bryce Alford’s play overall. Let’s not mince words here:
Bryce Alford has been terrific in the early part of this season.
Currently, he is averaging 16.9 points, 5.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds. He’s one of nine players in the country to do that so far this season, and most of the other names on that list are a who’s who of college basketball elite. Think Kris Dunn, Ben Simmons, and Denzel Valentine, to name a few. He’s not on that level as a player, but just the overall control he’s now able to exert on a game is a departure from last year that he attributes to experience and the game slowing down.
It’s also not bad company for a player who has been maligned in the past by a divided UCLA fanbase regarding his play. Alford understands where it comes from, and also explains how it fuels him.
“I knew coming into my UCLA career that stuff was going to be there,” Alford says. “You’re the coach’s kid, you’re in L.A. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff going against me in that way. But I’ve always been a hard-nosed kid and always wanted to prove people wrong. Coming out of high school, I wasn’t ranked. I didn’t have any kind of number next to my name and I thought I should have. I averaged 38 points a game in high school and I did a lot of good things. So I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder in that way and being a coach’s kid you have to have the same thing. I’m just working hard.”
It’s that type of confidence and type of play that will lead UCLA into Saturday’s matchup against North Carolina, which has quickly become one of the marquee games of what is a jam-packed day of action. Pulling off an upset against the Tar Heels is obviously going to be a tall ask. After all, Roy Williams’ team was a preseason favorite to cut down the nets in Houston for a reason.
But even if they don’t pick up that win, it’s hard not to look at where the Bruins are coming out of non-conference play as a success.
Especially given where they were as a team after returning from Maui.