Just when you thought Lonzo Ball and the UCLA Bruins couldn’t look any better than they have, by shooting up to No. 2 in the country, they went and put on a show against Michigan that was flat out as good as it gets at the college level.
Seriously, folks. If you didn’t watch this game, particularly the first half, you are going to be kicking yourself when you see and read about some of this action. Second-ranked UCLA won 102-84 to improve to 10-0, the program’s best start in a decade. And that’s only the beginning of the numbers.
Here are five takeaways:
1. UCLA is college’s version of the Warriors
I’m ready to say this for a number of reasons. First, the backcourt, Lonzo Ball and Bryce Alford, can, and will, let it fly with true Splash Brothers range (they finished a combined 7-of-13 from deep on Saturday). Also, the Bruins’ pace is unrelenting. They run on misses, makes, steals, everything. They score in bunches. They move the ball with the kind of pace and feel that you just don’t normally see from a college team — which is a credit to Ball and Bruins coach Steve Alford, probably in equal parts.
But mostly, it’s the fun factor that makes them the Golden State of college. You can’t take your eyes off these Bruins for one second. They are up and down, cutting, dunking, defending and then out pushing again. Like the Warriors, they just look like they’re playing a different game at times, which is how Michigan shot … wait for it … 12 for 16 on 3-pointers in the first half and still didn’t lead.
Why? Because Ball hit this absolutely casual, Steph Curry-like 35-footer to close the first half, knotting the game at 50.
Come on, man. From the logo? Off the dribble? This guy Ball is so sick. I’m taking him No. 1 overall next summer and not thinking twice about it. I’ll keep saying that all year. I don’t care. Say I’m overreacting. Tell me all about Markelle Fultz and Jayson Tatum and all the rest of them. Give me Ball, who came into this Michigan game with more assists on the year than shots taken. Think about that. Ball is pretty much always the best player on the floor before he takes a single shot.
To that point, check out the dime at the front of this Ball highlight reel:
That’s why Ball was the best player on the floor Saturday … again. Beyond the passing and just general floor management, he took eight shots, made five of them, including four 3-pointers, two of which came off the dribble from well beyond NBA range. He is just so good. He had 19 points and played at the same pace every second he was on the floor, which is to say he played at his pace. Nobody can speed this guy up, and nobody can slow him down. His cruise control is set at about 75, not quite throttled out but certainly in another gear than most as he weaves through traffic like he’s on a Sunday cruise.
Special. It’s the only word for it.
2. A first half for the ages
Seriously, I hate to be a prisoner of the moment, but I don’t think we’ll see a better first half of basketball this year. The up-and-down action was just incredible, and the refs did well to get out of the way and let the rhythm be. As mentioned, Michigan hit 12 3s in the first 20 minutes. You kept thinking there was no way the Wolverines could keep that pace, and eventually they couldn’t (they were held to just three field goals over the final seven minutes), but man, Michigan was good in this one. Absolutely top-10 level.
But what are you going to do when the Bruins match you with a 10-of-14 showing from downtown in the first half, and 16 for 24 from the field? These teams were going shot for shot, moving fluidly, spacing out for triples in transition. And they weren’t rattling shots home. Every time you looked up the net was ripping. They combined to shoot 22 for 3o from deep in the first half. Don’t be surprised if you don’t see anything close to those combined first-half numbers the rest of the year.
Listen, Michigan came in as the ninth-ranked scoring defense in the country. Jon Beilein’s squad can get up on you and defend. You would think that when a team like that hits 12 3-pointers in the first half, 14 for the game at better than 53 percent from deep (and 50 percent from the field), they would cruise to victory. But that’s how good UCLA was. The game went over the Vegas total of 147.5 with nine minutes to play. Thomas Welsh — UCLA’s 7-foot center who has also played like a monster this year, averaging better than 11 points and nine boards a game — didn’t even play.
In the end, the Bruins hit better than 62 percent from 3-point land (15 for 24) and were 67 percent from the field. Crazy, crazy numbers against one of the best defenses in the country.
3. Leaf and Holiday demand your attention
T.J. Leaf, also a Bruins freshman, broke into the national conversation when he dominated then-No. 1 Kentucky last weekend. John Calipari said he “manhandled” his team, and he did. He was everywhere. And he was again on Saturday.
If you think Leaf is just some kind of lunch-pail and hard-hat workhorse, you’re sorely mistaken. He is NBA-lottery-pick good. He can step out to 18 or 19 feet very comfortably. He is a monster on the boards. On one play in the first half, off a zip of an entry pass from Ball, Leaf put down a shoulder-shake that would’ve made Kevin McHale blush. He missed the bunny jump hook, only to get back off the ground before anyone else could even react, grab his own rebound, and go right back up for the and-1 finish.
Leaf finished with 21 points and eight boards on 10-of-14 shooting.
Aaron Holiday, meanwhile, would be starting for just about every other team in the country. That the sophomore guard comes off the bench for the Bruins is almost unfair. As he has been all year, Holiday was a rock both with the starters and as a second-unit anchor, finishing with 17 points on a perfect 5 for 5 from 3-point range and 6 for 7 from the field.
Oh, and here’s one of his five assists:
On the year, Holiday is averaging just under 13 points a game while shooting better than 54 percent from three. What a luxury to have a guy like this coming off the bench.