It’s easy to look at UCLA’s win over Kentucky as a big win that will boost the team. When you factor in the slow start the Bruins have, that’s an even more tempting angle to take. There’s no question this win can be just that. The biggest determinant of that, however, will be what UCLA does from here, because success will make this win worth something. What is clear, however, is that this win shows that UCLA has quite a high ceiling.
The jury has been out on the Bruins even before they opened the season with an 84-81 overtime loss to Monmouth. While we have found out since then that Monmouth is perhaps a little better than many thought, it was still a home game. They went 1-2 in Maui, and while there’s no shame in losing to Kansas, they lost to Wake Forest and barely knocked off UNLV. So we don’t know just how good this team is or can be, even allowing for teams to be finding themselves a bit early in the season.
Thursday night, the Bruins appeared to have found themselves. Kentucky head coach John Calipari couldn’t have summed up better how the Bruins thoroughly beat them more than the ten-point margin would imply.
“Their coach out-coached our coach,” Calipari began. “Their guards out-hustled our guards to balls. They executed better than us.”
Start with the coaching. Steve Alford knew the Bruins had an edge up front, both in experience and in bodies. His game plan was to milk that advantage between Tony Parker, who is off to a great start but was a bit under the weather, and Thomas Welsh, who had a career game with 21 points and 11 rebounds. They used Welsh for pick-and-pop all night, and he was hitting everything and then making other plays. Calipari said he thought UCLA would play zone, but they never did, and Kentucky shot 38 percent from the field.
Then the guards. Bryce Alford looked like an All-Pac-12 point guard, facilitating like a pro and hitting big shots when he had them. His stat line of 15 points on 5-13 shooting and as many turnovers as assists (four) belie how he played. Aaron Holiday and Isaac Hamilton complemented him well, with the former seemingly in a lot of plays when the Bruins established their early lead, and Prince Ali boosted them off the bench nicely with more than just the highlight-reel dunk at the halfway point of the second half.
And it was the point guard whose play led the execution. They ran the pick-and-pop to perfection all night long, getting Welsh good looks that he cashed in, as he was 8-11 from the field. Parker one time went baseline and dished to a cutting Welsh, who read the play perfectly as Parker drew a help defender. The Bruins shot nearly 53 percent from the field with 16 assists against ten turnovers.
The Bruins did such a good job of using their big men and going after Kentucky’s that they put the Wildcats in even more of a bind than they were already in with fouls. Marcus Lee got hurt early on, but foul trouble helped limit Alex Poythress (fouled out) to 17 minutes, Skal Labissiere (four fouls) to 16 minutes, and Derek Willis (fouled out) to 14 minutes, though his were the most effective of the three with 11 points and six rebounds. With that, they made more free throws (26, out of 34 taken) than Kentucky attempted (25, of which they made 19).
It was so thorough a win for the Bruins that they led for over 38 of the 40 minutes, taking the lead for good on a layup by Parker less than two minutes into the game.
“For our guys to fight the way we fought against the number one team in the country was great,” said Steve Alford. “It’s not like we’ve gotten off to a blazing start this year, but we’re growing.”
The Pac-12 is a conference that should be relatively up for grabs this season. Arizona might have the most raw talent, but the Wildcats are also young and can be vulnerable with a key player out, as we saw when Kaleb Tarczewski had to miss games with an injury. California has a little more overall experience, though perhaps not quite as much aggregate talent despite having two of the most talented freshmen.
UCLA has enough talent and experience to be right with those teams in the Pac-12. Bryce Alford is rounding into form, Parker has steadily improved during his career and is playing like an All-American, and Welsh may have had the breakout game he needed to get going. It’s easy to forget that Welsh was a McDonald’s All-American since he had a non-descript freshman season, so it’s not like he lacked talent. Jonah Bolden has a lot of potential and has shown some flashes as he shakes off the rust of not playing last year.
There are a lot of things one can look at with this win. Many will focus on last year, when Kentucky annihilated the Bruins, versus this one. That’s fine, but with each team being so different, it doesn’t tell us a whole lot about these two teams. The potential the Bruins showed on the night will matter more, including in whether or not this win means anything later in the season.