UCLA basketball has had a nasty habit of starting slow in recent seasons, but turning it on in time for Pac-12 Conference play.
Despite a 4-3 start, which included losses to Monmouth and Wake Forest, the Bruins flipped that switch Thursday in a huge upset of top-ranked Kentucky, 87-77.
It’s been a Jekyll-and-Hyde start for UCLA, which went 1-2 at the prestigious Maui Invitational. The Bruins’ lone win was a 77-75 survival against UNLV, followed by an absolute demolishing against Kansas.
Against the Jayhawks, UCLA looked nowhere near ready to compete with the upper echelon of college basketball.
“We’re not as good as Kansas right now,” head coach Steve Alford said on a conference call from Maui last week, via Jack Wang of the Los Angeles Daily News. “We’re just not.”
With that sentiment lingering, and ahead of Thursday’s clash against Kentucky, memories of a 41-7 first half last season were unavoidable.
How had UCLA, the most decorated program with 11 national championships, slipped so far behind its fellow blue bloods? For one night, however, the Bruins were right back to the elite form of years past.
This UCLA team — which pushed the tempo, swarmed on defense and attacked on all places around the floor — looks capable of a deep NCAA Tournament run.
The play of the Bruin bigs was key. Tony Parker was in foul trouble, per the usual, but he didn’t get his third or fourth personals until deep in the second half — well after UCLA gained the upper hand. Parker scored 11 points and grabbed three rebounds, and his presence on the block contributed to making Kentucky’s Alex Poythress a non-factor.
Poythress scored just four points before fouling out.
Parker’s inside-out work in tandem with Thomas Welsh was a thing of beauty. The ability of the bruiser Parker to feed off the smooth-shooting Welsh, and vice-versa, is going to be an X-factor for UCLA throughout the season.
As good as Welsh’s mid-range jumper looked against Kentucky, the 7-foot sophomore brought so much more to the table. He went into the paint and showed off an array of moves on the block, demonstrating improved footwork from a season ago. With 21 points and 11 rebounds, under the national spotlight, Welsh had his breakthrough performance. He looks ready to stand toe-to-toe with the Pac-12’s premier centers like Jakob Poeltl and Kaleb Tarczewski.
While the night belonged to the big men, the Bruin perimeter players were equally important to UCLA’s upset. Bryce Alford outplayed Tyler Ulis, who just a few weeks ago was earning praise as college basketball’s best point guard.
Alford scored 15 points, dished four assists, and harassed Ulis into a 2-of-12 shooting night on the defensive end.
Alford’s reputation at UCLA has long been staked to his high-volume shooting style and streaky scoring performances. He got hot late in the season, helping propel the Bruins in their Sweet 16 run.
He wasn’t exactly shy against Kentucky, taking a team-high 13 field-goal attempts. However, his play on the other end foreshadowed the contributions he can make when his jumper isn’t falling.
For all the Bruins who came up big, the moment of the night belonged to Prince Ali. His dunk in the lane might be the most jaw-dropping play of this college basketball season to date.
Prince Ali, mighty is he…Strong as ten regular men definitely. https://t.co/EqPtAxL5Jn
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 4, 2015
We may not see this UCLA every time the Bruins tip-off. However, whenever Dr. Jekyll transforms into Mr. Hyde, as UCLA did Thursday night, watch out. This squad is dangerous.