Stellar offense, improved second-half defense leads UCLA past Colorado

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Steve Alford’s UCLA Bruins hosted Colorado on Thursday with the winner taking a step forward in the quest to not only determine the Pac-12’s second-best team but also keep pace with an Arizona squad that has some tough road games remaining on its schedule. And thanks to some excellent offensive execution the Bruins were the ones who took that step, as they beat the Buffaloes 92-74 with sophomore Kyle Anderson leading the way.

Anderson is one of the nation’s most versatile players, with his ability to not only score but also rebound and distribute the basketball being one reason why UCLA has been the Pac-12’s most efficient offensive team in conference play. Against Colorado, Anderson accounted for 22 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds on a night that saw the Bruins shoot 56.5% from the field and 11-for-22 from beyond the arc.

Why did UCLA shoot so well? Partly because they shared the ball. 25 of the Bruins’ 35 made field goals were assisted, with Jordan Adams (17 points, seven rebounds) and Norman Powell (ten points) accounting for four assists apiece and David Wear finishing with three assists to supplement the 11 credited to Anderson.

However the biggest difference against Colorado was UCLA’s improved defense in the second half, and that area (along with the consistency of their front court) will determine just how many games this team can win in the NCAA tournament. After shooting 55.2% in the first half, with Askia Booker and Josh Scott getting whatever they wanted offensively, Colorado made just 37.5% of its shots in the second half.

The quality looks Colorado found in the first half weren’t as plentiful in the second, and the combination of that and UCLA playing even better offensively resulted in an 18-point victory for the Bruins.

What also bodes well for UCLA moving forward is the fact that Bryce Alford, who shot 3-for-14 in the three games prior, snapped out of his slump and scored 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting. Alford and fellow freshman Zach LaVine have been key pieces for UCLA this season due to their ability to provide scoring off the bench. This can help on nights when the front court struggles offensively, although the Wear twins and Tony Parker still need to be factors defensively and on the boards.

So how good can UCLA be? There’s clearly plenty of talent at Steve Alford’s disposal, with his 6-foot-9 floor general leading the way. But for all that talent, UCLA’s fate in March will be determined by their commitment to defense and the consistency of their big men. With David Wear struggling, Travis Wear tallied 13 points and seven rebounds with Parker adding six points and five rebounds.

The offensive skills of UCLA’s perimeter rotation, led by Anderson, will continue to receive the headlines and rightfully so. But it’s the “little things” that result in postseason success, and in the second half of Thursday’s win the Bruins did a better job of addressing those areas.

VIDEO: Kris Dunn wills Providence to win over No. 11 Arizona

Kris Dunn, Elliott Pitts
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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Kris Dunn spent the first 35 minutes of Friday night’s game against No. 11 Arizona in foul trouble, splitting his time between sitting on the bench and trying to avoid finding himself, again, on the wrong side the whistle.

With 11 minutes left in the game, and with Dunn yet to find a rhythm, the all-american point guard was whistled for his fourth foul as he battled for a rebound with Arizona’s Mark Tollefsen. Head coach Ed Cooley say his superstar beside his for six game minutes, time enough for Arizona to turn a 49-47 deficit into a 58-54 lead.

There were just over five minutes left when Dunn reentered the second semifinal of the Wooden Legacy, and he proceeded to show everyone in the country why he was named the Preseason Player of the Year. Providence had nine possessions after he reentered the game. Dunn scored 11 points and had a pair of assists on those eight possessions, and if Ben Bentil had stuck a wide-open three — that was setup by Dunn — the Friars would have scored on all nine.

In total, Dunn was responsible for all 15 Friar points in a game-changing, 15-7 run in the final 4:30. It was capped off by this Kobe-in-his-prime-esque game-winner:

The win for Providence is huge for a couple of reasons:

  • Dunn showed a killer instinct against a marquee opponent, something that we didn’t necessarily see out of him a season ago. He wasn’t going to let his team lose, and given that Providence doesn’t have anyone else that can consistently create good shots, they are going to need that from him a lot this year.
  • It makes a statement for the Friars. Arizona is overrated at No. 11 in the country, yes, but going out on national television against an elite program and getting this kind of performance from Dunn is a confidence-booster and a tone-setter. Providence hasn’t been accustomed to winning in recent years. This is a way to set a trend.
  • Ben Bentil continues to play like a star. Dunn had 19 points and eight assists on Friday, but Bentil followed up a 24-point performance in the win over Evansville with 21 critical points on Friday.

This win sets up a matchup between No. 3 Michigan State and Providence on Sunday night, which means that Denzel Valentine and Kris Dunn — the two best players in the country, sorry Ben Simmons — will be going head-to-head.

Oh. Hell. Yes.

No. 14 Cal goes 0-2 in Las Vegas Invitational

Jaylen Brown
AP Photo/Ben Margot
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After midnight on the east coast on Thanksgiving, No. 14 Cal blew a 15 point second half lead against San Diego State, allowing the Aztecs to use a 30-6 run to put away the game and advance to the final of the Las Vegas Invitational. That’s the same San Diego State team had scored 43 points in a loss to Arkansas-Little Rock last week.

Not 24 hours later, the Golden Bears were shredded defensively by the Richmond Spiders, losing 94-90 in the consolation game of a four-team tournament they were considered to be the heavy favorite in.

It’s a disappointing two-game stretch for Cal, who entered the season as a Pac-12 favorite and had looked the part for the first four games of the season.

And the issue appears to be on the defensive end of the floor.

Richmond is a good Atlantic 10 team. Terry Allen and Marshall Wood are high-major big men, Shawn’Dre Jones is a jitterbug at the point and Chris Mooney runs a Princeton-esque system that is very difficult to prepare for without a day in-between games. So it’s not really surprising that the Spiders gave Cal a fight.

But 94 points?

On the heels of giving up 44 points in the second half against the offensively-challenged Aztecs?

That’s a problem, one that I’m sure that Cuonzo Martin is going to address this week in practice. Martin has managed to put together a roster that is build for small-ball, with four talented perimeter players surrounding a first round pick in the post. But that’s not the style that he’s known for. Martin played his college ball at Purdue in the Gene Keady days. He cut his teeth as a head coach at Missouri State in the Missouri Valley. His team’s at Tennessee were known for being tough and physical defensively.

That’s how Martin coaches, which is part of the reason Cal had such hype entering the year.

The talents of Tyrone Wallace, Jaylen Brown, Ivan Rabb, Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews on a team with a coach that gets teams to defend the way Martin does? It’s no surprise that pundits would be optimistic.

But as of now, they have some work to do defensively if they want to live up to that hype.