UCLA began the 2017-2018 college basketball season looking lost without Lonzo Ball. Two losses in a row to Michigan and Cincinnati made it appear that the Bruins would be unable to hang with bigger named programs as the season progressed. A narrow 85-82 victory over the South Dakota Coyotes broke the two-game losing streak, but did little to quell the concerns of the UCLA faithful.
Although the win wasn’t glamorous, the Bruins haven’t lost since. This includes their 83-75 upset victory over the then 7th ranked Kentucky Wildcats, the team that sent UCLA home in Sweet 16 of the NCAA men’s basketball championship a season ago. The Bruins needed a balance between their big named freshmen and their reliable veterans to pull out the win. It’s a formula that has served them well during the four-game win streak they are currently riding.
Aaron Holiday continues to make the Holiday name proud. As his brother Jrue once did for UCLA in the 2008-2009 season, Aaron is leading his team to victory, night in and night out. Against Kentucky, he finished with a team-high 20 points and eight assists. It is no surprise that he leads the team in both categories, averaging 18 points and five assists per game.
His 36 percent 3-point shooting percentage doesn’t jump off the page, exemplifying how his ability to get to the basket is his biggest weapon. It allows him to get easy points at the rim, attempt a team-high five free throws per game, and dish the ball to open shooters as defenses collapse on him.
Surprisingly, this includes senior Thomas Welsh, who has added the “three ball” to his repertoire. This gives UCLA the stretch center that has become pivotal to basketball in both college and the pros. Last season, Welsh attempted just one 3-pointer, the first of his career. Now he is second amongst all starters in three-point shooting percentages, at 39 percent.
This hasn’t taken away from his ability to corral rebounds. In fact, his 11 rebounds per game is his highest season average of his career, outperforming his last season average of nine. Against Kentucky, Welsh used a mix of his newfound shooting ability, going 3-6 from three-point range helping him put in 13 total points, and his reliable rebounding, snagging 11 boards.
Coming in to the year, the fanfare of the incoming freshman class paled in comparison to a season ago. Kris Wilkes, Jaylen Hands, and Cody Riley were the big names to watch for, and aside from Riley who was suspended for the season due to the China shoplifting fiasco, Wilkes and Hands have made major contributions to UCLA’s winning ways.
Hands started the season as a starter, but has bolstered the bench unit in recent games, as redshirt sophomore Prince Ali has been inserted into the starting lineup. In the game against Kentucky, Hands provided 14 points off the bench, shooting 50 percent from the court. He currently has the highest shooting percentage of all Bruins’ guards, making 47 percent of the shots he takes.
Wilkes has been the offensive spark plug at small forward that he was expected to be when he joined the team. He is second in points-per-game, with 13, as well as rebounds, with six. His skill set was apparent against Kentucky, as he tied Holiday with 20 points, while grabbing five rebounds. His ability to make threes, however, is an area in which he needs to improve. He went 3-9 against the Wildcats, and makes just 29 percent of his 3-pointers.
UCLA has begun Pac-12 play with two wins over Washington State and Washington, leaving them in first place in the conference. The win over Washington State was a wire-to-wire 96-82 drubbing, but the Bruins’ match against Washington was the Huskies’ to lose in the final eight minutes of the game.
And lost it they did. Washington led 52-48, but were able to muster just one point for the rest of the game, while UCLA poured on 26 to make the final score 74-53. Holiday and Wilkes put up nine points apiece in this stretch, displaying to the audience that they are the offensive pillars of the team. The win was one to celebrate, but it did highlight a flaw that UCLA will need to address if they are to continue the momentum they have created for themselves.
The Bruins turned the ball over 15 times to Washington’s 12. Although UCLA isn’t in danger of leading the country in turnovers, their propensity to give the ball away has hurt them in the past. In their 78-69 loss to Michigan, they turned the ball over 20 times, following that with 18 turnovers in their 77-63 loss to Cincinnati.
Luckily, UCLA will have a chance to focus on holding on to the ball against their next two opponents. Stanford is 24th in the country in turnovers, with 16 per game, and average only five steals per game. The Bruins take on the Cardinal on Thursday. Cal is just slightly better at holding on to the ball than their northern California counterparts, with 15 turnovers per game, while snagging six steals per game.
UCLA has found success working as a team, and the chemistry they have created will only get stronger as the season progresses. Identifying and solving their turnover problem will go a long way in ensuring they stay successful in a surprisingly weak Pac-12. The year is young, but UCLA has a lot they can build on before March rolls around.
To get to the top, the Bruins would need a Cinderella story style run through the bracket. The improvements they make now will give them the tools they need to make a fantastic finish like that a reality.