Bruins win easily, but that might not be a good thing

Bruins win easily, but that might not be a good thing
UCLA guard Norman Powell grabs a rebound against Cal State Fullerton's Kennedy Esume in the first half Wednesday night. (Harry How / Getty Images)

For the first time all season, an opposing player shot a pair of high-pressure free throws against the UCLA men's basketball team Wednesday. Kennedy Esume stepped to the line. The crowd was as loud as it had been all game.

He missed the first, then the next, and the crowd erupted.


Never mind that UCLA was leading by 19 and would win, 73-45, over Cal State Fullerton. The two misses in a row meant everyone in the arena had won free frozen yogurt.

So far, this is what counts as high drama for UCLA.

In the nonconference portion of the season, the Bruins have navigated a schedule of extremes. In the Bahamas, UCLA showed it wasn't ready for Oklahoma or North Carolina. But it has beaten up on teams who can't sniff the top 25. There hasn't been a middle ground.

Through eight games — more than half of the nonconference schedule — no contest has been decided by single digits. UCLA (6-2) is still waiting to be tested in a close game late.

"We haven't had any nail-biter," Coach Steve Alford said. "I'm sure those things are going to come. But I'm very pleased with what our guys have been able to do."

Until conference play starts, UCLA will continue to cycle between not-so-talented and overwhelmingly talented opponents. UCLA probably will be heavily favored again until games against No. 9 Gonzaga and No. 1 Kentucky later in December.

Now, UCLA is back on the schedule's downswing, That meant the return of lopsided wins. UCLA jumped out to an 18-4 lead against the Titans thanks to a pair of Kevon Looney dunks and efficient scoring from Tony Parker.

Parker finished with 12 points on six-of-nine shooting but was slowed by an apparent injury in the second half. He fell without much contact and grabbed behind his knee. He stayed in the game but was soon replaced by Thomas Welsh. Parker later returned and ran without a limp.

By halftime, when UCLA led by 17, the game was in hand. Looney would easily collect yet another double-double, with 10 points and 13 rebounds.

The uneven schedule is a result of Alford's desire to play high-profile opponents. Since taking the job Alford has bolstered the Bruins' schedule. Beginning next season, UCLA and Kentucky will play a home-and-home series.

Yet not every game can be a blockbuster, and often, playing a home game means scheduling a team that is not a traditional power.

The schedule would fit the Bruins, were they not so young and unproven. But Alford has emphasized that growth will take some time.

"We're not going to be the team we want to be on Thanksgiving," Alford has cautioned.

The Bruins have also played their way out of close games in both wins and losses. They pulled away from an experienced Long Beach State team to win by 14.


Then they coughed up a late lead to lose to Oklahoma by 10 in the Bahamas.

"We had Oklahoma beat," Looney said. "We let up on them."

Alford called the losses valuable learning experiences. At a certain point, only so much can be taught in the game film of blowouts.

After Wednesday's win over the Titans (3-5), for instance, how do you tell Looney to pass up uncontested dunks? How do you critique a defense up by 20 points? Set offensive principles mean little when Norman Powell can dissect a defense for a give-and-go alley-oop.

UCLA will have to learn as much as possible in the two games, against San Diego and UC Riverside, before Gonzaga.

Maybe those games will finally allow UCLA to practice closing out games.

But the Bruins would prefer they don't.