If something looks too good to be true, it generally is, and UCLA’s victories in Murry Bartow’s first three games as the school’s interim basketball coach have proved to be the rule rather than the exception.
The Bruins were a mess when they fired Steve Alford on New Year’s Eve and they remain a mess now, their 84-73 defeat to unremarkable Arizona State at Pauley Pavilion extending their losing streak to three games.
They are 3-3 in the Pac-12. They are 10-9 overall. And they are still in search of their identity.
This was expected. Change that is lasting and meaningful takes place gradually. In the case of the Bruins, they still have to find a permanent coach. That coach has to implement and foster a new culture.
And yet …
As many of the bothersome qualities developed under Alford remained in their latest loss, the Bruins have the ability to make minds wander.
Sophomore point guard Jaylen Hands buried a deep three-pointer early in the opening minutes.
Could they …?
Freshman center Moses Brown dunked over a 6-foot-7 opponent in the first half.
Sophomore guard Kris Wilkes glided by a couple of Sun Devils in the second.
What if …?
More specifically, what if Bartow can round out some of the team’s rough edges by the Pac-12 tournament in March?
The Bruins could be eliminated in the opening round. They could also conceivably win the tournament.
“We think we’re capable of beating anybody in the league and if we don’t play well, anybody can beat us,” Bartow said.
They’re not playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They’re playing in a conference that isn’t assured of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament at this point.
“This league is wide open,” Bartow said.
What the Bruins lack in experience, they can make up in athleticism. Where they are deficient in outside shooting, they can compensate with their length and explosiveness.
Then again, I wrote something similar about the promise of this team after watching it in its season-opening victory over Purdue Fort Wayne, and all that promise did was further infuriate already-frustrated boosters when the Bruins dropped home games to Belmont and Liberty, resulting in Alford’s dismissal.
Bartow won’t say it, but what the Bruins have now is time.
The only way for the Bruins to salvage the season is to reach the NCAA tournament, and their only path there is to win three or four games to claim the conference championship in Las Vegas in a couple of months.
The games between now and then are glorified exhibitions, their value limited to seeding purposes for the Pac-12 tournament. A win over Arizona State wouldn’t have improved UCLA’s NET ranking to where the Bruins would have suddenly found themselves on the NCAA tournament bubble.
A potentially transformative development for the Bruins has been Hands’ improvement as a playmaker. Hands had 15 points and four assists Thursday night.
Wilkes, who also scored 15 points, remains a consistent source of offense.
But in many aspects, they remain the same old Bruins. They made only nine of 25 three-pointers and 10 of 21 free throws. None of this was out of the norm. The Bruins entered the game having made only 32.9% of their three-pointers and 61.1% of their free throws.
“In the second half, we take 31 shots, we make 10,” Bartow said. “We take 15 free throws, we make six of them.”
And there was the defense. Bartow was hired to assist Alford in this specific area, which had developed into a full-blown weakness for the Bruins in recent seasons.
The Bruins still looked like a soft team against the Sun Devils, as they were outscored in the paint 44-34. UCLA allowed the visitors to collect 15 offensive rebounds and score 11 second-chance points.
This absence of resilience resulted in UCLA blowing an early 11-point lead. In a first-half stretch that lasted a little more than three minutes, the Bruins went from leading by 10 to being down by one.
The Bruins again failed to respond when the Sun Devils started to extend their advantage in the second half.
But over the final stretch of the game, much of which Arizona led by double digits, the 6-foot-3 Hands threw down a particularly violent dunk. Then another. And another.
And, suddenly, questions started again.
Could they …? Maybe …? What if …?