Column: No. 2 UCLA makes Pauley Pavilion the place to be again

UCLA guard Bryce Alford (20) and his Bruins teammates celebrate after an Alford basket late in the second half of a game against Michigan on Dec. 10.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Bryce Alford stuck his right hand high into the air and curled his fingers to the roaring crowd.

Higher … higher …

Alford kept his hand raised, kept his fingers wagging, and the sound stretched and expanded and filled new Pauley Pavilion with age-old echoes.

Higher … higher …

On a throwback Saturday in Westwood, there didn’t seem to be any limit to the noise the UCLA basketball team could command.


Ten games into a startling season, there also appears to be no limit to the noise these unbeaten, unabashed and somewhat unbelievable Bruins can make.

After a 102-84 sprint past Michigan, the fans in the sold-out arena were singing, the stunned Wolverines were staggering, and the second-ranked home team was staring in the direction of Bryce Alford’s hand.

Said Alford: “I think the sky is the limit for us.”

Lonzo Ball, looking even higher, said, “As long as we defend, who knows what the limit is. We’re going for a championship this year, that’s our goal, and we don’t expect to lose.”

Those expectations continue to grow in all corners of Westwood after a contest that many thought would drag this young team back down to Earth.

Coming one week after the win at top-ranked Kentucky, this was a hangover game against a physical Big Ten Conference team, right? Coming in front of one of the infrequent Pauley sellouts in five years, this was also a pressure game that could crack the kids, right?

Yeah, um, right. The Bruins fooled around on defense enough to find themselves in a 50-50 tie at halftime before running Michigan out of the gym by 18 points in the final 20 minutes.

“A blast,” Alford said with a description that works in every sense of the word.

One blast was Ball ending the first half by draining a three-pointer near the midcourt line and running directly into the Bruins locker room. Soon after the start of the seond half, another blast, Gyorgy Goloman throwing down a dunk on a perfect pass from Alford. A few breaths later, another blast, Ball sailing out of bounds before somehow twisting and throwing the ball back to Ike Anigbogu, who laid it in.

And, oh, those three pointers, 15 of them on 24 attempts, Aaron Holiday hitting all five of his tries, blast, blast, blast.

“It fits my game perfectly,” said heralded freshman Ball of the Bruins style. “A lot of running around, no real set plays … play by instinct. … I love the offense, I love the guys I’m playing with, everything is clicking.”

That’s 102 points against a team that previously ranked ninth in the nation in defense while giving up only 58 points per game.

That’s 102 points with starter Thomas Welsh sitting out because of a sore knee and some others frazzled from finals week.

That’s 102 points on a season-low 63 possessions, which made it feel like they scored every time they touched the ball.

“That’s how special offensively this team is … through 10 games, it’s as close to a phenomenal offense I can think of my career,” Coach Steve Alford said.

You want special? From the filled arena to the deafening cheers to the old-timers in worn UCLA jackets high-fiving kids in backward Bruins caps, Pauley has shaken off the cobwebs to become a hot spot again.

Yes, on Saturday, that was Jessica Alba kissing her father-in-law Mike Warren courtside. And, yes, Vince Vaughn was really shaking a Bruins pom-pom.

“This has been the most full I’ve seen it, the loudest I’ve seen it, the most fun I’ve had since I’ve been here,” Bryce Alford said. “We’re starting to put on a show for people.”

With all due respect to the crazy years of Steve Lavin and the Final Four teams of Ben Howland, the last time UCLA baketball felt this cool was in 1995, and you know what happened then.

And, oh yeah, you want phenomenal? How about, this team has the country’s most celebrated rookie, but Ball — who hasn’t lost a game since March 2015 — is only one cog in a bunch that has risen with his potential.

“We’re about eight deep right now on guys who can pass it, shoot it, dribble it,” Steve Alford said.

The Bruins’ leading scorer Saturday was a 6-foot-10 freshman who plays with the skills of a guard, a kid named TJ Leaf. The Bruins loudest impact player was 6-10 freshman Anigbogu, who sent the crowd flying into chest bumps with four blocked shots that could seemingly be heard out on Sunset Boulevard.

And the team is actually run by seniors Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton, who have also been renewed by this unselfish attack that leads the country in assists. Seriously, when watching the Bruins, every time you look down you miss at least two passes.

“It really is about cutting, about moving, about running motion again,” said Steve Alford, who spent the summer showing his team films of the smooth-sharing Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. “The ball would move more, people would move more, there’s not as much pressure on anybody.”

How far can these Bruins keep moving? They are seriously good. They could reasonably be No. 1-good during the regular season. They could honestly be Final Four-good in the spring.

For right now, it’s enough to enjoy the blast.

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke