UCLA was the only team to bring its dance squad and mascot to Orleans Arena, a nice but wholly unnecessary gesture considering the material they were given to work with going into their timeout performances.
The No. 17 Bruins were thoroughly outclassed in their first significant test of the season, an 87-67 loss to No. 11 Michigan State on Thursday night in the Las Vegas Invitational showing just how far they have to go to be considered a good team, let alone elite.
The issues included lackluster perimeter defense, no semblance of a competent offense and more selfish play. UCLA had withstood each of the problems against lesser teams but had no chance when they reap-peared against a tough, veteran team like the Spartans.
“To me, this was good for us,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said. “We don’t like getting beat, but our guys needed to see kind of what we’ve been telling them when you play a team like this versus teams that we’re going to beat just because of talent. We got smacked in the face today and now we’ll see how we respond moving forward.”
The Bruins (4-1) will need to make their fixes quickly before playing No. 7 North Carolina in a consolation game Friday afternoon after the Tar Heels were upset by Texas in the early game Thursday. The Longhorns will play the Spartans (4-1) in the championship game.
UCLA lost largely as a result of stagnant ball movement that resulted in a season-low eight assists. It was one of the primary reasons the Bruins continually settled for tough shots and made only a handful. Their starters combined to make only one of 19 shots in the first half, when Michigan State led by as many as 29 points.
“I just felt like we weren’t playing together,” UCLA sophomore guard Chris Smith said after scoring 11 points off the bench. “We were all trying to put it on our own shoulders, fix what was going on, but we’ve all got to realize that we’ve got to do this together, you know?”
UCLA sophomore forward Kris Wilkes scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half, when the Bruins played better defensively and outscored the Spartans by five points.
But it was far too late to pretty up the mess they had made after trailing 51-26 at halftime.
Pick any stretch after Cody Riley’s tip-in brought the Bruins to within 9-7 and it was ugly. Jaylen Hands threw an inbounds pass out of bounds. Wilkes was called for charging twice. Prince Ali fouled Cassius Winston on a made three-pointer.
More galling were all the open three-pointers the Bruins gave up. Alford could only place his hands behind his head in disgust after Michigan State’s Joshua Langford made an unguarded three-pointer only a few feet in front of him.
“On defense, we weren’t talking enough,” Wilkes said. “We were giving them too many open looks, way too many open looks.”
The Spartans made 10 of 17 three-pointers in the first half (58.8%) while the Bruins made only one of 11. That pretty much told the story.
Former UCLA guard Bryce Alford tried to offer an explanation on social media late in the first half at a time the Bruins had three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior on the court.
“Age and experience go a longgg way in college basketball,” Alford tweeted.
UCLA freshman center Moses Brown was essentially a non-factor while going head to head against Michigan State’s Nick Ward, even though the 7-2 Brown had a six-inch height advantage. Ward, a junior who finished with 16 points and five rebounds, proved to be the far savvier player.
“That’s the first time Mo has had to play against a grown man,” Steve Alford said of Brown, who finished with five points, 10 rebounds and three blocks.
Wilkes said the Bruins failed to heed Alford’s warning about Michigan State’s toughness. They also never found an answer for Winston, the gritty guard who finished with a game-high 19 points.
“He talked about it before the game, how they were going to come out swinging and we have to be ready for that,” Wilkes said of Alford. “I think we didn’t listen to him.”
The Bruins will get another chance after getting more advice from their coach.
“Like we told our team, it’s got to humble you and you’ve got to learn from it,” Alford said. “If we humble ourselves, learn from it and grow from it, we’re going to be OK. If we don’t, we’re going to continue to struggle for a while.”
Friday vs. No. 7 North Carolina, at Las Vegas,