For UCLA’s men basketball team, an opener against such a team as Montana State is usually a matter of physics. The tip goes up — then it comes down, and the game is pretty much decided.
UCLA dismissed the Bobcats, 113-78. A win was almost a given from the start, but drawing any larger conclusions from it would come too hastily. However, the way UCLA won has to be encouraging.
Worries festered in the preseason about inexperience, the talent the Bruins lost (five contributors left to the NBA or graduation, an incoming recruit was declared ineligible and a transfer student was denied admission), and who, exactly, would be making up all the points. In its only open exhibition game, against Azusa Pacific on Oct. 31, the offense was sluggish and the freshmen on edge. Defensively, UCLA Coach Steve Alford said he was not pleased with anyone.
“There will be games where we’ll get it,” Alford said this week. Others, he said, “You’ll be saying, ‘Uh-oh.’”
No one was saying “uh-oh” Friday, with the possible exception of Montana State’s defense. The Bruins played fast but in control and attacked in transition. Their first answer to the points question was a strong one: Their 113 points eclipsed last year’s high of 107 and was their highest total in a regular-season opener since 1993.
Norman Powell showed he can score in any number of ways around the rim. He split defenders and spun to the hoop. He finished through numerous fouls and completed a transition ally-oop. He ended up with 25 points on six-of-13 shooting, and he went to the free-throw line 15 times.
Powell was never the Bruins’ biggest concern. UCLA is weakest in its backcourt depth. But the starters found a rhythm.
Bryce Alford, in his second start ever, pushed the tempo and was lights out from the field. He had a double-double with 18 points on seven-of-10 shooting and 12 assists, including a pretty behind-the-back pass that set up a dunk. Kevon Looney, the versatile freshman, asserted himself with 20 points, and Isaac Hamilton added 15.
Defensively, UCLA cleaned up some of its issues and worked in a variety of zone configurations. Alford has said defensive adaptability will be needed, especially with a short bench.
Tougher tests await. Coastal Carolina, Sunday’s opponent, was an NCAA tournament team a season ago, and a week after that Long Beach State will present a challenge. Later in the month, UCLA will take on a loaded field in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.
All of those teams should provide a better barometer than the Bobcats. Still, UCLA won with style, while elsewhere, marquee names didn’t look nearly as sharp. Defending national champion Connecticut struggled for a while with Bryant, UC Santa Barbara hung with Kansas, and Michigan State had trouble putting Navy away.
The problem for the Bruins is not talent as much as age. A truer test will be consistency. Alford has stressed that the coaching staff will need to be patient as the team goes through growing pains.
The young players offered a glimpse of why it may be worth the wait. Outside of Looney, freshman Thomas Welsh was the most impressive. The 7-foot center was effective in the low post, with 14 points and four rebounds.
Earlier in the week, Alford acknowledged, “It’s easy for me to stand up here and say, ‘Be patient.’ We haven’t played a game.”
And, of course, it’s easy to be patient when your team scores in the triple digits. For the first night, UCLA made it easy.