By Manny Nunez
UCLA wants to get back into competition in a very strong Pac-12 conference this season. The Bruins last year were unable to get anything go their way as they finished 6-12 and in the bottom of the pack year ago. Now, their culture suddenly changed when they obtained top recruits Lonzo Ball and T.J Leaf. These two have become the top scorers on the team, and has propelled them to one of their strongest starts in quite some time.
At least for the first 20 minutes in Sunday night’s 74-67 win in the Wooden Legacy against Texas A&M, Isaac Hamilton stole the show. His 17 points in the first half on 7-9 shooting allowed the Bruins to gain control. He had the hot hand when Ball and Leaf went cold, which in part allowed the Bruins to flow the ball offensively.
“In all reality if it weren’t for Hamilton, we would not be in this game,” Bruins head coach Steve Alford said. “I thought that was pivotal to have Hamilton lead the way like he did in the first 20 minutes. Isaac was on fire and in a groove in the first half when all of our scorers were cold. That’s what we want because a year ago, a game like this would have taken us away from staying in anything.”
Ball and Bryce Alford eventually found their touch when they were needed most. A couple of clutch three pointers near the end of the game gave the Bruins a confidence building the victory over Texas A&M that keeps the team unbeaten this season.
“In the early onset of the season you learn more and more about your team,” Alford said. “The irony about tonight is how everyone talks about our offense and how impressive we have been, but it was the defense that really took us off over the last three games. What we will probably learn most is our half court offense since we have been in transition so much, but that will come with time.”
The Bruins are much younger this year with the additions of Ball and Leaf, but having Alford and Hamilton’s experience has proven to be a deadly weapon so far in their first seven games. All four have come in averaging over 15 points a game with T.J. Leaf leading the way averaging just under 18 points per game.
This gives the Bruins much more to work with whenever any one player is playing cold. It showed on Sunday night against a Texas A&M team that had center Tyler Davis and leading scorer D.J. Hogg contained.
“These guys learned a lot from playing overseas,” Alford said. “It is more than just having high flying scorers. There are seniors who can lead and freshmen who can score. Bryce and Isaac were big when we needed them, and our everything we did tonight showed we have something great.”
Seven games in the Bruins are much more fun to watch compared to last year. Their ball movement and team work ethic seems to be clicking, and for some thinking it could be much quicker than anticipated.
“We are playing as a family,” Ball said. “It is a long season, but we play for each other. As long as we play the way we are we can go places.”
However, there are challenges the Bruins will face that may show the rest of the college basketball world if this team is for real. Before Pac-12 play begins they have dates with Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio State. By now, however, the Bruins have shown they are most likely going to be tournament contenders. The real question lies if they can carry this much further.
Hokies shade Huskers – Virginia Tech looked very impressive against Nebraska in their 66-53 win in the third place game. As a team the Hokies shot 8-for-18 from beyond the arc, which was their strong suit for expanding their lead in the second half. Zach LeDay led the team with 19 points.
The Hokies will look to ride a lot of this momentum in the coming weeks as they will face Michigan this Wednesday. A win against the Wolverines can have them become a small threat in the ACC.
“We’ve been together through war,” Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams said. “Our first year we won two conference games. This year so far we have only lost two conference games. We have been through struggles, but we grind. Yesterday we were up 20 and blew it. But we came together and it helps.”
Although the Cornhuskers finished with their first two losses of the season in Anaheim, they have begun to learn about themselves as they struggled to keep up with a very potent offense the last two games, including Texas A&M. Nebraska has a strong schedule coming up with dates against Clemson and Kansas as they look to prepare for a very tough Big Ten conference.
‘”We were inept on offense,” Nebraska head coach Tim Miles said. “It’ll be good to to watch tape and find a way to get better. We have another ACC team on the road on Wednesday with Clemson, so it doesn’t get any easier moving forward.”
Flying High – Dayton led for most of the game against New Mexico until Tim Williams gave the Lobos a 57-56 lead on a drive in layup with just over a minute to go. The Flyers however converted on their final possessions and shut down the Lobos with a handful of turnovers. Dayton won the fifth place game 64-57, giving the Flyers some much needed confidence leaving the Wooden Legacy with a 5-2 record.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Dayton head coach Archie Miller said. “To come out of this thing 2-1 and a hard fought win against a good team in New Mexico is very impressive.”
One strong aspect the Flyers were able to capitalize on were forcing bad plays against the Lobo offense. A handful of the 16 turnovers the Flyers forced came in the final minutes, showing Miller the poise his team has learned since losing the opening game to Nebraska
“We are playing much harder,” Miller said. “We improved, over the course of the three games, defensively everyday. We know that our defense can carry us. We’ve won when we haven’t played well or shot well. That’s what we have to hang our hat on.”
New Mexico is trying to ease the panic, with their only win coming from Cal State Northridge. A blowout loss to Virginia Tech to start the tournament certainly does not help the ease that head coach Craig Neal is looking for.
“I have a lot of parts on this team going in different directions right now.” Neil said. “We are going to have to take a serious look on whom we play and whom we don’t play. You can’t make surprise passes and shots without running a fluid offense. If you try to take a shot or make a play and your teammates aren’t on the same page you surprise them and you can’t get back in transition.”