— UCLA Basketball (@UCLAMBB) December 13, 2015
1. This might be Steve Alford’s most intriguing UCLA team yet. The Bruins pulled off their most impressive road win in years on Saturday, upsetting No. 20 Gonzaga in a 71-66 decision. They became just the 11th team to ever beat the Bulldogs at McCarthey Athletic Center, which opened in 2004.
A few caveats: The Bulldogs don’t look nearly as good as they did a year ago after losing all three backcourt starters, becoming much more prone to turnovers and missed shots. Center Przemek Karnowski also missed his fourth straight game due to back spams; his absence likely helped UCLA’s Tony Parker hit his first eight shots of the game. Even forward Domantas Sabonis, who had 18 points and eight rebounds, looked banged up for much of the game.
But still, a win is a win, and this is one that will look very good on the Bruins’ resume come Selection Sunday. Add in a home upset over then-No. 1 Kentucky, and Alford suddenly has a team that has proven itself capable of winning big nonconference games. That Dec. 19 tipoff in Brooklyn against North Carolina looks much more interesting than it did a month ago.
While UCLA has some defensive issues, it is starting to gel into a potent offensive lineup. The Bruins opened at Gonzaga with 17 points in less than five minutes, fell into a prolonged slump, then dominated the paint early in the second half. Far from perfect, but good enough for an offensive efficiency rating that leads the Pac-12 and ranks No. 22 in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy.
It’s difficult to peg who UCLA’s leading scorer might be on any given night, which could signal versatility, inconsistency, or a bit of both. Four players have taken turns pacing the Bruins in their last four games. At Gonzaga, Isaac Hamilton had a second straight 20-point outing for the first time in his career.
2. What happens without Prince Ali? Earlier this week, Alford compared the freshman guard to a young Norman Powell — more offense, less defense, similar athleticism. The reserve guard had averaged 14 minutes through eight games, but planted awkwardly on his left leg in the first half and sat out the rest of the way with a knee injury. If he’s out for any extended amount of time, the best option might be a bigger lineup.
The next guard off the bench is Noah Allen, who has only played 12 minutes this season. Rather than subbing him in, the most prudent move would be to give more minutes to 6-foot-10 forward Jonah Bolden. The former four-star recruit has yet to find his shot, but his versatility could prove valuable for the Bruins. Playing a career-high 30 minutes against Gonzaga, he recorded his first double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds, and played a key role in slowing down Kyle Wiltjer. Bolden also notched a nice assist, kicking the ball out for a Hamilton 3-pointer, and would’ve had a second had Thomas Welsh not missed a layup.
3. UCLA should return to the top 25 for the first time in over a year. The Bruins were last ranked in the Associated Press poll on Nov. 24, 2014, shortly before back-to-back losses against Oklahoma and UNC. They’re currently hovering six spots out in the “receiving votes” category, and beating Gonzaga on the road likely sways some voters who wrote off the Kentucky upset as a fluke.
For anyone keeping track, UCLA has appeared in nine out of 45 possible polls under Alford, peaking at No. 18 in December