Three thoughts after UCLA’s 89-75 loss to USC

UCLA’s 89-75 loss to USC sows more doubt about the trajectory of Steve Alford’s third season with the Bruins. (John McCoy/Staff)

1. How much can UCLA improve its defense? There was little dispute about the main reason behind the Bruins’ 89-75 loss to USC on Wednesday night, one that stands at one of the ugliest home efforts of the Steve Alford era.

The team gave up 89 points and allowed the Trojans to shoot 45 percent from beyond the arc. The Bruins rank last in the Pac-12 in the former category, and eighth in the latter. Combine that lackluster defense with a potent but inconsistent offense — and a very tough schedule — and you get an average scoring margin of just +2.6. Every other team in the conference is above 4.0, and six are in double digits.

What’s the solution? Alford hinted at potential lineup changes, saying that freshman forward Alex Olesinski — who didn’t play at all against the Trojans — could get more minutes. The third-year coach also mentioned sophomore Gyorgy Goloman, who returned from a stress fracture in his leg and saw the floor for two minutes in his season debut. But both are role players who have combined for just 526 career minutes. It’s difficult to imagine them being able to transform the team’s defensive performance within the next month or so.

The defensive problems also extend well beyond the frontcourt, looking poorest in transition. Alford and his players have framed the issue as one rooted in effort, or lack thereof. If that’s the main cause, why hasn’t the coaching staff allowed it fixed it after 18 games?

2. Is this team tough enough to squeeze out a few more road wins? The Trojans look like a legitimate Pac-12 contender, but this was a game played at Pauley Pavilion in front of a season-high crowd of 12,993. If UCLA couldn’t win there, what’s going to happen at the Galen Center next month?

Yes, the Bruins pulled off an impressive road win at Gonzaga, one of the toughest venues in college basketball. But they haven’t done much away from Pauley Pavilion to build on that, most recently looking completely flat in a seven-point loss at Washington State.

There’s still time to recover. UCLA’s postseason hopes may depend on that. projects the Bruins to win the rest of their home games, but has them losing each of their seven remaining road games — giving them less than a 25 percent chance at four of them (Oregon, USC, Arizona, Cal). The site has missed on several key UCLA wins this season, but this scenario would drop the team to 8-10 in conference play for the first time since 2009-10.

3. Will the Bruins’ best wins look as good a month from now? Kentucky was ranked No. 1 when it visited Pauley Pavilion, but is shaping up as more of an above-average team rather than an elite one. Gonzaga is coming off another home loss to BYU, and could drop another when St. Mary’s visits next month. Arizona will be without Allonzo Trier for the next month.

All three of these teams might fare just fine the rest of the way, but if any of them stumble, then the bright spots on UCLA’s resume get a little dimmer.

That the Pac-12 is much deeper this season should help the Bruins’ cause. However, if they can’t at least get above .500 in the league, then the committee could see a team that had its best wins in December and January.