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Mike Lopresti | | December 4, 2016

Confident UCLA resembling true Final Four contender

  UCLA has relied on contributions from all over the rotation this season.

LEXINGTON, Ky. — This was not long after Kentucky’s 42-game Rupp Arena winning streak had gone poof Saturday. After Big Blue Nation had melted from full and confident roar into a dissatisfied and slightly stunned murmur. Main perpetrator TJ Leaf — “He killed us,” John Calipari would later say of the UCLA freshman — stood in a hallway with a candid message for the rest of college basketball.

“A lot of people are just thinking we played out of our minds,” Leaf said of the Bruins’ 97-92 track meet with No. 1 Kentucky. “We played a good game. Nothing special. That’s just who we are. We’re a good basketball team. We can compete with anyone in the country, and I think we showed that.”

They showed it to the Bluegrass, anyway. Showed it with flash and muscle and the pass-around balance that is quickly becoming their trademark.

“They physically manhandled us,” Calipari would mention. “You don’t see that very often, especially in this building.”

So here’s the aftermath: Nobody need be taken surprise anymore by UCLA. The Bruins certainly aren’t surprised themselves, never mind they are barely eight months removed from a 15-17 record.

“We talked about 'Don’t go in and jab around the ring to see if you belong,'” coach Steve Alford said. “You’re 8-0. You’re playing well. Trust that you belong.”

We don’t know exactly what happened to the normally invulnerable home Wildcats on Saturday — the team that had won its first seven games by an average of 30.6 points. We don’t know if outside shooting deficiencies will torment Kentucky all season, or why its defense leaked and allowed the most points ever by a Calipari team. Why something was missing in a 12:30 p.m. ET game.

“Most people aren’t morning people,” Kentucky freshman Bam Adebayo mentioned afterward as a possible factor. OK, but it was the Bruins who were playing at 9:30 a.m. their time.

“Why didn’t we pass it today?” Calipari wondered aloud of his offense, on an early December day that felt like late March. “Because it was national television, it was my time? We all look bad.”

Kentucky will have to work all that out. Meanwhile, here’s one certainty: UCLA belongs, all right. Young, fearless, confident and now 9-0. Oh yeah, the Bruins belong.

They had nine more turnovers Saturday and shot six fewer free throws. Seven-footer Thomas Welsh played only 19 minutes because of foul trouble, and freshman do-it-all Lonzo Ball had a turnover glut the first half. Plus, this was their first true road game, at a place which might as well have a sign at the door reading, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

On this day, UCLA entered and outscored Kentucky by 23 points in one stretch to lead by 14 in the second half. Calipari has coached 129 Kentucky games in Rupp Arena and you can count on one hand the number he’s lost. Try 124-5.

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“They’re not used to losing here,” said UCLA senior guard Bryce Alford, the son of the coach.

“We really showed we’re ready for the moment,” Leaf said. His way of showing it was 17 points, 13 rebounds and five assists.

They figured they were ready. “I think we all knew it in our locker room. I think we proved it to people outside our locker room,” Leaf said. But any team, especially with two freshmen as key players, can always use confirmation, and it doesn’t get much better than this.

For instance, how many times can a pack of Bruins say they’ve done something no other UCLA team has ever done — including those coached by John Wooden? The Bruins had never won at Rupp before. (Of course, they had never played there before, but we digress).

“To be able to do something at a school with these four letters that has done pretty much everything in the game of college basketball,” Bryce Alford said, “and to be able to put your stamp on it, that’s something I’ll remember forever.”

Or this. UCLA had bludgeoned lesser foes with offensive gusto. Six players arrived in Lexington averaging in double figures, the Bruins were putting up 97 points a game and they led the world in assists. But that was against Pacific and UC Riverside, and this was Kentucky.

It didn’t matter. UCLA scored 97 points. Again. Six Bruins were in double figures. Again. The offense sprinted hither and yon and produced with 53 percent shooting. Again. Rupp aura or not, Kentucky galaxy of talent or not, it was business as usual for UCLA.

“The thing I’m most pleased with is that we came in here with a certain identity,” Steve Alford said. “And we left here with that same identity.

“If you can run with this team, you can run with anybody.”

Saturday, then, was a genuine rite of UCLA passage. Steve Alford mentioned that December is when “identity gets cemented. You might think that’s what you can look like. You hope that’s what you can look like. We’ve got a pretty good identity building right now.”

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He could quibble about the sloppy ending, but he blamed that on the fact the Bruins, with one rout after another, were unaccustomed to protecting leads. “I think we’ll play with more poise next time,” he said. And the father who hit nearly 90 percent from the line as an Indiana Hoosier was annoyed that son Bryce missed a couple of late free throws.

“Being an Alford,” Bryce said afterward, “you don’t miss free throws.”

But all in all, it was a revealing and exhilarating weekend jaunt for UCLA. The Bruins are likely to be back in the top 10, and they haven’t been there in seven years. Their third-place pick in the Pac-12 looks weak now. And the bad taste of last year — not to mention the darts thrown at Coach Alford — have waned. Losing seasons are considered very, very bad manners in Westwood.

“The UCLA brand is huge,” Steve Alford said. “We had a losing season last year. That doesn’t happen very often at UCLA. And yet we were ranked in the top 20 to start the year. That’s the power of the brand that we have.”

Also, one might add, the pressure. But the masses have to be tickled, not only at the record but the style of the team. The Bruins are forever looking to make the extra pass and obviously prefer to spread the wealth. Ball has gotten the big ink lately, but Leaf showed his freshman flash Saturday. Not that Ball's game wilted with his six turnovers. He still went for 14 points, seven assists and six rebounds.

“The kid just knows how to win,” Steve Alford said.

Meanwhile, Bryce Alford and fellow senior Isaac Hamilton don’t seem to mind that the rookies are drawing so much attention. “You [sometimes] get seniors who are like, hold on now, this is our team. It’s never been that,” Steve Alford said.

Said Ball: “We’re going to find a way to win. That’s not just me, but my teammates, too.”

And Bryce Alford: “There’s not more pressure on one of us than all of us. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to play for a team that is so unselfish. We’re about the team, every single player, top to bottom.”

Plus, this is a home-grown resurgence. Of the Bruins’ top six players, Alford plucked five from the state of California, and one off his family tree.

“We have a goal: from good to great,” he said. “We’re not great yet. But we knew we were good coming in. We took a pretty good step towards being a little bit better than good.”

If you can do what the Bruins just did to Kentucky, how high is your ceiling? That’s what must be wondered now about UCLA. That is the Bruins’ souvenir from their trip to Lexington. Plus, the memories of a Rupp Arena gone quiet.

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