A slumping UCLA team lacking depth or confidence. A second game at altitude in less than 40 hours, this time against a formidable opponent. Hypercritical alum Bill Walton courtside calling the game for the Pac-12 Network.
Everything about UCLA's visit to 10th-ranked Utah suggested a rough Sunday afternoon for the Bruins, yet the outcome was even worse than anyone in powder blue and gold could possibly have imagined.
Utah throttled UCLA, 71-39, holding the cold-shooting Bruins to their lowest scoring output since 1967. UCLA shot an anemic 28.8 percent from the field against the disciplined Utes, falling behind by double figures after six minutes, trailing by 17 at halftime and never getting within 30 the final eight minutes of the game.
Sunday's loss leaves UCLA (8-7) still in search of its first victory over a top 100 KenPom opponent this season. The Bruins have dropped five straight for the first time since the 2009-10 season when they went 14-18 — and each loss is more alarming than the one that preceded it.
It started with Gonzaga outclassing UCLA in Westwood and top-ranked Kentucky holding the Bruins to a seven-point first half in Chicago. Next up was a dismal, turnover-plagued loss at Alabama and a late swoon against a previously struggling Colorado team missing its best player. The maraschino cherry on top came Sunday when the rapidly improving Utes emptied their bench at the Bruins' expense.
There are several reasons why UCLA has experienced a bigger drop-off than expected after three players left early from a team that won the Pac-12 tournament and reached the Sweet 16 last year.
UCLA doesn't have a true point guard capable of orchestrating the offense and getting guys the ball in positions to score the way Kyle Anderson did last season. Anderson's replacement, Bryce Alford, is ill-suited for the role because he has a volume shooter's mentality and lacks the court vision, shot selection and ability to create off the dribble the point guard position demands.
The absence of a point guard has contributed to UCLA's inability to exploit its strength in the post. Too often junior Tony Parker and McDonald's All-Americans Kevon Looney and Thomas Welsh go three or four straight possessions without touching the ball as Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Norman Powell hoist contested shots from the perimeter or attack the rim with abandon. Alford is 5 of 38 from the floor his last three games and he, Hamilton and Powell shot a combined 4 of 25 on Sunday.
Of course yanking starters who display poor shot selection and play lackadaisical defense isn't an option for head coach Steve Alford because his team goes only six deep. Seventh man Gyorgy Golomon is a project who should be redshirting this season and eighth man Noah Allen isn't a Pac-12-caliber talent. UCLA has only eight scholarship players and three scholarship guards this season because Colorado State transfer Jon Octeus and incoming freshman Jonah Bolden did not qualify academically and Alford didn't pursue any contingency plans.
The odds of UCLA bouncing back from this losing streak and emerging as an upper-echelon Pac-12 team are slim, but all is not lost for the Bruins this season.
The toughest stretch of their schedule is behind them and some winnable games lie ahead. If UCLA can stay healthy, regain the confidence it had in November and commit to feeding the post and giving a better effort, its starting lineup is talented enough to rack up some wins.
Nonetheless, there's no denying year two under Steve Alford has been a huge disappointment so far.
The last time UCLA lost six in a row, it was the 2003-04 season and the Bruins were on their way to an 11-17 record in Ben Howland's debut.
If UCLA can't beat Stanford on Thursday night, one of college basketball's most decorated programs will experience the shame of a six-game losing streak again.
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