Parker was the spark that brought home the win in crunch time. UCLA and Alabama were tied at 67-67 with a minute and half left when Parker took over the game. When you looked up after Parker's flurry of exceptional play, the final seconds of the clock were ticking off and the Bruins had won, 75-67, and Parker was greatly responsible for UCLA's final 8-point run that decided it. With the game tied, and the momentum seemingly on the side of the Crimson Tide, Parker brought down a great offensive rebound and was fouled, and made both free throws. That right there was probably good enough to be the best moment of his college career. But he didn't stop there. He then perhaps made the best defensive play by a UCLA player in recent memory. He actually slid off his man to provide help after an Alabama guard had gotten around his Bruin defender. Parker used his feet, got in position, under control, and altered the shot, and then with energy got the defensive rebound and saved the ball as he was falling out of bounds. That right there was probably the best moment of his college career. But he didn't stop there. He topped it off with a great, well-timed blocked with 31 seconds left to seal the game.
That defensive play by Parker felt better to watch than anything a UCLA player has done in a long time. The common refrain this season about this team, about its running and dunking, is: "They're fun to watch." Well, perhaps we're just old-school curmudgeons here at Bruin Report Online, but that defensive moment by Parker was more fun to watch than anything we've seen so far this season. It conjured up memories of Alfred Aboya and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. It was a UCLA player actually doing the right, fundamental thing defensively, moving his feet while staying composed – on help defense. This year's team is allergic to help defense. In fact, you could actually assert that help defense is its bugaboo. We all know UCLA doesn't have players with great lateral quickness, so opposing guards and wings are going to get around their defenders. The answer is to have a post player like Aboya or Mbah a Moute be savvy enough defensively – and athletic enough – to slide over and cut off the lane. The UCLA defensive coaching tactic this season is to sag – in man or in zone – to compensate for both UCLA's inability to stay in front of a driver, but also to try to compensate for this team's complete inability and lack of desire to provide help defense. It's remarkable how many Bruins stand and watch as their teammate's man goes right by them to the basket this season. Up until Parker's play, I had written it in my notes for this game about a half-dozen times – that the lack of help defense, the lack of knowledge and desire to do it, is this teams' primary problem. And then our hero Parker practically wins the game with a near-picture-perfect example of help defense.
We said a couple of weeks ago that Steve Alford should commit to playing Parker, and even Wanaah Bail. The theory was that UCLA, as everyone knows, has no inside presence or athleticism – on either side of the court. Travis Wear and David Wear aren't offensive post players and aren't good defensive post players. They are what they are. The suggestion was to go with Parker and Bail. Give them the nod. They might have the most upside. Get them the experience and perhaps, by the end of the season, you might have a little post offense and defense, with guys who have some athleticism and physical toughness.
Not only did Parker display that one great defensive post moment, he flashed some offense in this game. He had a couple of nice turn-around jump hooks. He was very "fun to watch" in pick-and-rolls. He finished with 16 points and 5 rebounds in 19 minutes. And remember, this wasn't against a mid-major, non-athletic cupcake. Now, Alabama doesn't have a great frontcourt, but they are better than most of the cupcake-level frontcourt players that have been playing in Pauley Pavilion so far this season. Parker accomplished this against decent athletes.
What might have helped was that there was a clear decision to try to feed the post in this game. UCLA's perimeter players looked inside with entry passes, to both Parker and Travis Wear, and they got some production out of it. The few points it produced wasn't even as important as 1) giving the offense more dimension, and making the defense have to defend inside and 2) giving Parker some confidence. It's not coincidental that Parker played with more confidence and energy on the defensive end when he was converting turnaround jump hooks on the offensive end. You get him the ball, show you have confidence in him offensively and he's far more inspired to play defensively. And rebound – he got five offensive rebounds.
There probably hasn't been a better image in UCLA basketball in a long time than, after he had a few good moments about halfway through the game, Parker displaying a huge grin running back up the court.
To harp back on a familiar refrain, this game was a textbook example of why it's all about defense. Throughout the game, when UCLA played a few good minutes of defense and got some stops, they surged. When they played bad defense and allowed the Crimson Tide some easy baskets, they faltered – on offense, too. They would get a stop then get an easy basket in transition. Or they'd get a defensive stop and they'd follow it with a composed, patient half-court possession. Again, not coincidental. If they strung together a few bad, lazy defensive possessions, it was followed by sloppy, out-of-control offensive possessions that were marked by desperation leading to a turnover or a bad shot.
Now, of course, UCLA needs to improve quite a bit in many facets defensively. But help defense could be the key to the season. Not only would better help cut off lanes to the basket, perhaps UCLA could extend its defense a bit and contest more outside jumpers. Right now, it can eke by a mediocre Alabama team with letting them have wide-open threes, but a good team is going to knock down those threes, all of those wide-open threes that Alabama bricked.
Besides Parker, Zach LaVine was the other spark. With Kyle Anderson on the bench with cramps in the second half down the stretch, LaVine had a flurry himself where he was the best player on the floor. With about 9 and half minutes remaining and UCLA up 51-47, LaVine then stepped up. On the next possession, with the type of quickness UCLA just doesn't have enough of, he broke the Alabama press off the dribble, penetrated and dished for a lay-up by Parker. A couple of minutes later, LaVine hit a big three to put up UCLA 60-51, then followed it with a beautiful pick-and-roll with Parker. If you taped the game, go back and watch these few minutes; that's what a big-time prospect looks like: The quickness and athleticism, and the quick release of the shot. But then, keep rolling the tape and watch the next defensive possession. LaVine gets the assignment of Trevor Releford, who had been scorching UCLA's defense all night. LaVine uses that quickness to stay in front of Releford, forcing him into a desperation dribble. It should have resulted in a turnover but the ball had an unlucky bounce; it's that's kind of quickness and athleticism, though, UCLA needs more of – and needs to get on the court and inspired to play defense.
Anderson has become a bit of a hit-and-miss force on the team. You have to give him credit for carrying the team most of the time, and he finished with 13 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists. Most of the time, when UCLA has had its transition opportunities taken away and the halfcourt offense is bogged down, it's Anderson that salvages it. He, though, however, needs to keep progressing in his game, and right now it's a matter of him lacking composure at certain key moments. When UCLA needs a smart offensive possession he commonly commits an untimely turnover, one that results from a forced, unnecessary drive or pass. Many times it's a matter of Anderson having to resist not going to his Anderson-against-the-world, one-on-one offense and still trying to find open looks for his teammates.
Jordan Adams' game is a bit of a concern, and it has been over his last several performances. You could have figured that, against the better Alabama athletes, he might struggle going to the basket, but he doesn't seem to compensate for a more athletic defensive team. He still tries to force contact and it just doesn't work on high-major teams like it does on cupcakes. When he's on offensively he's fine, but when he's not his offensive game appears to be selfish – with him taking ill-advised shots and dribbling into a crowd. Defensively he is what he is; he's crafty enough to poke away a few steals but he is one of the biggest culprits of poor help defense, reaching for the steal rather than moving his feet and getting his body in position.
Bryce Alford struggled in this game more than he had probably in any other game. You had to feel for him a bit when he was the catalyst to Alabama getting back in the game late in the first half as a result of his poor play. Alford's issue is going to always be recognizing who he is and what he can do, playing within himself and not trying to do too much. He didn't do that over the course of a few minutes in the first half. Alabama, really, was also the first team that was actually smart enough to try to trap Alford. He has, though, been a boost for the Bruins lately – when he doesn't try to do too much – so you have to give him a pass for this one. He is just a freshman, so hopefully he'll continue to learn just what role he provides this team and stay within that role.
One of the most encouraging aspects of the game was the second-half rebounding. UCLA out-rebounded Alabama 26-9 in the second half, and without it the Bruins lose this game. It finished with a 37-26 advantage. So much of it was the increased energy on the boards from Parker. He was actually blocking out – even on the offensive side of the court.
So, is Parker the key to the season? You wouldn't want to place that burden on him. Plus, this was only one game. Everyone can have a good game, and we saw decent-to-good games from Parker at the beginning of the season. So while this was a bit of a coming-out party for him, it might be too much to expect that the party continues on at the same level.
It's clear, however, that he has the potential to bring to this team some dimensions that could be the key to the team improving – namely post offense and defense. We don't want to expect too much of him, but we would at least expect Parker to get more playing time and to be given a chance to provide the team what it needs – since there is no one else who can do it. We'll see if the coaching staff is willing to give him more minutes, let him play through his mistakes on the chance he gets better and provide those dimensions by the end of the season. So many coaches are prone to conservatively playing the guys who immediately have more experience and make less mistakes – like the Wears – but this is a moment that takes some coaching vision and some considerable risk. We'll be blunt: Ben Howland couldn't do it; we'll see if Steve Alford does.