UCLA needed a win in the worst way coming into its Thursday night matchup against Stanford. The Bruins' season was spiraling out of control thanks to a five-game losing streak that included a national embarrassment against Kentucky. Yes, four of the five games were away from Pauley Pavilion and all five teams the Bruins lost to are potential NCAA Tournament squads. Still, for a program as proud as UCLA, that type of context doesn't provide much consolation.
Stanford is a good team in its own right. The Cardinal have taken out ranked teams in Texas and Washington and entered the night at 9-4. For most of the game, it looked like Stanford would push UCLA's losing streak to six games. When Chasson Randle hit a three-pointer with just over eight minutes remaining, Stanford led 64-51. That's when Bruins freshman forward Kevon Looney decided it was time to remind everyone he was the best player on the court.
Over the next four minutes, Looney scored 10 points to bring UCLA back into the game. It started with a three-pointer from the right corner, included a putback off an offensive rebound and three made free throws. Oh yeah, Looney also took a defensive rebound coast-to-coast and did this, too:
UCLA won 86-81 in double overtime and Looney was the star of the night with 27 points and 19 rebounds. This season has been a major disappointment for UCLA, but the Bruins can be thankful that at least they have Looney.
It's not something they should take for granted. Even on the day that he was set to announce his college plans, no one had any idea where Looney, a Milwaukee native, was going to go. The crystal ball at 247 Sports gave Duke a 75 percent chance, Florida a 22 percent chance and Tennessee a three percent chance. No one saw UCLA coming. That's probably just the way Looney liked it.
The team Looney is on now isn't as good as the one he thought he committed to. The Bruins lost three underclassmen to the NBA draft, including guard Jordan Adams at the last possible moment when he previously said he was returning to school. When Colorado State transfer Jon Octeus was ruled ineligible and transferred again to Purdue, the Bruins took another blow. It happened again when Jonah Bolden, a top 100 recruit from Australia, was also deemed ineligible.
While the rest of the roster was crumbling, Looney took the decay as an opportunity. He didn't waste much time putting up numbers, scoring 20 in his college debut against Montana State and finishing with 16 points and 15 rebounds against Oklahoma in his first game against a quality team.
Looney had done enough already to move up to No. 11 on DraftExpress' board coming into Thursday night, but there's no denying this was the best performance of his young career. He set career-highs in points and rebounds and got to the foul line 17 times (making 11). Maybe the most impressive stat was Looney's 2-of-3 shooting from three-point range when he had only hit four three-pointers all season up to this point.
Stanford has some nice size up front in Grant Verhoeven (6'9, 245 pounds) and Stefan Nastic (6'11, 245 pounds) but neither could keep Looney off the glass. He finished the night with 10 offensive rebounds. Looney can thank his long arms for that, with a wingspan that has measured at near 7'4. It's another thing NBA scouts will like about him come draft time, should he turn pro.
It's easy to compare to Looney to another freshman power forward who entered the 2014 draft, Noah Vonleh of the Charlotte Hornets. Vonleh went No. 9 after one year at Indiana and put up similar numbers to what Looney is posting right now. Vonleh is certainly bigger and even longer, but Looney plays with more energy. Both show the early signs of a face-up game, but not one that's fully developed.
Looney could stand to gain more muscle. He has a good frame at 6'9, 220 pounds with those long arms, so there should be room to grow. Long-term, he projects as an active rebounder and potential rim protector from the four spot. Offensively, the face-up game should be his bread and butter as he gets more comfortable shooting the ball. His stroke looked nice in draining the two three-pointers against Stanford. He just needs to continue to take shots like that with confidence.
There's sill plenty of time before anyone has to start worrying about the draft, of course. For now, UCLA is just happy to have stopped a losing streak. They're particularly happy to have Kevon Looney. He's been a silver lining in a tough season. His presence suggests it could start to get better soon.