Things have not gone as UCLA envisioned to start the season. The team's defense has been atrocious. Tyler Lamb and center Joshua Smith left the team. The Bruins lost to Cal Poly. Rumors of the school firing head coach Ben Howland made the rounds this week.
Yet, through it all, UCLA is 9-3 and could go into Pac-12 play on a high note with a win over No. 12 Missouri. And the team has its unselfish offensive play to thank for that.
Statistically, the Bruins have been very good on offense this year, scoring 79.6 points per game (19th in the NCAA). But it's been a team brand of offense—UCLA is averaging 18.3 assists per game (sixth in the country) and has six players averaging seven points or more per game.
Peter Yoon of ESPN has more on the Bruins' brand of team play:
Unselfishness has become a hallmark of the UCLA offense. In the last three games, they have a combined 70 assists on 91 made field goals. Point guard Larry Drew II has a 28-to-3 assist-to-turnover ratio in those games, making the offense run quite efficiently.
Star freshman Shabazz Muhammad spoke to that, noting in Yoon's article, “Guys aren’t afraid to give up the ball and really trust their teammates and that’s a big factor with us right now. It’s unselfishness and it’s bringing our team a long way.”
Added Kyle Anderson, “It’s great when you have a few mishaps on defense and everybody is clicking on the offensive end and everybody is being unselfish. But I think it’s much better if we want to be a contending team we need to buckle down on defense.”
Muhammad has been as advertised and more, averaging 18.8 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. Along with fellow freshmen Jordan Adams (18.0 points, 4.3 rebounds) and Anderson (9.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists), Muhammad has paced the Bruins' attack.
Sure, UCLA can't be considered a national championship contender—or even a threat to win the Pac-12—until the defense improves. But the fact that this team is functioning on such a high level offensively despite contributions from four freshman is impressive, and it's something the Bruins must build upon.
Is UCLA a national championship contender?
It's unlikely the defense will dramatically improve, or even that the rumors surrounding Howland will cease anytime soon. But with a win over Missouri and a strong start to the Pac-12 season, who cares?
UCLA must ride its offense past a rocky start to the season. The Bruins won't be able to outscore the elite teams in the country if they don't learn to play some defense, but they'll certainly put themselves in position to win plenty of games if they continue to operate this smoothly on the offensive end.
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