If UCLA goes deep into the tournament this year, it will be because its multiple backcourt pieces rise to an elite level and in fleet-footed fashion protect the frontcourt, which is the team's soft underbelly.
Next year's recruiting class explicitly addresses the weakness. It is the cavalry being called in, but it will not be able to join the fray this season, where its particular attributes are badly needed.
Of five 2014 commitments, four are either forwards or centers.
For years, the proverb has said guards win national championships, but that is true only under conditions that the inside pillars—defenders of the sanctum sanctorum—are sturdy enough to at least hold their ground and reliably secure shots missed by the enemy.
UCLA's alarming problem is that their inside rotation consists of either finesse scorers who are overmatched in the paint—fifth-year seniors David and Travis Wear—or large bodies who have not learned to defend without nearing disqualification within the first eight of a 40-minute game—6'8'', 250-pound sophomore Tony Parker.
Playing uptempo as UCLA has been—34th fastest nationally according to Ken Pomeroy—theoretically means more shots and opportunities at rebounds. But the Bruins are in the darkness at 36.2 total rebounds per game, which ranks 136th in the country.
If the trend holds for the season, UCLA will get rebounded to death by teams it should otherwise beat.
It happened already Dec. 7 at Mizzou in the team's first loss. UCLA conceded the boards 47-30 and were downed by nine points, 80-71.
Bad offensive rebounding means missing prime chances to score points.
Do the same defensively and you will be force-fed demoralizing putbacks after otherwise successful possessions. That is mentally frustrating for players while simultaneously being fatiguing physically.
Surrendering offensive rebounds, in particular, also exposes a team to collecting otherwise avoidable fouls around the rim trying to prevent easy put-backs. It is a bad way to play basketball because it is failing a fundamental element of the game.
But that is a likely pattern unless the Bruins' bigs improve drastically. At 9-1 through the first 10 games, UCLA has its offense—particularly the passing and shooting—to credit for the winning. The Bruins are third nationally in effective field goal percentage at 59.6 percent.
Shooting is basketball's most fickle mistress, and with gravity-like constancy, UCLA can count on cold shooting stretches to settle over them from time-to-time. That is why the best coaches emphasize defense and rebounding.
Coach Alford knows this—and he played at Indiana for Bob Knight, a cruel walking monument to the principle. This mindset will be taught in practice, but does UCLA have physically and mentally strong enough players to enforce it on opponents?
Around the rim, the Bruins deploy the Wears, Parker and sparingly—since returning to basketball after 18 months away with an injured knee—Wanaah Bail.
The best individual rebounder by a long shot at almost nine per game is hybrid guard/forward Kyle Anderson. The team gets 14 rebounds total from both Wears, Parker and Bail combined—which averages to 3.5 per man.
The Wears are the last of the triplets who transferred from Chapel Hill, North Carolina to Ben Howland at UCLA.
Larry Drew II, the third Tar Heel transfer, played gallantly last year and led the team at point guard with a lot of heart during a tumultuous season. He made himself memorable as the all-time single-season assist leader before he graduated.
Coming out of high school, they looked like future professionals. But their major deficiency at this level is they are too soft and slow laterally to play inside.
Travis Wear—who has not looked like himself since returning from appendicitis—averages almost 3.5 fouls per game. David Wear averages two and Parker almost three in only 20 minutes on the floor.
Parker, if he had come along according to the expectations attached to a 5-star high school player, should be playing 25-30 minutes a game. Instead, he plays sporadically and rarely gets into the flow of things, often collecting two fouls before halftime and being relegated to the bench.
The mistakes he continues to make as a sophomore are getting embarrassing.
He does not move his feet well or stay in front of his man and has developed instead a tendency to hack. Teams that put him in a screen and roll up high can almost count on either a foul or an open drive with an option to lob pass at the finishing end.
Parker has shown some ability to rebound. In 11 fewer minutes than Anderson, he is the team's second leading rebounder at almost six per game.
He can individually alter the course of this season if he develops the discipline and defensive technique to stay on the floor for extended minutes. At the moment, it happens to feel unlikely.
But Bail—as Alford stated to the Los Angeles Times in the piece linked above—is really working back into a basketball rhythm after almost a year and a half away. That is harder than it might sound.
At the upper end, basketball is played literally every day for hours at a time. Portions of that are devoted to cultivating individual skills, but just as important is the time spent running the floor in scrimmages.
There is nothing for getting the feel of the game and developing the instinct—as opposed to conscious thought, which takes far too long—for where to be and how to get where you want to go. Almost 500 days away from that will inexorably diminish your skills.
Individually, at a super-athletic 6'9'', Bail's improvement over the next three months will have a tremendous impact on UCLA's season either way.
If he becomes a piece who can play a productive 20 minutes—as opposed to the seven he gets now—the Bruins get a level of dynamism on the inside they simply do not have available right now.
If Bail needs the full year and an offseason to acclimate, which would be normal, then the Bruins will be marching forward with a glaring weakness.
With the Wears as anchors, there is an uncomfortable feeling of negative predestination. They are the team's tallest contributing players at 6'10'' and the most experienced.
If the defensive end could be thought of as a fortress with the Wears guarding the openings, then the drawbridge would be down and the portcullises on all sides wedged open. The enemy streams past the defensive bulwarks, through the armor and gets clean shots at the vulnerable insides.
UCLA's best secondary defense has been an interceptor system.
Jordan Adams leads the team in steals at 3.5 per game, which is third best nationally. The team gets 11.4 per game, which is second best behind only Shaka Smart's Virginia Commonwealth University. But even the best interceptor systems allow enough missiles through to cripple a ship.
Throughout all of this, the Wears prefer the perimeter.
One of their favorites is the worst two-point shot available with their heels putting a shadow over the three-point line. They like a little jab step, a quick up fake to see if the defender will challenge the jumper and then let it fly. This leaves them out of position to rebound, and at best, it is a difficult two points.
Neither twin moves their feet well in tight quarters, and they are bullied in a straight-forward way at the rim. Each year they appear to have put on extra weight and gained more functional strength, but they do not seem to have the mentality to go body-to-body inside, and as a result UCLA is soft where it should be hardest.
If the Bruins are chasing Arizona for the conference championship—and I believe they are—their frontcourt will have to man up. The Wildcats station four physical, athletic players at 6'7'', 6'8'', 6'9'' and 7'' around the rim who nourish a mentality of pure destruction.
After all of that, it comes down to this simple formula.
UCLA must get harder and stronger on the interior of its basketball team, or this season will end sooner than the impassioned followers in Westwood have become accustomed.
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