UCLA Basketball: Bruins' 5 Biggest Concerns in Pac-12 Play
Is UCLA a good basketball team, or isn't it?
Generally in Westwood, Calif., there is only the good and the bad.
The good play deep into tournaments and become the great if they win. The bad make early exits from tournaments, and the truly bad who don't make tournaments at all are never discussed.
The long campaign of the conference season is generally—unless you are Gonzaga—a good place to find out how good a basketball team you have. UCLA began its conference season well in a monstrous blowout of its deadly, hated rival, USC.
But will it continue? What follows are five areas of concern for this UCLA basketball team as it enters Pac-12 Conference play.
1. How Will the Team Perform Against the Conference's Top Teams?
At 12-2 (1-0 Pac-12) and tied for first place after the opening weekend of conference play, UCLA's record looks intimidating.
But like a building inspector tagging structural faults, it does not take long to peer beneath this edifice with a flashlight and spot the problem with the foundation: The Bruins have not beaten a good basketball team.
The two good tournament-grade teams UCLA has played—No. 16 Duke and No. 21 Missouri—were definite losses. The Bruins were beaten by Mizzou in Columbia, where the Tigers have a best-in-nation 26-game winning streak. UCLA lost to the Blue Devils 2,400 miles from home, inside a bluish-hued, non-neutral Madison Square Garden.
The reasons they lost—or the excuses—matter little. UCLA played well during the first halves of both of those games. It led Mizzou by eight at the intermission, 43-35, but in the second half it was outscored 45-28 and beaten by nine points, 80-71.
At the Garden, the Bruins went to the half tied with Duke at 37. They were dominated and run over in the second half, being outscored 43-26 and losing 80-63.
Good basketball teams play their games over 40 bitter minutes. If UCLA is going to be a good basketball team this year, it must increase its endurance, like a promising fighter learning to grind out 25 minutes in the Octagon against warriors who won't quit.
There will be chances—tonight against Arizona, later against Colorado and Oregon, and on the road against Stanford, Cal, Utah and Washington—to win games against teams with grit. Only in doing that is the strength the tournament demands built up.
Until then, how UCLA plays against the best teams in the conference remains a big concern.
2. Are They Physically Tough Enough to Battle the Best Front Lines?
The Bruins' most obvious and irritating weakness is an underdeveloped, soft frontcourt.
In Pac-12 losses last year to Arizona State and Oregon, they were exposed on the interior and had their lunch eaten by Arsalan Kazemi and Jordan Bachynski.
This year's prohibitive favorite to win the league is Arizona, a team with several rows of tall, tough timber protecting the rim.
The Wildcats' backcourt with TJ McConnell is good enough to orchestrate a game, and wing-guard Nick Johnson leads the team with 16 points a night, but UCLA's guard rotation can play with anybody's in America.
With Arizona, the real danger lurks in the interior.
The forward, forward, true-center trio of Aaron Gordon, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski is 6'9'', 6'8'' and 7' high, respectively. They are a freshman, sophomore and sophomore, respectively. Then, off the bench, there is Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a 6'7'' freshman.
Gordon—definitely Gordon—Ashley—oh yeah, Ashley—and Hollis-Jefferson—you better believe Hollis-Jefferson; maybe Hollis-Jefferson most of all—are ultra-athletic players. Tarczwewski is simply a redwood, which is enough.
Head coach Sean Miller compared the Wildcats' punishing frontcourt to a running football team like Stanford's that batters opponents into a weary fatigue they can count on late in games. To the Associated Press (via the Los Angeles Times), Miller said:
Sometimes the story line is a little different at halftime than it is at the end of the game because you can kind of wear that opponent down, and the carries that go for two or three yards in the first half break wide open in the second. You just have to stay with it.
UCLA's frontcourt of the Wear twins and Tony Parker, with Kyle Anderson at times forced into the post because of mismatched numbers, does not compare favorably to the Wildcats. It is not all that hard to imagine Parker fouling out in the first half or being sent to the bench for a long stretch because of the danger of fouling out.
The Wears, even at 6'10'', play at about rim level, and outside of a few scientifically unexplainable performances, they cannot be counted on defensively.
More and more it looks like freshman Wanaah Bail is a next-year player. For practical or imaginative purposes it may be time to stop inserting his strong 6'9'' frame into the lineup as a difference maker.
With Washington's frontcourt good enough to push Arizona deep into the second half before losing 71-62, Bachynski back at Arizona State, and Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis playing out of Palo Alto—to name a few—there is serious concern that UCLA's frontcourt might not have enough of the right stuff to hold serve at the very top of the league.
3. Can They Play Determined Enough Defense to Compel Bad/Missed Shots
There can be an actual, predetermined defensive strategy behind forcing an opponent to take a long time to trigger either the right or the wrong shot.
Syracuse, for example, sits back in its patent-pending matchup 2-3 zone and forces the adversary to pass the ball all over creation before—if it is working properly—it is forced to shoot a bad, contested shot. Then the defense collapses toward the rim to rebound the miss and the Orangemen are an effective rebounding team.
UCLA does not know what it is defensively; it has no Syracuse-like identity. It plays man-to-man until the opponent proves it can exploit openings by both scoring points and rebounding misses to score more points.
Then the Bruins switch to a zone defense that they do not play comfortably or especially well, hoping to make the opponent misfire on long jump shots and throw bad passes through contested passing lanes. But either the opponent is shooting well or rebounding well, and UCLA resolves on shuttling back and forth between the two defenses in the now desperate effort to cause momentary confusion for the offense as the tactic of last resort.
Advanced basketball metrics bear this out. The Bruins are 288th (subscription required) in average possession length, with their opponents holding the ball 18.3 seconds per trip. But they are also 78th in defensive rebounding percentage—allowing their opponents to take 29.2 percent of the available defensive rebounds per game.
The Bruins force long, grating possessions that over the course of a game contribute more to fatigue than any other task in basketball. This fatigue is psychologically mitigated, and even turned into short bursts of energy, when the long possession ends in zero points for the opponent and a defensive rebound for the Bruins, but this rarely happens.
This has forced UCLA into a defensive efficiency rating of 98.6, meaning their opponents score almost 99 points for every 100 possessions. The Bruins are the 76th-worst team in America by this metric.
Combine this with an uptempo, quick scoring offense that nets 87 points per game, and you have a team that is going to be worn down and broken against good teams simply because they are expending massive amounts of energy for mediocre to poor results on the defensive end of the floor.
The only thing saving this team from defensive annihilation is its capacity for stealing the ball with the light hands of some hungry street urchin in a Dicken's novel. The Bruins lead the conference at 10.7 steals per game and are third nationally, taking 14.8 percent of opponents' possessions away by theft.
4. Can They Rebound Enough of Those Bad/Missed Shots to Win?
If you wanted to use the proverbial "chink in the armor" metaphor, this is where the Bruins expose their heart to the slings and arrows of the ardent adversary.
Over the past two seasons it has been a "throw the remote at the wall, denounce the team with powerful oaths and swear off the bandwagon before slinking back to see if anything changed" aspect of the game.
Last year the apotheosis was watching Jordan Bachynski over 30 minutes tear down 15 rebounds—eight of them from the offensive window! He scored 22 points and led the Sun Devils to a 78-60 blowout of the Bruins in Tempe.
This year, UCLA's leading rebounder—by a long shot!—is its 6'9'' point guard, Kyle Anderson, at almost nine a game.
Basic statistics—in conflict with the well-known proverb—tell the truth of the matter. At 36.8 total rebounds per game, the Bruins rank 104th nationally. Opponents rebound fully 70 percent of UCLA's missed shots, making the Bruins the 232nd-ranked offensive rebounding team in the country.
Across 40 minutes of basketball—watching the Wear twins being brutalized on the windows, and Tony Parker trying to hack his way into a position he never staked out to begin with—being beaten to the basketball off the rim is more than enough to concern the UCLA camp follower.
5. Is Shooting a High Percentage and Not Turning It over Enough to Win?
By any metric UCLA is excellent at shooting the basketball.
The Bruins have the No. 1 effective field-goal percentage offense (subscription required) in America at 58.1 percent. The team's base field-goal percentage of 52.7 also is tops in all of college basketball.
The Bruins take the 45th-fewest shots per game but net the most baskets on average at 31.6. The team cashes in on 75 percent of its free throws.
By any metric UCLA takes good care of the basketball.
UCLA ranks near the bottom (subscription required)—a good thing—in offensive steal (give away) percentage per game at 8.4. The Bruins allow only six steals against them per game, putting 162 teams below UCLA in this category.
The Bruins turnover margin is plus-4.43, best in the Pac-12 and more than two better than the second-place Utah Utes.
But shooting percentage is notoriously fickle, depending largely on the cohesive effectiveness of the offense in producing good shots, and the players making them. If UCLA's offense stagnates at all, the team could be blown out.
A turnover margin certainly can fluctuate, but that is a fairly durable statistic based on the intelligence and general character of players on the team.
With the other, better-known problems UCLA has, are these strengths enough for UCLA to win the conference?
Normally, the answer would be yes, it's enough if things break right. But with this particular team and the way it's constituted, even the positive numbers suggest a correlating anxiety.
All advanced statistics courtesy of Ken Pomeroy (subscription required).