UCLA Basketball: Highs and Lows of Bruins' Season So Far

Mark Schipper@@MyTimesProseContributor IIIJanuary 17, 2014

UCLA Basketball: Highs and Lows of Bruins' Season So Far

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    For UCLA, it has been largely a good start to a season that opened with a creeping uncertainty.

    There was a new coach, the same corps of players with a few new additions and the never-changing expectations that surround UCLA like a sentence decreed and watched over by the gods. 

    But the season's lows have not been deep lows, and the modest highs have seemed to hold promise of greater heights if the team could master its shortcomings.

    These slides will drop down in front of the projector the good and the bad—the lows and highs—of UCLA's season to date.  

The Lows: Two Second Halves vs. Mizzou and Duke

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    The risk you expose yourself to playing the 127th easiest non-conference schedule is having your rare opportunities against good opponents disproportionally influence your reputation. 

    UCLA lost both of its non-conference showcase games in original and sequel-to-the-original narrative form. After skillful, steady first halves against Duke and Missouri, they were pummeled by 17 points in both second halves and soundly vanquished.

    These were low points in an 11-2 non-conference season that left far more uncertainty than the record indicates. But those losses already seem long ago and far away, and there is no doubt the team has burned its memory clean of all but the pain they never want to feel again.   


The Highs: Offense

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    They pass well and shoot well, and in the open floor, they have players with deadly finishing moves, including two explosive wing attack-choppers in Norman Powell and Zach LaVine.

    UCLA's 55.9 effective field-goal percentage is eighth best in America—last week it was 58.1 according to KenPom.com, and no one was better. The true shooting and quick pace leads them to 86.3 points per game, which is top-five production.

    With an average of 18 assists per game, UCLA is fourth best—which exactly matches their assists-to-turnover ranking at 1.72.

    The Bruins have four players averaging double-digit points and three more within three points of double-digits, making their offense shine in every facet with the purity of an honest jeweler. 

The Lows: Tony Parker and Wanaah Bail

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    Maybe the expectations for Tony Parker were unfair; generally, they are, and they are placed on very young people by those on the outside looking in.

    Heading to Westwood, Calif., Parker was a 5-star high school center and was expected to impact games right out of the box. He played sparingly as a freshman last season under Ben Howland, and in the minutes he played, he was not impressive.

    Then, this season, he was supposed to be better—and he has been, just slightly. Of the Bruins' eight-man rotation, Parker plays the fewest minutes at 19 per game. In those minutes, he averages seven points, five rebounds and nearly three personal fouls.

    With UCLA's front line and rebounding known as its Achilles' heel, the team could use a powerful physical presence like Parker's more than just about anything. But he has not shown the right set of skills or in-game intelligence to merit extended time inside the fray.

    While it has appeared, just to the eyes, over the last three games that Parker is advancing up to another level, the raw numbers make it look like the same old show.

    In a loss and two wins over Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado, respectively, Parker has 10, three and six points. In the same stretch, he has eight, three and two rebounds. He had two fouls against Arizona and three fouls against Colorado. Against Arizona State, he fouled out in 17 minutes of game time.

    Wanaah Bail is probably right where he ought to be, but there had been a desperate hope he would be able to step in as a raw transfer player and light a fire in the front court.

    Bail, a freshman from Houston, Texas, returned from a serious knee surgery in November and has not secured a spot in the rotation. In 12 games since returning from injury, he has collected five "did not plays." 

    He is said to be a powerful practice player and, depending on who you ask, the team's best or second-best athlete, behind Zach LaVine. At a very strong 6'9'', Bail was ranked the 28th-best power forward in his class and is regarded as an interior player with vast potential.

    Unfortunately for this year's UCLA team, Bail looks more and more like a next year player. 

The Highs: Second Half Against Arizona

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    Nobody at UCLA wants to talk about moral—or morale—victories, but in this game, the Bruins stemmed a flooding tide and rolled back what was threatening to drown their season.

    The No. 1 ranked Arizona Wildcats had pushed their lead over UCLA to 13 points at 68-55 with 6:16 to play at Pauley Pavilion. It came during a week when looming doubts became serious questions about who UCLA had really beaten. It was pointed out they had collapsed in second halves against good teams.

    The moment had reached its crisis—it was time to fold the hand or fight. 

    The Bruins refused to concede the game. They rode furiously into the storm, stifling Arizona to one point over five minutes and re-taking the lead, 70-69, with 1:44 to play.

    The Wildcats recovered and finally won the game, 79-75, but the sense of what was possible had changed completely. It was that wire-to-wire run where it became clear that no one had any expectation save winning, and there was the talent and firepower amassed to do it.

    This team had not done that against a legitimate adversary, and the moment they did, everything was different. The loss was not an acceptable outcome and no one was happy, but the performance and what it portended was a new sunrise.  

The Lows: Defense and Rebounding

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    This has been a generalized low, but the optimism is increasing as the numbers continue improving.

    First, the bad of it. Kyle Anderson, the team's point guard, has a prohibitive lead in rebounds per game at nine, with the next closest player at five. That next closest player is center Tony Parker, whose struggles were documented in an earlier slide.

    UCLA is the 201st worst offensive rebounding team in the country at nine per game—but this is partly attributable to how well they shoot the basketball to begin with.

    The Bruins allow 26.1 percent of their opponent's misses to be rebounded and shot again, which makes them 50th worst nationally in defensive rebounding percentage.

    UCLA is allowing 70.8 points per game, 167th worst. But they play up-tempo basketball, and scores are necessarily going to be higher. However, their defensive efficiency rating, which adjusts for tempo—is 97—or 56th worst, according to Ken Pomeroy (subscription site).

    This is partly possible because opponents shoot the basketball well against UCLA. The Bruins allow an effective field-goal percentage of 49, bad enough for 153rd nationally. 

    Combining a defense that permits open shots with a defense that does not rebound produces an unstable compound that can blow up in a basketball team's face.

    But in tonight's road win against Colorado, the Bruins were better than their averages. They outrebounded Colorado, 40-37—including a 14-7 edge on the offensive window—and they held the Buffaloes to 56 points on 40 percent shooting.

    Those are numbers UCLA can beat anybody with. 

The Highs: Starting Pac-12 Play 3-1

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    It began well with a 107-73, titanic blowout of the crosstown darkness, USC.

    There was the loss to No. 1 ranked Arizona, but the important moment when the team saw itself for what it was: a contender.

    The Bruins bounced back from the loss with a crushing beatdown of Arizona State, 87-72.  UCLA scored 50 points in the first half and lead by 17 points at the intermission. In the second half, they pushed the lead to 23 points before allowing Arizona State to chip away at it in garbage time.

    Then tonight, they went to Boulder, Colo., and beat No. 21 ranked Colorado, 69-56. It was the first time this season the Buffaloes had been beaten at home, and a road win in conference is never to be taken lightly.

    UCLA has found out it really is a contender to defend its Pac-12 championship. The team has work to do, but getting fast out of the blocks in the conference race has been a definite high.