UCLA Basketball: 5 Ways Bruins Must Improve Before March
The house lights are still safely glowing, and the main stage is under construction, but the chosen few are moving closer to the tournament entry doors, and open space is growing scarce.
UCLA will get through those doors without much of a squeeze, but the crowd waiting behind them is sure to be hostile, and there are still so many improvements to make.
The curtain goes up in March, and these are five areas that the Bruins can improve before the exterior lights go dim, and the big NCAA tournament spotlight shines mercilessly down.
Note: Statistics courtesy of TeamRankings.com.
1. Elevate the Defensive Effort
Evaluating UCLA's defense is harder than piecing together the meaning of life from the shadows running along the wall in Plato's Cave, because nothing is what it seems to be.
It can be exasperating to watch a shooting line of open jump shots and easy layups or dunks allowed over the course of a game.
It is not a trick of perspective or emotion, either. The statistics show that the Bruins allow opponents an effective field-goal percentage of 49 percent, 144th worst in America. They allow opponents to score 70.1 points per game, which ranks 165th.
Those are the shadows jumping and flickering along the wall. They give a man the fantods. The light of day exposes another interpretation of reality.
UCLA has a scoring differential of plus-12.7 points per game (15th best) and plays with the 18th-fastest tempo in college basketball, according to Ken Pomeroy (subscription site).
That means in a game with many possessions, the Bruins are necessarily going to allow more points. But under those conditions, they are among the country's top teams in scoring more points than their opponents—which is the name of the game.
Their defensive efficiency has also come down steadily over the year. Currently it's at 95.2 points per 100 possessions, which is 25th-best overall.
All defensive roads lead to one crucial but immeasurable quality this team must have: the mental will to play hard, not soft.
This was embodied in Saturday's win over USC, when UCLA trailed 31-25 at halftime but outscored the Trojans 48-32 in the second half to win by 10.
"We really wanted to pick up the pace, we wanted to pick up our defensive effort," Norman Powell said afterward in a video posted at UCLABruins.com. "We felt like we came out a little sluggish and soft on the defensive end, so that was the focus at half time, getting aggressive and getting stops."
Later in the same video, Kyle Anderson reinforced Powell's position: "We stepped it up on the defensive end in the second half, which led to better offense coming our way, guys were able to knock down shots."
Hard defense led to effective offense. That is the way it must be.
2. Battle for Every Rebound
It just has to be a nasty, body-to-body scrap under the rim for every rebound.
The interior of basketball is where the game is hard—much harder than hockey players ever give it credit for being—and UCLA at times has been downy soft.
Kyle Anderson, the stretchy point guard, is by far the team's best rebounder at almost nine per game. Jordan Adams, the swift, swooping wing guard, is second-best at nearly six.
Then, after the starting backcourt, the power forwards show up on the stat line, with Tony Parker, 6'9'' and 260 pounds, alongside David and Travis Wear—both 6'10'' and 230 pounds—rounding out the ranks. Parker leads at almost five boards a game, while David gets four and Travis gets three.
This is backwards—like a second baseman batting eighth in a lineup but leading the team in home runs, while the No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 hitters are singling and getting thrown out while trying to steal bases.
The Bruins allow their opponents 70.4 percent of all defensive rebounds, which is 171st-worst. That means they recover only 29.6 percent of their own missed shots. Opponents take down 26.4 percent of their own misses and wound the Bruins with demoralizing, stick-back buckets. UCLA ranks 59th-worst here.
As a show, the Bruins' rebounding would be kicked off Broadway and sent to some back-alley stage bordering the vice district. It is not wholesome enough for ma, pa and the youngsters to go see. UCLA must improve here before the calendar turns three.
3. Attack the Rim
This principle, on this team, should be as entrenched and simple as saying: Eat breakfast.
Nothing bad can come of it because this unit is built to attack. It has a backcourt with five guards—Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, Zach Lavine, Norman Powell and Bryce Alford—whose games are crafted in order to reach the iron.
The savage rack attack leads to high-percentage shots and is an antidote to poor shooting. It leads also to the free-throw line, where the Bruins make 75 percent of their shots.
The drive leads to open jump shots, and UCLA has seven players who can bury those. Tony Parker is the only regular player who misses the list. The Bruins' effective field-goal percentage is 54.3, which is 22nd-best in America.
The assault into the underbelly lends itself to obvious passes and easy points. UCLA assists on the fourth-most baskets per game at 17.4 and has the sixth-best assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.584.
Drives force defenders to leave their man and help. For a mediocre rebounding team like UCLA, that gives interior players a better opportunity to finish off a teammate's miss at the mouth of the rim.
In losses at Utah and Oregon State, the Bruins shot 42.9 percent and 38.6 percent, respectively. This team is built to outscore opponents, as opposed to out-stuffing them in a defensive grind.
The rack attack is a way to ensure the ball keeps finding its way through the cylinder over 40 minutes of strife.
4. Be Harder on One Another
Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson are the two best players, hardest competitors and most important leaders on this team. They are also both nice people and good kids.
The team overall is built with a group of good guys. There is not a blackguard cutthroat amongst them, unless you count Anderson, who is civilized in how he goes about killing opponents.
Anderson and Adams are also just second-year players; they are not seniors who are desperate with the knowledge there are no more chances or have the authority of experience to put weight behind their words.
Norman Powell is a junior, but he leads by example and has never been one to shout and exhort. The Wears brothers are fifth-year seniors, but they are not productive enough to rip into underperforming teammates. As the season approaches its crescendo, though, I expect to see them change for the positive in certain subtle ways as they sense the end coming near.
LaVine and Alford are freshmen, and Tony Parker is not any kind of leader even when he is not in foul trouble.
In the losses, specifically the Pac-12 losses (except for Arizona), there has been a small gap in leadership. No one got in the teams' collective face and screamed: "We're blowing this game and it pi**es me off! Let's go!"
Things are definitely changing for the better. Adams said it after the USC game in the UCLABruins.com video. He was talking about himself and Anderson and what had to happen after the Bruins went to halftime trailing by six to the worst team in the conference.
"We're the leaders on this team, so we wanted to come out focused."
It is a simple statement, but it contains all it needed to about ownership. The last eight regular-season games are critical because the one-and-done games begin in early March. This team needs leadership, and that invisible but irreplaceable quality must continue to develop within its best players.
5. Play Every Game as an Elimination Game
Part of the problem of with a young team is that sense of urgency does not establish itself.
It is a current problem with most of college basketball. Teams are forced to reset every season or two with new, young players as their rosters turn over completely with underclassmen leaving for professional basketball.
Still, year after year, almost all the championship teams have a hardened corps of upper-class leadership that compels them toward the final goal with relentless desperation.
Jim Harrick knew this made his 1995 UCLA team national champion. There had been NCAA tournament losses—the second round in 1993 and then the first round in 1994—that tore the hearts out of the underclassmen.
When they became seniors in 1995, it was not going to happen again.
"We had three great seniors, Tyus Edney, George Zidek and Ed O'Bannon" said Harrick to Andrew Skwara at Rivals.com.
"They set the tone. They didn't allow anyone to goof off. If someone was sulking about not getting enough playing time, they jumped him hard. We had great leadership. We had great chemistry. That team had a special bond."
This team needs that from its younger players. It has to consciously focus on starting both halves fast and finishing them strong. There is no time left for messing around—the hour has grown late.