Colorado Buffaloes' head coach Tad Boyle chuckled uncannily at the question on Tuesday's Pac-12 conference call before he confirmed what has become obvious.
"They are a unique team, unlike any team in our conference," Boyle said of the UCLA Bruins. "It's interesting that you mention that—it's a great question— because our staff was meeting this morning and we were talking exactly about what you are talking about."
Everyone knows the chink in the Bruins' armor is at the defensive bulwarks protecting the passes to the rim.
UCLA can be beaten by teams who relentlessly assault the interior with hard slashing guards and big, opportunistic redwoods who lumber into the openings created by them. They are vulnerable again when teams pound the glass at both ends and take down an inordinate percentage of the available rebounds.
The Bruins unique strengths—which are acutely developed in the same spirit that a deaf man sees and feels more, or a blind man hears and senses with heightened sensitivity—are often overlooked in the intense anxiety caused by the fear of weakness.
There is a John Wooden quote for this idea—so why not? It has been at least five minutes since I've fallen back on one.
"Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do," the coach used to say.
This UCLA team has not wasted its time sulking about what other teams do better. Former coach Ben Howland stocked a lot of quality material for new coach Steve Alford to form to his own ends.
The Pac-12 statistics show the Bruins are the eighth-worst defensive team in the league, allowing 70.1 points per game.
But they have effectively countered this in two critical places. First, they score the second-most points in the conference at 82.9 (10th nationally) and second, they have built an average scoring margin of plus-12.7—third-best in the conference and 12th overall.
They compensate for their interior again on a second, often spectacular defensive front: Raids on opponents' possessions. With the artisans pride of a Cossack horse thief, the Bruins steal the ball 10.3 times a game, a full 12.6 percent of enemy possessions. In both categories they are second-best nationally.
This talent, which often outlets into fast breaks, sends the Bruins toward the opposing rim for tenor-altering dunks from their soaring attack wings.
UCLA's scoring is achieved over 40 minutes through their specialized personnel loaded into the motion, uptempo offense they favor.
The Bruins deploy five uniquely skilled guards, the shortest of whom is a 6'3'' second-unit point guard in Bryce Alford, and two front-line players who are 6'10'' tall but run the floor as well as anyone that size and in the half court almost prefer to pull defenders outside the paint.
"They've got a 6'9'' point guard who makes them tick, and they've got the Wear twins who are terrific players, and guys you always have to be aware of when they're on the floor," said Boyle.
"They've got guys like Jordan Adams (6'5''), who shoots almost 40 percent from three, and Zach LaVine (6'4'') and Bryce Alford coming off the bench, and I didn't even mention [Norman] Powell (6'4''). They are a very good team—their size gives you lots of problems from every position."
Their guards are versatile athletes and generous team players.
The unit is led by Kyle Anderson, who is not just UCLA's best player, but one of the most effective college players in America. Anderson gets 15 points a game and almost nine rebounds—but as the point guard he leads the team in assists at 6.65 per game.
Alford, Adams, LaVine and Powell round out the assist squad. Not one averages more than three per game on their own, but the modest contributions from each aggregate to an impressive whole.
As a team the Bruins average 17.2 assists per game—and only three teams in the United States are better there. Their assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.584-to-one, which ranks sixth.
Strong team assist numbers almost always mean two things: 1) You are getting good shots, and 2) You have good shooters. Both are true for this team.
They have the second-best overall field-goal percentage in the Pac-12 at 49 percent. They are the third-best three-point-shooting team at 40 percent and the fourth-best free-throw shooters at 75 percent. The team's effective field goal percentage is 54.3—which is 23rd nationally.
This year's portrait is becoming clear the same way an image emerges on paper passed from tub to tub in the darkroom. It is about to be set permanently in the final wash before it is hung from the line with the rest of the 68 tournament teams and bracketed for a direct comparison.
There are the obvious weaknesses, but there is a unique roster that has developed creative ways to overcome them. Their NCAA tournament run will be predicated on match-ups—it always is, but in the right environment this team might show itself as a collection of clever foxes.
"UCLA, personnel wise, they don't have a lot of weaknesses," said Boyle. "They have great size, they shoot the ball well from the perimeter, they have good players, like you said, the Wear twins, and they can post up their guards. It's a lot of issues when it comes to game planning for the Bruins."
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