UCLA has put in the work to improve its team defense, but it wins because of its offense.
This group, whether it is because of the NCAA rule changes that allow players more freedom of movement, is a throwback to a 1980s and early-90s vintage when the college game flowed up and down and scores regularly ran into the 90s and 100s.
On the strength of their ability to score, the Bruins have climbed to 12th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings and ninth in offensive efficiency, scoring 117 points for every 100 possessions.
That success is largely predicated on performing two tasks essential to offensive basketball exceptionally well: passing and shooting. According to Team Rankings, UCLA's effective field-goal percentage is 55.2 percent, which is good for a spot in the top 10, while its 17.6 assists per game are fourth-best.
The pure shooting should not be surprising given the team's talent, which is always the most important thing, and the particular savvy of the head coach guiding it.
Steve Alford, whose list of basketball accomplishments makes his resume more of a dossier, buried 53 percent of his three-point attempts (107-202) in Indiana's 1987 national championship season. In the championship game against Syracuse, he made seven of 10 three-pointers and scored 23 points.
Without traveling the country, it is difficult to say how much like other teams UCLA is in how it orchestrates shooting drills in practice.
Independent of comparison, though, Coach Alford brought with him certain principles that make game shooting a basic extension of what a player does in practice every day.
"We don't do a lot of free shooting," said Alford Tuesday on the Pac-12 conference call. "Most of our shooting is done game speed and shots we'll get within our offense, whether it be transition or the things we're trying to exploit in the half-court. Those are the shots we like to take."
This is a training platform Alford said he had first from his father during high school and again at Indiana with coach Bob Knight. Both men knew there was a difference between hoisting shot after shot without a definite intention behind it and focused, fundamental shooting that simulated the tempo and pressure a player would feel during a game.
"More times than not players create a lot of bad habits when it's just free shooting," said Alford.
"We don't even like players having a lot of free time to do their own things. Usually we want a coach involved because I've always believed shooting needs to be done as close as full pace as possible because that's the way the game is played."
The Cal game Wednesday was a clinical demonstration of UCLA's shooting prowess. The Bruins went to Haas Pavilion in Berkeley and torched their rivals, hitting 57 percent of their shots and leading by 28 points in the second half before winning 86-66.
Leading scorer Jordan Adams shot 12-19 from the floor (63 percent) on his way to 28 points. The Bruins' second- and third-leading scorers—Travis Wear (13 points) and Kyle Anderson (11 points)—equaled Adams' percentage, combining for 10 makes on 16 shots.
Adams, who also leads the team in scoring at 17.5 points per game, is an interesting side study.
In January, local press in Los Angeles questioned Alford about a perceived slump in Adams' game. Alford simply disagreed with the observations and saw Adams' "struggles" as the natural ebb and flow of a season.
Using the broad perspective that takes in an entire year, it is impossible to disagree with Alford. Adams, who is a wing guard with a shared responsibility for taking and making perimeter jump shots, is shooting 47 percent. In playing identical minutes to last season, his scoring is up by more than two points per game.
However, UCLA's five losses do show in stark terms the integral nature of shooting and scoring to this team.
In those games, the Bruins' highest shooting percentage was 42.9 in Salt Lake City against Utah. In the loss to Mizzou in Columbia, they shot 37.7 percent. Against Duke in Madison Square Garden, they made 40 percent of their shots, and the same percentage in their loss to Arizona.
In the most recent road loss at Oregon State—already four wins behind them—the Bruins made only 38.6 percent of their attempts, with Adams bottoming out at 0-9 on the game.
The slumps have not lasted long and there is no reason to believe they will now. The problem with any dip in March is that the big tournament is a one-loss-and-it's-over affair, so UCLA must keep calm and continue to get buckets to survive.
For now, though, the team is 21-5 and 10-3 in the Pac-12, alone in second place and just a game back of Arizona.
"I thought this was as well as we've played in a while," Alford told reporters after the Cal game. "We want to stay in the conference race. We had a chance tonight to put another two games behind us with five left and we had a chance to get another road win."
The peroration to this campaign has not been written, but you can be sure that whatever happens, the Bruins will be preparing for the postseason gauntlet the right way.
"It's kinda the whole thing if you're going to be there let's do it right. We're not just punching a card, we're not just putting in time. If we're gonna be here let's be sure we're doing every aspect of the game the way we're supposed to be doing it," said Alford.
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