UCLA Basketball: Bruins' 5 Biggest Concerns for the Postseason
Trying to forecast what this team will do in March is about as certain a business as predicting whether an amateur scientist's model rocket will blow up on the launching pad or trace a beautiful white arc into the soaring vault of a blue sky.
Everything is available to this team, depending on the bracket and its performance, from a first weekend flame out to a run into the regional final with a Final Four trip at stake. There really is that wide of a gulf between its bad and its good.
These slides propose to chart UCLA's five biggest concerns heading into the postseason: the deficiencies that can get them beaten and sent home and the strengths that can see them through the scrums and out cleanly to the other side.
1. Can They String Together 6 Games of Superior Marksmanship?
To be crowned tournament and national champions, a team must win six games in a row spaced out over three weeks. That is two in a row on three consecutive weekends with a one-day break between each game.
The Bruins have lost twice in a row only once this season. It was two Saturdays ago against Stanford and the following Thursday at home against Oregon. They have lost five other times on the season to make them 22-7 (11-5 Pac-12).
If the season was a single elimination tournament, they'd have been knocked out five times and then two more times consecutively if a wizard had granted them a second chance. All of these losses are one too many in March.
UCLA is a backcourt-based, smooth shooting team that gets a bushel of points each night on fast breaks and slashing drives at the rim. When the paint is closed off and their only true big—Tony Parker—is either in foul trouble or not scoring (he is often both), then the Bruins are forced to make shots.
Most of the year they have, ranking in the top 25 in effective field goal percentage, free-throw percentage and the top 10 in three-point percentage, true shooting percentage and field goals made per game. This team gets the ball through the rim.
But shooting is the most dangerous way in the world to make your living in basketball. The best teams are wont to go cold on a night or two, and then they are vulnerable.
Against Oregon State, UCLA showed it had carried the free-throw shooting antivenom to the snake bite of an unfriendly rim. The Bruins made 21 of 23 free throws to the Beavers' 14 of 23 and won the game 74-69 after trailing at the half by nine.
UCLA won eight straight games to start the season. They have won three in a row twice and four in a row once. These Bruins have to capitalize on every method there is to tally points if they are going to win six when it matters most.
2. Can They Win 1 or Even 2 Games with Defense and Rebounding?
It is a pipe dream to think your team will shoot 50-plus percent over six games against the best basketball teams in America and win a championship with nothing but the beautiful game of offense in its arsenal.
UCLA will likely have to win one, and probably even two games, with stingy, ugly defense that keeps opponents off the scoreboard and away from the basketball.
The Bruins are not conventionally strong defensively, but they have a certain handyman's kit of tricks to compensate for an eccentric execution in their base package.
As a team, they are light-fingered like Aladdin in the Sultan's bazaar, stealing the ball 10 times a game on average (second best nationally), which is 12 percent of their opponent's possessions (fourth nationally). The Bruins allow opponents to use only 88 percent of their possessions to even hoist a shot at the rim, markedly limiting their opportunities to score points.
Two-guard Jordan Adams is individually the fourth best klepto-man in America, pilfering almost three possessions a night working the floor with his own confidence game.
Overwhelmingly as a result of this, the Bruins are 49th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency. Ahead of them is a herald's list of very good and scary basketball teams that, one way or another, UCLA will be forced to deal with on the road to the Final Four. But establishing their place in the top 50, with an offense at No. 12, is fair enough to give them a gunner's chance at beating anyone in the field.
3. Will Their Interior Defense Blockade the Passes to the Rim?
If stealing is where the Bruins show a deft touch, then defending the heart of the paint is where they falter.
Part of their problem is having unbalanced personnel. From an aesthetic standpoint, it appears the team is well stocked. They have two 6'10'' twins in fifth-year seniors David and Travis Wear; a burly, 6'8'', 260-pound sophomore power forward in Tony Parker; and a sculpted, hyper-athletic freshman in 6'9'', 220-pound Wanaah Bail.
Looks are deceiving. The Wears play a lot like European bigs, setting high screens and drifting around the perimeter and elbows for jump shots. It is rare to see their strong frames boxing out position around the rim to rebound or forcing their way to the bucket for point-blank shots that would likely send them to the free-throw line.
Tony Parker has made slow, inconsistent progress. He is a powerful oak at the rim when he plays, but he is often in foul trouble or sitting on the bench because he cannot get his bearings defensively. He averages almost three fouls a game in just 18 minutes.
Parker scores seven points and collects five rebounds, which makes him the team's third best rebounder. If he matured into his position and the team's structure, he would play at least 25 minutes a night and make a profound impact on the course of a game. As of now, he is promising but unfulfilled potential.
Bail, a true freshman, has not gotten up to speed. As an athlete, he is ready to play almost anywhere on earth, but his skills and acuity do not equal his body or allow him to use the athleticism to the detriment of opponents. Bail plays five minutes a game and is statistically irrelevant.
The Bruins' major defensive statistics reflect all of this. Their effective field goal percentage, three-point percentage, true shooting percentage, field goals and free throws allowed per game are all worse than 107th nationally. Teams get good shots and good second shots, and they get to shoot 21 free throws a night on average.
Against Oregon State, a game the Bruins would have lost if their offense had not ignited in the second half, they lost the rebounding battle 36-31. In the NCAA tournament, they will meet a team with big bangers who are going to force the crisis inside. This is a major concern for this team.
4. Will Their Bigs Stay out of Foul Trouble and Provide Productive Minutes?
This is a tag on to the last slide. If the bigs are protecting the rim and rebounding, are they doing it without fouling?
It is critical that they keep their foul line clean because the team does not go deep. With David and Travis Wear as the two interior starters, the Bruins are left with Tony Parker—and Tony Parker alone—coming off the bench.
Last week's loss to Oregon is ready-made example of what can happen.
Coach Steve Alford suspended the team's two best players—Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams—for a violation of team rules. That means it was a huge opportunity to shine for not just the two guards replacing them but presumably for the interior players who would get more minutes and chances to score in the absence of major backcourt production wheels.
It was the opposite.
Freshman point guard Bryce Alford scored 31 points and battled UCLA into two overtimes, where it finally succumbed to the webbed punishment meted out by the Ducks, 87-83. David Wear played 35 minutes and scored seven points. Travis Wear played 43 minutes and scored nine points. They combined for eight rebounds.
Tony Parker got 19 minutes on the floor in 50 minutes of game time and committed three fouls. He scored two points but took down 10 rebounds. If he had stayed in the game, the point production might not have been huge, but he could have limited Oregon's possessions with 15 or even 20 rebounds.
Wanaah Bail played two minutes and produced no statistics.
Instead, former Bruin Mike Moser—who transferred to UNLV, then to Oregon and has seemingly played seven or eight years of college basketball—grabbed 20 rebounds of his own and helped the Ducks get out of Los Angeles with a stolen victory.
With a short bench and Anderson leading the team in rebounds and blocks, the Bruins must get healthy production from their frontcourt to win. That means not only playing well but staying on the floor long enough to do something.
5. Does This Team Have True Grit?
Looking back over the long season, it is inaccurate to say this is a rigorously tested and hardened team.
It is a rare season without a signature win and difficult to isolate what its best win actually is. The road loss to Mizzou continues to look worse as the Tigers fade from NCAA tournament consideration. The loss to Duke doesn't hurt because it was a road game, and Duke is a top five team. But it is still a loss.
The game against Arizona went the full 40 minutes before the Wildcats secured it, and they are likely the tournament's No. 1 overall seed. That showed the Bruins can play with the best teams in the country.
But what is the best win? Is it Arizona State, Stanford, sweeping Cal, at Oregon or at Colorado without its best player? Nothing stands out.
So what will this team do over 40 minutes against the men in the black pajamas—the worthy adversaries of the college game?
Tournament winners—who are better thought of as survivors—all have one thing in common: true grit. UCLA will get its chance to show what it is made out of—but that's the thing to remember—it will only be one chance.