UCLA Basketball: Biggest Surprises of Bruins' 2014 NCAA Tournament
At this outpost of the season there are sometimes moments of surprise when you check the manifest and find the water carried most of the year by one man had been shifted, perhaps momentarily, to another.
Then there can also be games where the way things had been done over four months were suddenly done in another way—either to great effectiveness, or more often, great detriment and defeat.
These things, these sudden changes in the distribution of production or failure, are what constitute surprises in March. For UCLA over the opening weekend, the surprises were mild as the team has settled into the smoothly running consistency that every coach endeavors to drill, coax and alchemize into his team during the mad frenzy of a season.
But there were a few things, both individual and team-wide, that stood out and could be classified as "surprises," if that is the category you were forced to file them under.
What follows are the surprise shifts in the distribution of production that UCLA used to break out of the opening weekend with more momentum and swagger than they have had at any time this season. They are not ranked in any order of importance, though the reader may attribute their appearance to any subconscious process of thought he or she pleases.
Surprise Number 1: Tony Parker
Sophomore Tony Parker's mysterious inconsistency had become the main thing you could count on, but then in the first two games of the 2014 NCAA tournament he sloughed off that reputation and went to work for his team.
UCLA becomes a bear to beat when Parker is banging around smartly with that powerful 6'9'', 255-pound body. He gives the Bruins a piece of low block granite they cannot quarry anywhere else on their roster.
In the Bruins 76-59 win over Tulsa, Parker played 16 minutes and committed only two fouls. He dropped in 11 points, enveloped six rebounds and swatted a shot. The performance was as efficient and productive as it was smart and smooth. He doubled up his scoring average, collected one more rebound and committed one less foul.
The McDonald's All-American showed not just his obvious athleticism and coordination, but that he could control it for effective purposes. He looked good and appeared under control. There was no better example than when he grabbed a loose ball off of a scramble and turned around to find a path open to the lane.
He did not panic travel—though it looked for an instant like he might—and he did not find someone to plow over like a spooked cape buffalo, an approach he favors from time to time. Instead, he took a dribble and two big steps—daring someone to step in front of him and not only get dunked on but commit a foul—and hammered home a bucket for his mates.
In the second game against Stephen F. Austin, he produced less but equalled the quality of his first night. Over 18 minutes, Parker scored eight points on 4-of-6 shooting, collected three rebounds, dished up two assists, swatted two shots and committed one foul. Parker committing one foul over 18 minutes of up-and-down basketball felt like something akin to a special dispensation.
When he left late in the game for good, to let the reserves take their moment on the stage in a 77-60 blowout win, he had a big smile and a fine, jocular moment with coach Steve Alford near the bench. It had been a great weekend for Parker and a fine surprise that felt a long time coming for the 5-star high school player.
Thursday's game against Florida and Parker's physical peers in Patric Young and Will Yeguete will be a healthy step up in competition class. Better though is the chance for Parker to show that the confidence and consistency he had during the first weekend was not a fluke, but the first fine performances of a long run.
Surprise Number 2: Norman Powell
Norman Powell was always, because of the versatile dynamism of his game, the cliched X-factor for this year's team.
He has the hunter-killer scorer's mindset with a talent for making the dramatic play. He does not hoist many 3-pointers, but the ones he buries are almost always big. His dunks electrify an arena as much as they do his teammates.
Powell generates plenty of points off of stops and steals at the defensive end—at 1.36 pilfers per game, third behind Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson—where he can smother an opponent's best athlete. He can do everything a 2-way guard must do and every bit of it was in play during the first weekend, in his hometown of San Diego, Calif.
The defense, the steals (five over two games), the dunks and the behind-the-back scoop shots through heavy traffic in the lane. Powell had 31 points over both games, which is eight points better than his season average projected.
Powell, a junior, bounding-up to another tier of production, for what is likely the final run with this team intact, could carry the Bruins out of Memphis with the trimmings of a regional net and tickets to a 19th Final Four. Then it would be a straight burn over Interstate 10 to Arlington, Texas, and a shot at a 12th championship banner for the facades at Pauley Pavilion.
Surprise Number 3: The Scintillating Passing and Shooting Against S.F. Austin
All year the Bruins have been sterling passers and careful possessors of the ball. Their 17 assists per game is fourth-best and the 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio is third.
Against the Lumberjacks the Bruins cleared the timber themselves, assisting 22 times on the game to only three turnovers. All eight players who saw minutes had at least one assist, led by Travis Wear and Kyle Anderson's five, and followed closely by Bryce Alford with four.
Good passing almost infallibly leads to good shooting, and UCLA set ablaze the nets atop Montezuma Mesa. The team shot 64 percent from two-point range and knocked down 4-14 triples, making for a 58.3 effective field goal percentage for the game. For the Lumberjacks, that made an already difficult job like chopping teak trees in a hidden forest.
Surprise Number 4: Defense and Rebounding
After the Tulsa game, coach Steve Alford put it in an easy soundbite for the CBS wire report.
I'm really pleased with our team. We played really well and shot the ball at a high level. I like the way these guys are guarding. We've got a lot of guys scoring, a lot of balance. We go to another level when we guard and I thought we did a really good job guarding tonight.
Another level indeed. The fear—the proverbial chink in the armor this year—was that the defense would never be good enough against the best teams for UCLA to capture the flag. But since the Pac-12 Tournament, this team has built up an Iron Dome.
Tulsa shot 37 percent for the game and 7-19 from deep. UCLA out-rebounded the Golden Hurricane 36-33 and held them to 59 points, 11 below the Bruins' season average. It was not just a numerical rebounding advantage, though, because in the more important rebounding percentage category, the Bruins captured 38 percent of all available offensive rebounds to Tulsa's 34. It was a clear-cut edge all the way around.
UCLA's 3-point defense entering the tournament was ranked 344th, allowing, on average, eight made shots a game. In the second game, the Bruins again held Stephen F. Austin to seven triples on a whopping 27 attempts (26 percent). The sevens over both games were a full bucket below the Bruins' season average.
The Lumberjacks shot 35 percent from the floor and scored 60 points, 10 points fewer than UCLA had been wont to surrender. While SFA beat UCLA both in number of rebounds and rebounding percentage, the statistic in this case is a red herring. The Bruins sank nearly 60 percent of their shots—making an offensive rebound impossible—while the Lumberjacks hit on only 41 percent and were desperately chasing second-chance rebounds just to stay within reach.
UCLA closed the game on a scorching 17-2 run that made any other statistical discrepancies irrelevant.