Heading to Kentucky — How Good is UCLA?

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 2nd, 2016

Few teams in the country have done more to burnish its reputation in the first three weeks of the season than UCLA. Armed with two of the most impressive freshmen and arguably the deepest backcourt in the country, UCLA cruised past the competition to win the Wooden Legacy Tournament and, through eight games, has yet to encounter an opponent capable of handling its offensive firepower. The Bruins lead the country in effective field goal percentage (63.8%), are second in the country in three-point shooting (45.6%), are third in the country in two-point shooting (61.1%) and are 22nd in the country in turnover percentage (15.6%). Put simply, the Bruins are playing faster than their opponents (roughly a quarter of their field-goal attempts come in transition), can create whatever scoring opportunities they want and are taking excellent care of the ball. All of that is likely to change on Saturday when UCLA travels to Lexington for the marquee college basketball matchup of the weekend. But then, and only then, will it be time to truly evaluate just how good this team can be.

Lonzo Ball and UCLA Have Made Plenty of Waves Early In The Season (Photo: SI)

Lonzo Ball and UCLA Have Made Plenty of Waves Early In The Season (Photo: SI)

Still, there is a lot to love about how UCLA has played in those eight games this season. Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf have been even better than expected; five different Bruins are shooting 40 percent or better from downtown; and the big men – Leaf and Thomas Welsh – have proven to be the perfect complement to the team’s loaded backcourt. There is nothing presumptive in stating that UCLA is now the favorite to win the Pac-12.  Before we lock it into stone, however, it is worth wondering how much of UCLA’s early start is sustainable. The schedule hasn’t been downright embarrassing, but it hasn’t been all that good either. The team has yet to leave the Golden State, and while games against Nebraska and Texas A&M were technically held at neutral sites, a quick Google Maps search shows that Westwood is just a bit closer to Anaheim than either Lincoln or College Station. The Cornhuskers and Aggies were worthy opponents, but Rupp Arena on a December afternoon is going to be a completely different atmosphere and it will be interesting to see how Steve Alford‘s team handles the pressure.

The more important questions are about the team’s surprisingly hot shooting start and their somewhat lackluster defensive performances. In the last 10 seasons, teams that shoot better than 40 percent from downtown over the course of an entire season are rare. Certainly no one denies that players like Bryce AlfordIsaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday have the skills to shoot that well from deep. But all three players are currently shooting at least three percentage points better than their career average. It also seems unlikely that Leaf will continue to shoot 50 percent from behind the arc and anyone who thought Ball would enter college basketball shooting 47 percent from behind the arc is not being honest. It certainly seems as if a slight regression to the mean is coming as the Bruins start to play better defensive units away from the warm and friendly confines of southern California.

It Was All Smiles (and Dunks) in Westwood a Season Ago Against Kentucky (USA Today Images)

It Was All Smiles (and Dunks) in Westwood a Season Ago Against Kentucky (USA Today Images)

UCLA’s defense is particularly worrisome because, while offensive regression is inevitable, there is little doubt Alford’s group has enough firepower to remain one of the best scoring teams in the country. Defensively, however, UCLA has been underwhelming. The Bruins don’t create a lot of turnovers; they don’t defend the perimeter very well; and they’ve been somewhat lucky in that opponents have been awful from the charity stripe (62.6%) against them. Those defensive holes weren’t an issue against lesser opponents, but against teams that can match its athleticism — like a certain group of Wildcats — UCLA will need to be much better defensively.

Given the volatile nature of UCLA basketball under Alford, it is certainly fine to be excited about the promise that UCLA has shown and there are worse things to do with your time than watching Lonzo Ball highlights as a go-to nightly ritual. A pair of unblemished records that includes a series of blowouts on both sides has given Saturday’s matchup with Kentucky exponentially more hype than originally expected. But let’s also be prepared to adjust our expectations if Calipari’s boys expose a few weaknesses in the high-flying UCLA rocket ship.

mlemaire (324 Posts)

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