For UCLA, It’s Defend or Die…Posted by RJ Abeytia on January 25th, 2017
The second game of six between the three best teams in the Pac-12 was an undeniably entertaining epic that left Arizona reinvigorated as a Final Four contender and UCLA with a clear ultimatum: Defend or die. It’s not like the Bruins had convinced anyone that they were a solid defensive team to this point in the season — UCLA entered the game hovering around the middle of the Pac-12 in defensive efficiency. The Bruins’ marquee win in Lexington over Kentucky came on the strength of their offense (1.17 PPP) and their only other loss came to an Oregon team they ultimately couldn’t defend (1.24 PPP). The national spotlight tends to expose and crystallize the flaws of even the elite teams in college basketball, and Arizona on Saturday in Pauley Pavilion exposed UCLA’s middling defense as an Achilles’ Heel that may very well short-circuit a deep NCAA Tournament run.
The Bruins’ major issue against the Wildcats was defending the paint via the drive. Kobi Simmons, Kadeem Allen and the newly-eligible Allonzo Trier pounded the paint relentlessly, often singularly focused on their easy target, UCLA guard Bryce Alford. Alford is having an exceptional season playing off the ball next to All-Universe Point Guard Lonzo Ball, but the senior was no match for the physicality and athleticism of Allen, who relentlessly attacked the basket when isolated against him. Arizona’s 34 points in the paint was also a result of mediocre post defense. Dusan Ristic contributed 11 points; Chance Comanche 10; and Lauri Markannen, he of the skyrocketing draft stock, repeatedly took TJ Leaf well outside his defensive comfort zone in nailing 3-of-4 from behind the three-point line as well as grabbing the offensive board and ensuing dunk that effectively ended the contest.
Arizona and Oregon torched the Bruins to the respective tunes of Offensive Ratings of 131.5 and 124.0, respectively. Kentucky, despite losing the game, even put together an efficiency rating of 111.0 against the Bruins. Alford was under no delusions afterward, confirming that the Bruins “didn’t defend the dribble at all” and that they had virtually no rim protection. Like Kentucky’s inability to consistently shoot three-pointers, this issue is clearly what stands between UCLA and a deep NCAA Tournament run. Most teams simply don’t have the talent to keep up with the Bruins’ offense, and you can almost see them calculating the minimum amount of defensive effort they need to give to win the game.
Tactically, UCLA had a few moments of sustained defensive success in going to a 3-2 zone, but gimmicky wrinkles and parlor tricks aren’t going to lead to a Final Four appearance in Glendale. UCLA has the personnel to become effective perimeter defenders — the trio of Ball, Hamilton and Aaron Holiday are all more than capable of keeping their men in front, communicating and playing help and recover defense. Leaf has proven to be a capable defender in the post, and few players he will face are like Markannen, who can take him out to the three-point line and rain jumpers over his head. Alford is a limited defender, but one weak link on the perimeter should not be enough for opponents to blow UCLA’s defense up. Defense often comes down to willingness and effort. There is, of course, the need for cohesion and communication, but those factors can’t trump a unified commitment to work together. Arizona unequivocally ended any notion that UCLA’s wondrous offense alone is enough firepower for it to win it a National Championship. How the Bruins respond to that message will tell the tale in Westwood for the rest of the season.