Stance and Communication: UCLA Takes Baby Steps on Defense

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 23rd, 2017

There is no lack of self-awareness within UCLA’s basketball program. Head coach Steve Alford made that clear Saturday night after his Bruins throttled crosstown rival USC at Pauley Pavilion. Alford was candid about his team’s initial refusal to heed his cries of defense, and he really broke down his expectations in the clearest possible form. “It took the loss to Arizona and the loss to USC to really grab the guys’ attention… our focus, our stance, our activity… we’ve been talking to the guys about stance and talking since Australia [summer trip]. The stance is making progress, but the talking still has a lot of growth yet.”

But Can UCLA Defend is the Key Question (USA Today Images)

In the macro sense, UCLA has improved defensively over the past five games. Cumulatively, they have put together a Defensive Rating of 95.9, far better than their Pac-12 average of 105.1. In three of those five games, opponents finished with less than a point per possession. But what about the eye test? Against USC, the Bruins seized control in the final eight minutes of the first half. Holding the Trojans scoreless on four straight trips played a big role in that separation. How much credit do the Bruins deserve for USC’s drought? Let’s take a closer look:

8:18: Aaron Holiday misses a runner driving left, and the Trojans secure possession. The first thing UCLA does well is get back upcourt. At the moment that Jordan McLaughlin has the ball, three Bruins are 90 feet from the bucket. The Trojans’ Elijah Stewart bursts up the court, but Lonzo Ball sprints along with him, eliminating any long-distance passes. By the time McLaughlin crosses midcourt, the Bruins are fully back and set into their defense. McLaughlin then drives left and initiates a handoff to De’Anthony Melton. He probes the left elbow, and as he does, three Bruins track the ball and are poised to defend drive, pass or shot. On the weak side, Ball and Thomas Welsh watch the ball and their men. Melton backs away from the lane after getting cut off by Gyorgy Goloman, which gives Isaac Hamilton time to recover and cut him off from the left. Melton makes a bounce pass that gets deflected and ultimately stolen by a diving Holiday.

This was an excellent defensive sequence that featured good defensive stances, positioning, aggression and communication.

7:38: McLaughlin gets a ball screen from a big, clearing Holiday which puts the ball-handler at the top of the key. Welsh, the help man, plays cautiously, not hedging or taking any steps towards McLaughlin. As the Trojan shoots, Welsh is actually below the foul line as Holiday recovers from the screen. This was a good USC look that simply ends in a missed shot. On the weak side, Ball fails to box out, giving Stewart a clear path and launch to the offensive glass, but Welsh high points it and secures it for the Bruins.

This is a “stop,” but not really an example of strong UCLA defense.

7:07: A 3-2 zone look greets USC on its next trip upcourt. Holiday and Alford extend from the three-point line and chase Jonah Mathews up the left sideline away from the bucket. This blitz overextends the Bruins’ defense, allowing Mathews to make the skip pass to Shaquan Aaron on the right wing. Welsh, who had been anchored on the right block, sprints out to Aaron, who settles for a decent three-point look even though Welsh has no prayer of slowing down in time to cut off a baseline drive and leaving the paint wide open.

It’s tough to evaluate this possession because we don’t know if Holiday and Alford were freelancing or instructed to extend their pressure. We do know that when you blitz a ball-handler that far out and he gets rid of it as a result, it compromises your defense. Aaron’s three was a good look, but again, this ends up as a “stop” for the Bruins.

6:41: Once again the Bruins extend their zone into a soft half-court trap attempt on Mathews, which creates the always-encouraged middle pass to Stewart at the foul line. Welsh and Goloman are in the paint to cut off the drive, but Stewart has Chimezie Metu on his left and Aaron on his right, both open. If Stewart had seen Aaron right away it would have resulted in another open three. Holiday and Hamilton collapse from behind onto Stewart, who drives left and has the ball ripped away by Goloman.

Again, credit the Bruins for doing some things right here (Goloman chief among them), but once again this isn’t exactly an illustration of particularly strong defense.

Without question, UCLA knows it has to get better on defense to make a run at the Final Four. Also without question, the Bruins have. However, it’s important to look for the two criteria that Alford has repeatedly highlighted: getting into a stance and communicating. If they can sustain their uptick against stronger offenses, starting tonight in Tucson, it may be time to move past their currently projected #4 seed and start seriously thinking of the number four in a different context.

Richard Abeytia (40 Posts)


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