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.

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Is This Season the Dawn of an L.A. Hoops Renaissance?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 22nd, 2017

USC basketball, much like UCLA football, has a long tenure in the City of Angels as the “other” program at its respective university. UCLA Basketball, while not having won a National Championship since 1995 and not having appeared in a Final Four since 2008, remains the King in one of the country’s most fertile basketball talent grounds. Disregarding the clear hierarchy, there hasn’t been a compelling reason why the Trojans couldn’t carve out a reputation for its own place in the high-level college basketball landscape. Ultimately, such a thing comes down to the coach and the money. With the first decade of the Galen Center now in the rear view, USC has clearly established a financial foundation for success. Now with Andy Enfield guiding the Trojans to what should be a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, it seems as if USC basketball is finally re-establishing itself as a perpetually successful program.

USC’s faithful on the hardwood might be on to something. (USC Athletics)

The question of whether Los Angeles’ Pac-12 schools are in the midst of a basketball renaissance hinges primarily on whether there was a concurrent stretch of basketball glory in the first place. The 2010-11 season was the last time that both teams qualified for the same NCAA Tournament, but USC’s loss in the First Four and UCLA’s defeat in the Second Round didn’t move the needle much nationally. Both programs also danced at the same time for a three-year stretch from 2007-09, although Ben Howland’s run of three straight Final Fours from 2006-08 vastly outshone Tim Floyd’s 2007 trip to the Sweet Sixteen. Since their departures, however, it’s been a struggle for both programs — USC, primarily — to regain elite status. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Achilles’ Heels of Arizona, Oregon and UCLA

Posted by Richard Abeytia on February 18th, 2017

The Pac-12’s Big Three of Arizona, Oregon and UCLA (in no particular order) have spent most of the regular season displaying their numerous virtues, but for these three programs their ultimate referendum is going to be performance in the NCAA Tournament. The trio certainly won’t be the only Pac-12 schools to qualify for the Big Dance this season, but they will be expected to carry the banner for the Conference of Champions deep into March (last men’s basketball championship: Arizona, 1997). So what to make of the Wildcats, Ducks and Bruins as we approach three weeks until Selection Sunday? Their talent is unquestioned, but each team carries at least one potentially tragic flaw that must be reconciled if it has plans on booking a trip to the Final Four.

Arizona: Inexperience

Lauri Markkanen is a potentially game-changing talent, but will his inexperience catch up to him in the Big Dance? (Getty)

No team epitomizes the conference’s youthful resurgence like Arizona. In Pac-12 play, freshmen Lauri Markkanen, Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons represent nearly half of Arizona’s field goal attempts and scoring. That hasn’t mattered until recently, but a reckoning more commonly known as “The Freshman Wall” is imminent. Rare is the first-year collegian who can completely sidestep a prolonged dip in performance. Markannen recently went through a two-week stretch of poor performances, punctuated by four-point, three-rebound stinker at Oregon. Simmons has also struggled with inconsistency in league play. His masterpiece against UCLA was the precursor to an ineffective 2-of-7 game against Utah. Another inconsistent swing through Oregon cost Simmons his starting job, and his 19 minutes against Stanford represented a season low. He bounced back somewhat against California with 13 points and three assists, but he doesn’t seem quite as comfortable as he once did. Alkins also struggled against the Oregon schools, but he played well in recent games against Stanford and Washington State. Teams have certainly won NCAA titles led by talented youth, but it’s also not hard to imagine a team like Arizona cracking against a veteran-laden athletic group like Villanova. Arizona has plenty of time to find greater consistency among its freshman corps, but like the rest of us, Sean Miller is probably still wondering what are his young Wildcats made of?

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Pac-12 Power Rankings: Who Will Get the Fourth Bye?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 16th, 2017

With three weeks of league play left, both the the regular season title and the cherished final Pac-12 Tournament bye are still very much in play…

UCLA Basketball is Cool in LA Again (USA Today Images)

  1. Arizona– The Wildcats are experiencing their three talented freshmen (Lauri Markannen, Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins) running smack into the proverbial freshman wall. Despite that ongoing issue, they were still able to sweep the Bay Area schools without playing their best basketball. One of the biggest signs for optimism comes in the form of Chance Comanche, who has fortified Arizona’s post rotation by shooting 17-of-29 (59%) over the last two games.
  2. UCLA– How about a little love for Aaron Holiday? Upstaged by the arrival of superstar freshman Lonzo Ball, the sophomore guard has drastically improved upon what was a very good freshman campaign. He has already converted more three-pointers than all of last season (42) and has flipped his assist rate (24.4%) and turnover rates (21.5%) as well. He isn’t playing as much this season, but he is still a key cog in the Bruins’ devastating offensive machine.
  3. Oregon– The Ducks were about 15 minutes away from looking like the best team in the Pac-12. A furious comeback, however, orchestrated by UCLA’s Lonzo Ball proved that the conference is still up for grabs. As balanced as Oregon is across its rotation, the need for a closer is still an issue. Dillon Brooks has played that role very well for most of this season, but when he’s having an off game, the Ducks need another player to provide late-game production. Read the rest of this entry »
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Did UCLA Get the Defensive Memo?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 10th, 2017

There was no mistaking the takeaway after Arizona came into Pauley Pavilion a few weekends ago and put on a 96-85 dismantling of UCLA‘s defense. Head coach Steve Alford said all the right things afterward, acknowledging and even extensively cataloging his team’s numerous deficiencies in defending their own bucket. With #5 Oregon coming to Westwood three games later, there was little evidence in the interim to suggest that much had changed. Immediately after the loss to the Wildcats, UCLA gave up 84 points to USC (the Pac-12’s seventh-best offense). Following that defeat, the conference’s ninth-rated offense, Washington State, dropped 79 points on the Bruins at an efficiency of 110.0. UCLA”s most recent game against Washington yielded just 66 points and an 80.0 efficiency, but the Huskies (the Pac-12’s 10th-best offense) are essentially a flaming clown car at this point.

UCLA Rode Its Defense to a Second Half Comeback Victory (USA Today Images)

Thursday night’s first half against the Ducks — which featured 50 percent shooting and a 133.3 efficiency rating — didn’t look much different. All the bad things that bad defensive teams consistently do (or fail to do) were on display. The Bruins were lax on the ball. Aaron Holiday entered the game, played hands-down defense, and watched two Oregon players bury jumpers right over him. UCLA wasn’t contesting on the ball and they weren’t doing much off the ball either. Alford tried a zone, but it was hard at times to discern whether his team was playing a slothful man or zone. The “switches” on the ball looked as much like each UCLA player being unwilling to pursue an Oregon player more than five feet in any direction than any particularly coordinated defensive effort.

Then Lonzo Ball started checking Dillon Brooks.

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Weekly Pac-5: Offensive Rebounders

Posted by Adam Butler on February 10th, 2017

In last week’s Pac-5 we discussed the most frustrating of turnovers in an exploration of the teams that cause their coaches and fans the greatest angst. This week we’ll continue that line of inquiry, but instead of considering the victims, we’ll highlight the culprits. The unforced turnover is without a doubt the game’s most frustrating play, but an offensive rebound comes in a close second. Defending your way to a missed field goal simply to have to do it all over again is incredibly disappointing. The offensive rebound is brutal.

Ivan Rabb Has a Knack for the Putback (USA Today Images)

Unless, of course, you’re on the side of the offense! In that case, you’ve refreshed your thirty or put yourself in excellent position for a putback (read: easy bucket).

The Pac-12’s top offensive rebounders as determined by offensive rebounding percentage:

  1. Ivan Rabb, California – 13.4% – Rabb, who was recently omitted from the late-season Wooden Award list, is a fitting first place offensive rebounder. Remember last week when we noted that the Golden Bears were coughing the ball up at wild levels? Rabb’s acquisition of extra possessions is a huge reason why they can endure that frustrating practice.
  2. Thomas Welsh, UCLA – 13.4% – Consider that UCLA leads the nation in eFG% and thus isn’t missing many shots; then consider that it’s borderline unfair that the Bruins have a guy gobbling up extra shots on what few attempts they miss.
  3. Michael Humphrey, Stanford – 11.9% – One thing that I’ve long wondered was whether Jerod Haase would follow in the footsteps of his mentor, Roy Williams. In the instance of offensive rebounds, it’s worth noting that North Carolina has been a top-25 offensive rebounding team for 13 of the last 14 seasons. So while Stanford might not resemble the Tar Heels in many meaningful ways, Humphrey is at least trying to fit the mold.
  4. Kingsley Okoroh, California – 11.8% – With Rabb already listed here, its worth noting that the Bears are collectively the 55th-best offensive rebounding team in college basketball (by rebounding rate).
  5. Dusan Ristic, Arizona – 11.2% – As teams continue to play zone against Arizona, there should be many more opportunities for Wildcats like Ristic to grab misses. Note that Ristic’s teammate, Rawle Alkins, rates as the top offensive rebounding guard in the conference.
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Weekly Pac-5: Unforced Errors

Posted by Adam Butler on February 3rd, 2017

The unforced error, most commonly quantified in tennis, is universally agreed upon as annoying. No matter your task, an error sustained but perhaps not earned, is peak frustration. As it translates to basketball, the non-steal turnover would seem to be among the most frustrating of unforced errors. This is the time of ball forfeiture that looks like an errant pass, a dribble off the foot, or an extra step and a travel. I imagine you cringed just reading that list.

Cal Outlasted Utah Last Night Partially Because of a Low 10 Turnovers (USA Today Images0

In this week’s Pac-5, we look at the Pac-12’s leaders in unforced errors. To quantify this, we’ll look at the percentage of a team’s turnovers that were not caused by theft. Here are the Pac-12’s team leaders in unforced errors:

  1. California, 64% of turnovers are non-steals – This is in fact a nationally bad number, ranking as the ninth-highest such ratio in college basketball. It might be particularly frustrating when you consider there are three seniors in Cal’s backcourt. There is, of course, also a freshman, Charlie Moore, who actually leads the Golden Bears in turnover rate. Furthermore, by volume, this must be wildly frustrating as the Bears play at the slowest tempo in the conference. That’s a lot of UFEs.
  2. Arizona, 60% – This one doesn’t hurt too bad when you consider the Wildcats commit a percentage of turnovers that is about at the national average.
  3. Washington, 58% – Considering that all these coughed-up opportunities could actually be Markelle Fultz jumpers? Also, Fultz owns the nation’s 28th-highest usage rate yet turns the ball over on just 14.9 percent of possessions.
  4. Oregon, 56% – Last season, Casey Benson had an outrageous handle at the point. This year he’s yielded those minutes to a Payton Pritchard, a freshman, who’s perhaps a greater scoring threat but something more of a turnover liability (as is Dillon Brooks, at 21%).
  5. Utah, 55% – We’re inching towards the national average (54%) so maybe this one isn’t as tough a pill to swallow as, for example, Cal? Too soon to mention those two teams in the same sentence?

NOT LISTED: Oregon State. The Beavers have the sixth highest turnover rate in the nation, which by itself is frustrating. They’re turning the ball over (stolen or otherwise) on nearly a quarter of their possessions.

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Weekly Pac-5: Zone Defenses

Posted by Adam Butler on January 27th, 2017

While the “beautiful game” is generally reserved for soccer (futbol), there is indubitably some innate beauty to this game of basketball. This season, UCLA has received a lot of hype surrounding its beautiful style. Its tempo, shot-making, passing, and creativity has captivated the nation. As recently as a week ago, they were the #3 team in college basketball, boasting the second most efficient offense of the KenPom era (2002). And now the Bruins have sustained two consecutive losses, most closely attributable to their defense. In one of those defeats, their offense remained spectacular. Arizona made a strategic decision to put some of its lock-down defenders on the Bruins’ peripheral players. They would let Lonzo Ball outscore them. He tried, valiantly, but couldn’t. USC, however, turned UCLA’s beautiful offense ugly. The Trojans’ zone defense forced the worst offensive performance (by efficiency measures) of UCLA’s season. USC has now won four straight over the Bruins.

USC Made UCLA Look Ugly Earlier This Week (USA Today Images)

As far as beautiful offense goes (consider a pure jumper splashing through the net in contrast with a great defensive stance), this will always be a two-way game. In considering aesthetics as well as USC’s disruption of UCLA’s beauty on Wednesday night, let’s explore how the Pac-12’s five most zone-enthusiastic defenses fare in executing this strategy (all data is acquired from Synergy Sports and enthusiasm is measured by total number of possessions played in zone).

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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.

Without a semblance of defense, UCLA’s tourney life might be cut short. (USA TODAY)

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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Should We Care About Who Shares? Offensive Efficiency vs. Assist Rate

Posted by RJ Abeytia on January 21st, 2017

If you grew up in the ’80s and you loved the game of basketball, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird changed the way you watched it, judged it and maybe even played it. One of the cornerstones of their impact was the elevation of the assist both as a highlight play and as a marker of a player’s impact. In today’s game, there is no better criteria for evaluation than efficiency. Assists make basketball the beautiful game, providing gasps in appreciation and awe at the sport played in its most fluid and selfless form. However, when it comes to college basketball — a game which has undergone a tectonic shift or 10 since the days of Bird and Magic — the question becomes, how valuable is the assist?

Lonzo Ball is one of many high assist/high efficiency standouts in the conference this season. (Getty)

To answer that question, the first place to start is by cross-checking team offensive efficiency with assist rate. Here is how the Pac-12 looks.

Offensive Efficiency Assist Rate
1. Oregon Oregon
2. UCLA Arizona
3. Arizona UCLA
4. Arizona State Washington State
5. Utah Stanford
6. Colorado Oregon State
7. California USC
8. Washington Colorado
9. Washington State Utah
10. Stanford Arizona State
11. USC California
12. Oregon State Washington

The eyeball test clearly shows a strong correlation between Pac-12 teams in terms of their assist rates and efficient offenses. There’s no room at the top without great ball movement, but the line between offensive success and assists gets somewhat obfuscated at the bottom. Stanford, Oregon State and USC all rank among the top half (okay, USC is seventh) in assist rate, yet each team still struggles offensively. Conversely, Arizona State has a proficient offense this season without the services of a great assist rate. If assist rate turns out to be an important metric, we would expect the Sun Devils to regress offensively while the Cardinal, Trojans and Beavers should ascend. If we simply resign ourselves to this unscientific snapshot, it’s fair to say there’s a light correlation between offensive efficiency and assist rate, but the two metrics are not collinear.

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