Pac-12 Non-Conference Reset (non-Arizona State Edition)

Posted by RJ Abeytia on December 28th, 2017

It may seem out of sync with the Holiday Spirit to practice exclusion, but we’ve spent SO much time on Arizona State already and quite honestly, their unblemished 12-0 record should be more than enough to keep Sun Devil fans happy. They have played great ball to date and, entering conference play, are sitting prettier than they have in quite some time. We’ve heard enough about the story of the year in the Pac-12, so let’s take some stock from the rest of the Conference of Champions with Pac-12 play ready to begin this week.

UCLA is the Surprise Team of the Pac So Far (USA Today Images)

Team of the Non-Conference: UCLA snatched this award away just moments before Santa and his reindeer took flight on the strength of a huge neutral court win over Kentucky on December 23. The Bruins have three wins over Power 6 teams right now (Georgia Tech, Wisconsin, Kentucky) which is second-most in the league behind… well, you already know. The Bruins are doing all this despite the suspensions/departures of three freshmen expected to contribute this year in LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley. Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh have been providing the on-court stability the Bruins were expecting, with both playing heavy minutes and logging true shooting percentages of about 57 percent. UCLA, a team with a relatively short roster, has damned the torpedoes and pushed the ball up at a pace of 74.5 possessions per game, 27th-fastest nationally. Lunardi currently lists UCLA as one of the first four out of the NCAA Tournament, but those three solid wins along with no bad losses (KenPom #29 Creighton, #33 Michigan, and #10 Cincinnati) gives it a good shot to work Pac-12 play to a decent seed in March. Credit head coach Steve Alford for moving past all the distractions and keeping things together in Westwood.

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How Long Can UCLA Last Without More Depth?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 21st, 2017

So UCLA is already four games into its season and its 3-1 start has been reduced to a footnote while Lavar Ball and President Trump usurp air, airtime and attention better spent on literally any other aspect of human life by any other humans on the planet. Bringing the focus back on to the court, however, the real questions begin for a team that is now down three scholarship athletes. What we know through those four games, though, is that the Bruins’ rotation is not so much a rotation as essentially a half-dozen players head coach Steve Alford either trusts or is forced to trust. Players in the former category include returnees Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday. Both were given relative siestas in playing 26 and 32 minutes, respectively, in the Bruins’ rout of South Carolina State, but Holiday played at least 35 minutes in UCLA’s three more competitive games against Georgia Tech, Central Arkansas and Creighton, while Welsh logged major minutes as well when he wasn’t in foul trouble (Creighton).

UCLA  (USA Today Images)

This grinding down of two players who will have to perform all season is clearly not sustainable, and it is the strongest indication yet that LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill will likely not be held out for the entire season. The Bruins’ loaded freshman class fortunately includes two standouts — Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands — who refrained from jacking sunglasses in China, and both are already establishing themselves as indispensable cogs in the UCLA “rotation.” Even in a loss, not much changed against Creighton on Monday night. Holiday was superb, scoring 25 points on 11 shots and dishing out seven assists against one turnover. Although UCLA exhibited a fairly balanced eight-man rotation, five of those players were underclassmen and three of those five are freshmen. The Bluejays took full advantage of that defensive inexperience, putting up an Offensive Rating of 119.0 on the evening that included 11 three-pointers.

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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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How Tournament-Proof Are the Nation’s Top Five Offenses?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 18th, 2017

This year multiple coaches across the country have conceded publicly that a team’s offense is the biggest factor in its ability to maintain a defense. “Defense wins championships” may still be a treasured maxim, but the truth is that offense is the fuel in college basketball. The question then becomes one of how vulnerable the best offenses in college basketball are to a one-game slump? Since only a single bad night is all it takes to be sent home from the NCAA Tournament, it’s worth investigating the nation’s top five offenses to set some criteria for evaluating the rest of the field. Per KenPom, here are the top five offenses nationally based on adjusted offensive efficiency, along with their corresponding adjusted tempo.

Team Adj. ORtg Adj. Tempo
1. UCLA 124.5 14.1 (6)
2. Oklahoma State 123.9 16.5 (91)
3. North Carolina 122.2 15 (16)
4. Gonzaga 122.2 15.7 (33)
5. Villanova 121.7 18.8 (314)


As the tempo column shows, teams can play at both warp speed (UCLA, North Carolina, Gonzaga) or at a relative crawl (Villanova) and still be extremely effective. That said, to the extent that the game slows somewhat in the NCAA Tournament, it is reasonable to suggest that some of these teams may face more trouble than others. 
The Bruins, Tar Heels and Bulldogs all use a healthy dose of tempo when they play. This is not to say that any of those three teams cannot also win a low-possession game, but their opponents would certainly be better-suited to impose a slowdown game on them to the extent possible. Villanova has already proven its favored pace can win championships. The next question then becomes which of the faster teams are most poised to handle a grind-it-out half-court game?

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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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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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UCLA: Predictably Unpredictable?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 8th, 2016

Conventional wisdom on UCLA, after taking down KenPom #16 Arizona on Thursday night to pair with earlier wins over then-#2 Kentucky and then-#19 Gonzaga, is that the Bruins are inconsistent and unpredictable. And conventional wisdom, as is often the case, may only be partially right. The more complete argument may be that the Bruins are consistent in their inconsistency and predictable in their unpredictability. This isn’t one of those riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma bits of nonsense. There’s a method to UCLA’s madness. Let’s dig in.

Just Another Predictable Night In Westwood (ESPN)

Just Another Predictable Night In Westwood (ESPN)

First, let’s take a look at the current landscape of college basketball. Again, using those KenPom rankings, Virginia is ranked sixth in the nation and has lost road games to George Washington (#72) and Virginia Tech (#119). Miami is ranked 10th and the Hurricanes took a home loss to Northeastern (#81). North Carolina was the AP preseason #1 team and currently ranks 11th in KenPom; the Tar Heels have suffered road losses to Northern Iowa and Texas. Dig a bit further down the rankings and there are many other examples of big-time teams losing to small-time teams. It’s been said that there aren’t any great teams this year, and that may well be true (although reserving that judgment until all of the classwork is in might be in order), but more to the point, there just may be less of a difference this season between the top team and the 50th-best team in the country than ever before. And perhaps more to the point, there is almost assuredly less difference between a team like the 10th-best team and the 90th-best team. In other words, big time teams are susceptible to taking losses against lesser ones, especially when they go on the road.

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Happy New Conference Year: A Pac-12 Reset

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on December 31st, 2015

Happy New Year’s everyone! May you all celebrate the arbitrary tick of the clock on an arbitrary day on the arbitrarily human-invented calendar in whichever arbitrary fashion pleases you the most! Here in this space we’re turning our attention to something far less arbitrary, a tradition older than the hills, a ritual that goes back to before the first organism crawled out of the ocean and onto dry land however many million years ago: the transition from non-conference college basketball to Pac-12 conference play. At least seven unnamed sources indicate that such a sacrament is timeless. And so, to celebrate, let’s take a spin around the Pac-12 and do a quick reset, preparing you for what will seem, as it always does, like a sprint from New Year’s to March Madness.

All-Conference Team (No Surprises Edition)

Jakob Poeltl and Gary Payton II May Wind Up Fighting Over Conference Player of the Year Honors (Godofredo Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Jakob Poeltl and Gary Payton II May Wind Up Fighting Over Conference Player of the Year Honors. (Godofredo Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

  • G Gary Payton II, Sr, Oregon State
  • G Tyrone Wallace, Sr, California
  • F Josh Scott, Sr, Colorado
  • F Ryan Anderson, Sr, Arizona
  • C Jakob Poeltl, So, Utah

When we put together our preseason all-conference picks back in November, Poeltl and Payton were unanimous choices as first-teamers, and here they are at the turn of the calendar as the heavy Player of the Year favorites in the conference. Wallace was also on our preseason first-team and he’s been fine, if not spectacular. Scott and Anderson were second-team guys and have both been rock-solid as seniors. Scott has struggled some in his team’s two losses, but if he can lead the Buffaloes to an upper division finish, he might yet have a say in the Player of the Year race as well. Read the rest of this entry »

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What Went Right For UCLA That Has Gone Wrong So Far

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 4th, 2015

24-0. 41-7. 61-20. 83-44. No, this is not my high school locker combination. Rather, a handful of snapshots of scores during the Kentucky/UCLA game in Chicago about 50 weeks ago. Those scores and that domination will never go away. But on Thursday night, the Bruins began to earn back some of the capital they tossed away that Saturday afternoon nearly a year ago. Along the way, they also began to bounce back from their early-season underachieving ways, putting losses to Monmouth and Wake Forest behind them for the time being. Below, here are four, er, five things that went right for UCLA on Thursday night — things that haven’t been going right in recent days, weeks, months and years.

UCLA Fans: It's OK to Be A Fan (UCLA Athletics)

UCLA Fans: It’s OK to Be A Fan (UCLA Athletics)

  1. Fan Support. It’s a funny thing that fans can overreact to one way or the other. Great fan support and a raucous crowd in the arena and fans walk out thinking they may as well be part of the team. Empty arena as quiet as a library and fans walk out blaming the team for playing without passion and energy. Two sides of the same coin. For the better part of the past half-decade, Kentucky has been the exemplar of the first scenario. Sure, they’ve had great talent, but you’re can’t tell me that playing to a packed house at home every night hasn’t contributed to a win or two here and there that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. UCLA, on the other hand, has been exhibit A for option B. Talented players playing a fun brand of basketball in a great college arena in front of sparse crowds, leading to head scratching losses that an overly critical fan base blames on the coach, the administration and the players, rather than their collective self. Thursday night in Pauley Pavilion showed what a boost an actually supportive crowd can provide to a group of players in need of some confidence. Sure, no one is going to mistake Pauley last night for the great atmospheres in college basketball. Empty seats in the lower bowl were masked by yellow giveaway t-shirt deep into the first half. But, there was a visible and vocal crowd, something that has become the exception rather than the rule. Extra special mention is reserved for the Bruin student section. And, for that one night, the entirety of Bruin fans deserve at least some credit. The truth is, UCLA fans, UCLA students, you guys had some small part in this win tonight. Flip that coin the other way and recognize the other truth: you guys had some small part in that Monmouth loss as well. You can’t expect to be a great program on the level of Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, Michigan State, etc., when you’re not providing fan support on the level of those great programs. One little tip: it’s okay to get into your seats early prior to the game (traffic on the 405 is not a legit excuse) and return from halftime (Komodo food truck, also not a legit excuse) in time second-half action. Read the rest of this entry »
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“Secret” Scrimmages Results and #HotTakes

Posted by Andrew Gripshover on November 13th, 2015

This post doesn’t matter. Scrimmages are poor man’s exhibition games; exhibition games are in the preseason; and the preseason is useless. The only people who watched these “secret” scrimmages are the participating coaches and players. And yet, information about them always gets out because nothing’s ever a secret on the Internet, allowing us to wildly overreact to games that don’t even count as not even counting. As we head into the opening weekend of the regular season, here are some such overreactions. Information herein is mostly courtesy of random message board posts and hearsay. #HotScrimmageTakes (miss you, Grantland) are my own and should definitely be saved to fill out your brackets in four months. Enjoy.

Scrimmage or note - Roy Williams and UNC will be expected to perform at a high level this season. (Getty)

Scrimmage or not – Roy Williams and UNC will be expected to perform at a high level this season. (Getty)

No. 1 North Carolina defeated No. 18 Vanderbilt by 12. The Heels stormed out to a 20-3 advantage and never looked back. Justin Jackson was their leading scorer and Isaiah Hicks was impressive off the bench. Joel Berry II started at point guard and ran the show most of the way. The Commodores got good performances from Camron Justice — Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball last year — and Riley LaChance, but those were not enough to prevent the nation’s No. 1 team from exacting some measure of revenge from previous scrimmages.

#HotScrimmageTakes – This UNC team is a hybrid of 2009 and 2005. Berry is Ty Lawson. Marcus Paige is Ray Felton. Kennedy Meeks is Sean May mixed with Tyler Hansbrough. Jackson is a bigger, less temperamental Rashad McCants. Hicks is a cross between Danny Green and Marvin Williams. 40-0 or bust. Vandy starts slowly and is shocked by Stony Brook before placing seventh in Maui (needing overtime to beat Chaminade) but goes 12-6 in SEC play thanks to Justice and LaChance averaging a combined 44 points per game. They’re one of the Last Four In and lose yet again in March to a mid-major as Dayton (yep, Dayton gets another home play-in game) completes the season sweep after winning in Memorial Gym on December 9. Read the rest of this entry »

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