Rushed Reactions: #2 Kentucky 86, #3 UCLA 75

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 24th, 2017

RTC is providing coverage from start to finish of the NCAA Tournament for the next three weeks.

De’Aaron Fox knifed through the UCLA defense to the tune of an NCAA Tournament-high 39 points (Photo: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports)

Key Takeaways.

  1. Battle of the freshmen backcourts. It’s not impossible that three of the top four picks in this June’s NBA Draft occupied three of the four spots in the starting backcourts of this game. All showed flashes of brilliance, but the shine was far brighter on the Kentucky side. De’Aaron Fox darted through the UCLA defense time and time again en route to a career-high 39 points, while Malik Monk caught fire on either end of halftime, scoring 17 of his 21 points in a seven-minute stretch that straddled intermission. UCLA’s Lonzo Ball got teammates involved early and finished with eight assists, but the Bruins’ star never found his stroke in missing five of his six three-point attempts. There’s little doubt that tonight’s 40 minutes will be mentioned often during discussions of Ball and Fox’s draft stock in the coming months, but the trio combined to put on the show everyone had hoped for.
  2. Tempo quickens in second half. With two efficient, fast-paced offenses doing battle, most expected a high-possession, high-scoring game. The first half was not that – only 69 total points were scored, and most of them came in the half-court – but the second half ushered in the uptempo basketball that had been anticipated. Monk and UCLA’s Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton took turns splashing in jumpers during a breathless first four minutes of the frame, and the Memphis crowd channeled the newfound energy on the floor. Ninety-two total second half points later, Kentucky was through to the next round and fans were fully satiated by a dazzling offensive display.
  3. UCLA, Alford’s uncertain future. The Bruins erased memories of a disappointing 2015-16 with a highlight-laden 31-win season, one that may have cooled Steve Alford’s warm seat in Los Angeles yet also made him an attractive hire to one of the few programs he might consider bolting for — Indiana. The Hoosiers’ coaching vacancy is unlikely to be filled without at least a call to Alford, and there’s little indication he wouldn’t listen to an offer from his alma mater. Apathy around the UCLA program has been difficult to fully eradicate, even during this turn-back-the-clock season, and Indiana should be able to provide Alford heavy doses of both cash and nostalgia. It’s far from a certain marriage, but the uncomfortable irony of this unexpectedly successful UCLA season is that it may have been good enough to lead to a new coaching search.

Star of the Game. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky. The Wildcats’ freshman sensation played the game of his college career, scoring a career-high 39 points. He added four assists against just one turnover and thoroughly controlled a game that featured an even more hyped freshman point guard. Fox’s 39 points also stand as the high point total of the NCAA Tournament (no player had gone over 30 until tonight), and they were more than enough to compensate for a sluggish night from the backcourt’s supporting cast. Fox dominated tonight in Memphis.

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Pac-12 Tournament Prospectus

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 15th, 2017

The Pac-12 ended up with fewer seeds in the NCAA Tournament than the ACC, Big 12, SEC, and Big 10.  Of course, it was always quality (Arizona, Oregon, UCLA) and not quantity for the Conference of Champions this season. Outside of the ACC, no conference has three teams being hailed as legitimate Final Four threats.  The questions this time of year focus on where you’re trending and your presumptive path. By the time you get to a National Semifinal you are certainly going to be playing a great team, or at the very least a team playing like one. Those games match up as coin tosses in most cases, so let’s focus on which of the four Pac-12 teams who qualified has the best shot of reaching Glendale.

Do Allonzo Trier and Arizona own the Pac-12’s best chances of reaching the National Semifinals? (Photo: USA Today Sports)


  • Trending Up:  Jordan McLaughlin is averaging nearly 17 points a game over his last four and has a stellar A/TO rate of 31/6 over those four games. Guard play takes center stage in the NCAA Tournament, and if the Trojans are to make more than a cameo in the round of 68, they’ll need McLaughlin to keep playing at a high level this week.
  • Trending Down:  Since posting a stellar 156 ORtg against Washington State in March 1, Bennie Boatwright has slumped to games with offensive efficiency ratings of 88, 102, and 83 amidst an 8-28 field goal shooting stretch.  USC is not a great offensive team and they struggle in the halfcourt; without Boatwright at max efficiency working to stretch defenses and convert in the paint, USC isn’t long for this week.
  • Final Four:  The Trojans were on a three-game winning streak before UCLA dispatched them in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament. USC didn’t make it easy for the Bruins, however, and in the last four games found an offensive groove, posting efficiency ratings well over national average in its three wins. The loss to UCLA showed they could hang with an elite team despite subpar performances from Boatwright, Chimezie Metu, and De’Anthony Melton. Coming off a loss, it’d be wrong to say the Trojans are streaking, but they are playing good ball.

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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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Weekly Pac-5: Spot Up Shooters

Posted by Adam Butler on December 9th, 2016

An open three-pointer is a simpler three-pointer. There are a few ways someone can get open for basketball’s highest value shot: dribbling by yourself; letting someone else attract the defense; or running off of screens set by teammates. These options (and I’ve indubitably missed some) are listed in order of increasing participation. Which is to say, scenario one takes just one player; scenario two requires a pair; and scenario three needs — at a minimum — three. As we learned in kindergarten, sharing is caring and there is no “I” in team. Greater involvement often lends itself to greater success. These elementary insights may not be the core reason you visit RTC’s Pac-12 microsite, but if the objective of the sport is to optimize shot-making or shot-stopping, then perhaps it’s a worthwhile exploration. Because we’d like to know who is best suited to make this team-built open shot? In this week’s segment of the Weekly Pac-5, we’ll discover and list the best spot-up shooters in the Pac-12.

Isaac Hamilton is the best long-range shooter in the Pac-12. (photo by Don Liebig)

Isaac Hamilton is the best long-range shooter in the Pac-12. (photo by Don Liebig)

These are the players, loosely defined, whose teams are going to make an effort to get them open. Through planning and screening, it’s a worthwhile endeavor to get these dudes open from distance. We’ll quantify it by the number of assisted threes made, as this suggests an open, quality shot in which one player has recognized the other’s advantageous, shot-making position. If assisted, the assumption is that our shooter has set his feet and evaded the defense with some assistance of his teammates. He is not running amok, wildly crossing over, stepping back or doing all of the moves you loathe as a fan (and cherish as a fan of Steph Curry). Consider that Klay Thompson scored 60 points on 20 assisted baskets (he made 21 field goals in total) earlier this week. For your further consideration and long-term focus, Pac-12 point guards have been outstanding thus far. Lonzo Ball’s success is well-documented, as is Markelle Fultz’s, but there are five other players averaging more than four assists per game. Nice distribution! Read the rest of this entry »

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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.

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It’s a Make or Break Week for the Pac-12

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 30th, 2016

After a sizzling opening weekend followed by some Feast Week struggles, the Pac-12 finds itself facing a potential do or die week in terms of its national perception. Three teams will be front and center this week under the bright lights of ESPN and CBS, and after 71 games and even with all of December left, chances are it will be this week’s main events that set the tone for the Pac-12 come March. Part of the concentration on these games stems from factors out of the league’s control. Oregon’s injury issues have left it a shell of the team most expected it to be come March — the Ducks have already dropped games to Baylor and Georgetown without the services of Dillon Brooks (and have looked shaky even with him back). While the committee will factor Oregon’s injuries into its analysis, that doesn’t help the Pac-12’s overall profile. And that brings us to this week, starting this evening on the Peninsula.

St. Mary’s at Stanford: Wednesday 11/30 8:00 PM PT (Pac-12 Bay Area)

So far, so good for Jerod Haase and Stanford. (Tahoe Daily Tribune)

Jerod Haase and Stanford have a monster week ahead of them, including a trip to Haase’s alma mater where dreams tend to fade. (Tahoe Daily Tribune)

Not only is the Pac-12 counting on Stanford — the team picked to finish 10th in the league standings this season — but the Cardinal actually have two games with national ramifications this week. First, Randy Bennett’s St. Mary’s bunch (11th nationally, per KenPom) comes to Maples Pavilion tonight. The Gaels may not yet be a nationally-renowned name, but they drilled Stanford last season and will be a contender in a league (WCC) that has been quite the thorn in the side of the Pac-12 in recent years. This is one of two big Pac-12/WCC showdowns this week, and while it’s definitely the undercard, it’s still a big game for both teams and conferences.

UCLA at Kentucky: Saturday 12/3 9:30 AM PT (CBS)

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: Is UCLA Any Good?

Posted by Adam Butler on November 3rd, 2016

This is easily the most basic of any of our burning questions but it feels completely legitimate. UCLA finished 15-17 last season and we could stop right there to qualify the question. Steve Alford returns much of the roster that played selective defense last season and ultimately led the hand of its coach into a formal letter of apology. Sure, there might have been some injuries, but this is UCLA basketball – something fans have been squawking about since mid-to-late-Ben Howland – and as Steve Alford noted at Pac-12 Media Day, there are consequences in failing to uphold what it means to be a UCLA basketball player, coach or team. The nice thing about an offseason is that it allows you get healthy. The nicer thing about an offseason is it allows you to bring in new players. The nicest thing about an offseason is that your last season ends. The Bruins will welcome back their frontcourt depth with Gyorgy Goloman and Alex Olesinski being veteran returnees who will start the season (and hopefully finish it) healthy. They’ll also introduce Ike Anigbogu (hulking center) and TJ Leaf (skilled power forward) as freshmen. Of course, Thomas Welsh also returns his well-developed skill set to the starting center role.

Regardless of how they did it, Thomas Welch and UCLA are one step away from the Sweet 16. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Thomas Welch is UCLA’s top returning standout. Is he enough? (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

But as this is UCLA basketball and there’s much to like about Welsh’s offensive game, the Bruins’ question marks center around the defensive end. Does a team improve its defense with freshmen? Not usually. Furthermore, UCLA has spent the last few seasons masking their defensive flaws with an opportunistic zone that has been headed by some unique talents (if not bodies) in Kyle Anderson, Kevon Looney and Jonah Bolden (trying early departure from last year’s team). Each of these players was a lengthy forward with ball skills. This roster lacks that player. What this roster doesn’t lack is guards. Alford returns a veteran lot but it is also the same lot that didn’t play defense last year and a reminder of why the Bruins played zone defense. Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton are both very talented scorers, but will their senior campaigns lend itself to a defensive renaissance? Adding Lonzo Ball to the mix is something any coach would want to do but another talented passer and shooter isn’t necessarily what this team needs. Of course adding talent is never a bad thing, and to that extent the Bruins should absolutely be expected to improve (which, granted, is not hard to do from two games under .500).

What I see on this roster are improvements at positions that didn’t necessarily need improving. And while I can agree that the previous sentence is oxymoronic (when you’re sub-.500, you absolutely need to improve), I would prefer that this group show me why they’re a top 20 team in the preseason national polls. The depth chart over UCLA’s final five games last year (per KenPom) was Bryce Alford, Aaron Holiday, Isaac Hamilton, Jonah Bolden and Thomas Welsh. How much better can that group defend when you toss in some pups?

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Burning Questions: Pac-12’s Best Wing

Posted by Mike Lemaire (@Mike_Lemaire), Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) and Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 22nd, 2016

We started out by assessing the Pac-12 point guards. Last week we moved onto the big men. This week we’re looking at the slashers and shooters (sounds dangerous) manning the wing in the conference. We asked three of our guys: who’s the best wing in the Pac, and unlike those first two questions (where Payton and Poeltl were heavy favorites), this one is wide open. Answers below.

Adam Butler: I always struggle with whether or not to call the college basketball season a sprint or a marathon. It’s easy to equate it to both, knowing that November losses can be meaningless with a strong sprint to the finish. Conversely, sprinting out of the gate (i.e. Washington last season) doesn’t alway suggest super success. This, of course, is a lead to consider that so long as you can endure the marathon and garner an invitation to the sprint (March Madness) your team is best suited by having the best players. I don’t care about your efficiencies, team chemistry, peaking, drowning, front court, back court, history — if you have the best players in the NCAA tournament you have a chance. Jaylen Brown might be the best player. His shooting stroke leaves something to be desired (28% isn’t good from three), but as the game trends towards the rim, so too does Brown’s. The 6’7″ power wing is connecting on 72% of his attempts at the rim. Furthermore, 45% of all his attempts are at the rim. Ipso facto, as math would suggest, Brown is getting lots of easy buckets. And if they’re not easy buckets, they’re free throws (10th highest FT rate in the conference). For some context surrounding his rim abilities, Stanley Johnson — a similarly sized power wing — took just 29% of his shots at the rim, connecting on only 53% of those attempts. I’d like to see him curb his turnovers and hit a few more jumpers if we’re considering his NBA prospects, but when it comes to bullying NCAA players, Brown might be my first pick.

Jaylen Brown's Ability To Bully Smaller Players Gets Him One Vote (USA Today)

Jaylen Brown’s Ability To Bully Smaller Players Gets Him One Vote. (USA Today)

Mike Lemaire: In terms of potential and ability, California’s Jaylen Brown is probably the easy answer. But in terms of production and importance to his team’s success, it is a close race between UCLA’s Bryce Alford and Oregon’s Dillon Brooks. Alford is fifth in the conference in scoring (16.9 PPG); he is tied for second in assists per game (5.2 APG); and he leads the conference in free-throw percentage. Brooks is ninth in the conference in scoring (15.5 PPG); he is 14th in the conference in rebounding (6.6 RPG); and he is right behind Alford at second in free-throw percentage. Also, both guys play more than 30 minutes per game and have similar usage rates. It comes down to Brooks’ vastly superior defense vs. Alford’s vastly superior shooting. In a pinch, the pick here is Brooks because he has a big impact on the game at both ends of the floor. 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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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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