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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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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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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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: Freshman Efficiency

Posted by RJ Abeytia on January 9th, 2017

It’s very much a Year of the Freshman in college basketball and the Pac-12 has followed suit. As we now find ourselves through two weeks of conference play, it’s a good time to check in on the headlining freshmen in the Conference of Champions. Washington’s Markelle Fultz is the Pac-12’s leading scorer and the front-runner as the top pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, but there are a number of other high-scoring freshmen in the league. In fact, we could probably just list the top five scorers in the Pac, slap the top five freshmen label on them, and call it a day. Here’s what the list would look like if we did just that.

Markelle Fultz is the Presumptive #1 Pick in the 2017 NBA Draft (USA Today Images)

  1. Markelle Fultz, Washington – 22.1 PPG
  2. TJ Leaf, UCLA – 17.4 PPG
  3. Lauri Markannen, Arizona – 15.9 PPG
  4. Charlie Moore, California – 15.2 PPG
  5. Lonzo Ball, UCLA – 14.7 PPG

Pretty good, right?  Those are your top five freshmen by scoring average. They’ve all played enough minutes for us to trust in the validity of their averages, but what happens when you rank these five players based on offensive efficiency?  Here’s where things start to get interesting.

Player ORtg
TJ Leaf, UCLA 134.3
Lauri Markannen, Arizona 132.3
Lonzo Ball, UCLA 131.0
Markelle Fultz, Washington 119.4
Rawle Alkins, Arizona 107.7

 


Well then.  First, we see that Markannen, whose shooting splits are insane, vaults to the top of the group. California’s Moore gets voted off the island altogether; Arizona’s Rawle Alkins jumps into the picture; and Fultz slides down to fourth in our rankings. This is why efficiency is important to consider when judging players. Does Offensive Rating make Markannen a better player than the others? No, but it does clearly identify him as the most
efficient offensive player regardless of draft potential. That’s all well and good, but what about defense? For that we turn to defensive efficiency, an admittedly noisy statistic compared with individual Offensive Rating, but still a useful and informative metric. Limited strictly to defense, here’s how the top five freshmen scorers in the conference.

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In Hoops We Trust: Blue-Blooded Season

Posted by Joshua Lars Weill on December 15th, 2016

One of the biggest changes in college hoops over the last 10 years has been the rise of several consistently strong mid-major programs to the status of legitimate national title contenders. George Mason first crashed the Final Four party in 2006 with a gutsy, emotional Elite Eight win over #1 seed Connecticut. That paved the way for the rise of Butler (2010, 2011), VCU (2011), and Wichita State (2013), each of which were led by dynamic young coaches building winning programs. Throw in the likes of Gonzaga, San Diego State and Xavier, and the growing parity brought with it added competitiveness and a widening of the NCAA hoops pie. But this year is all about the blue-bloods. Kentucky, Duke, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina and UCLA are all in the AP top 10 for the first time since 1994. While some of those schools have maintained relevance over the intervening seasons, the simultaneous rise of the Hoosiers and Bruins augurs a shift back to the traditional power programs.

College Basketball Benefits When the Elite Programs Are Elite (USA Today Images)

College Basketball Benefits When the Elite Programs Are Elite (USA Today Images)

The “why” for this trend could very well be recruiting. Kentucky’s John Calipari was the first coach to truly embrace the one-and-done model of recruiting. The theory is basically that if you can gather the most talented players in the country — regardless whether all of them will be headed to the NBA after just one season — you should. Yes, there are challenges with youth, inexperience and with program continuity, but he proved with the 2012 National Championship and four Final Fours in five years that if you recruit the best players, challenge them in practice, and preach selflessness and defense, you can win. Mike Krzyzewski noticed and Duke jumped on board. Roy Williams also has a slew of McDonald’s All-Americans, and Bill Self has never shied away from recruiting one-year talents regardless of whether he plays them. UCLA this season joined the party with a pair of freshman All-Americans in Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf. So far, Steve Alford‘s accumulation of talent has helped transform a formerly teetering program into the current #2 team in the country.

Conventional wisdom once held that experience trumps talent in the NCAA Tournament. This was the rationale for the VCUs, Butlers and Wichita States of the game. But as major programs blend experienced returnees with those talented NBA prospects, they often overwhelm their less athletic, overachieving rivals. So, does this early trend hold? That remains to be seen. Perhaps those talented freshmen will revert to traditional norms or hit the rookie wall as the long season works its way into spring. Or perhaps injuries will take a toll. Or maybe some of those power programs in smaller conferences will again crash the party. It wouldn’t be a shock. But so far this season, it’s been a feast for the rich. How fat they get we shall know in good time.

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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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