For the Bruins, certainly, there have been missed opportunities along the way that, if seized, would have them in much better position at the moment, particularly the losses to Utah and Oregon State. Both losses exposed what might be considered the fundamental flaw of this year's UCLA team—that, sometimes, it just doesn't play hard enough. Although the Bruins are generally more talented than their opponents, their lack of effort in those losses, and in various moments throughout the wins, has been the equalizer.
That said, though, UCLA has done a fair amount right this season, and in many ways Steve Alford can be credited for adjusting to his talent and the athleticism of his team in intelligent ways. Scheme-wise, UCLA has opted for much more zone and sagging man defense than in the previous years under Howland, and with the overall athleticism level of UCLA's players, it has been a generally good move, and one we've been clamoring for over the last few years. On the offensive side, UCLA is driven by the tremendous talent of Kyle Anderson, who has been the engine for Alford's motion offense, and it's a credit to Alford that he has a system in place where so many players have thrived offensively.
So, with six games to go in the conference season, and with the chance to still secure the Pac-12 crown and the No. 1 seed heading into the Pac-12 tournament, we thought we'd review the first 25 games of the year. We've broken our impressions down into two sections: the hard, statistics based section, and then our more subjective analysis about the way the games have gone and what we see as the main issues going forward.
With a heavy reliance on Ken Pomeroy's statistical analysis—I really recommend subscribing to KenPom.com for a better understanding of basketball analytics.
Before the season, and going back to when Alford was hired, one of my main concerns with his style of play is that he hadn't shown a propensity to coach a very fast pace of basketball, which would maximize the inherent talent advantage that UCLA generally has over its opponents. At previous stops, the most up-tempo team Alford coached was Iowa in 2004, and since then, his teams have been average to below average in terms of tempo.
This year, though, Alford has coached the most up-tempo team of his career, with the Bruins ranked 22nd in the country according to Ken Pomeroy's Adjusted Tempo rating. Perhaps even more significant, UCLA is averaging just over 15 seconds per possession, which is the 12th-shortest average in the country. While most schools, like Arizona, lie about playing an up-tempo style, UCLA clearly is one of the most up-tempo teams in the country, and certainly the conference.
If you look at advanced metrics, though, you'll notice that UCLA's defensive efficiency marks are also very high, with the Bruins having the 27th-best adjusted defensive efficiency in the country at 95.8 (basically, the amount of points UCLA could expect to give up per 100 possessions). This is where UCLA's statistics seemingly fail the eye test. After all, we've seen UCLA play average to poor positional defense most of the year, with a seemingly disinterested zone thrown in for long stretches. So, how is it that UCLA's defense rates so highly statistically when our eyes tell us something different?
Here's where UCLA's coaches either made a very cagey strategic decision, or got very lucky. UCLA has gone primarily to a sagging man defense and a zone defense this year, with little on-the-ball pressure and hedging beyond the three-point line that was a staple of Ben Howland's defenses at UCLA. What this has done is force teams into one of two scenarios: either shoot a three-pointer or work the ball around until there's a wide open lane to the basket. To a silly extent, teams have been lazy and attempted to shoot over the defense, to the point where 42% of opposing teams' field goal attempts are coming from three (which is the 7th highest rate in the country). Usually, this isn't a great sign for a defense, but, perhaps a bit luckily, teams have shot only 33.5% from three against UCLA when the national average is 34.5%. UCLA has also forced teams, generally, into long possessions thanks to the Bruins' pack-it-in style, which is usually a good sign for a defense.
The biggest factor on defense that has helped UCLA, though, has been the incredible rate at which the Bruins steal the ball. Jordan Adams has the sixth highest steal percentage in the country at 5.3% (meaning that he steals the ball from the opposing team on an astounding 5.3% of the possessions he is on the court). As a team, UCLA has the second highest percentage in the country at 14%. By forcing such a high rate of turnovers, UCLA has made up, to a certain extent, for its lack of great athleticism and positional defenders.
As you might surmise, the areas where UCLA could stand to improve the most are on the interior and with positional defense. UCLA doesn't rebound well offensively, and gets to the free throw line very little (on just 37.6% of field goals—ranks 251st in the country). Both of those statistics are signs of poor interior play, which indicates a situation that also is fairly obvious to the eyeball test. Defensively, UCLA allows an effective field goal percentage of 49.1%--which isn't horrible, by any stretch, but is probably too high for a team that has aspirations of advancing far in the Tournament.
A few general impressions you can take from the statistics:
Tony Parker's development over the next six games could be key. If he can begin to play 20 to 25 solid minutes per game, it should give UCLA a much better chance of increasing free throw opportunities and offensive rebounding rates.
Norman Powell needs to continue to drive to the basket. Shockingly, he has the highest true shooting percentage on the team at 61% (a metric that combines free throws, two pointers, and three pointers into a single statistic based on their values), but shoots the ball very poorly from three. He needs to continue to force his way to the basket and draw fouls.
UCLA should probably shoot more three pointers. Right now, UCLA has the 8th highest three-point percentage in the country at 40.5%, but three pointers account for just 27% of UCLA's field goal attempts—a number that's good for 306th in the country. Having Kyle Anderson (who's hitting 52% on the year but has only taken 42 shots from behind the arc) take one or two more a game would be a good start.
Unless UCLA starts to extend the defense a bit more, the Bruins will have to hope that teams continue to generally shoot poorly from three against them.
Note: I haven't discussed the Roland Rating or any plus/minus statistics in this section mostly because I don't think there's a tremendous amount of validity to the numbers, particularly for role players and bench players. If you want to read more about why there are issues with plus/minus stats, I recommend this blog post. Generally, though, basketball statistics can be good for measuring team performance and for measuring specific aspects of a player's game. Using them to provide a universal measure of a player's worth, though, puts far too much weight on numbers in what is, in many ways, a game based on the intangibles of positioning, passing, and movement.
Subjective Assessment (The Eye Test)
It's fairly obvious at this point that Kyle Anderson might be one of the most valuable players in all of college basketball, and could be a front runner for Pac-12 Player of the Year. He's contributed in so many ways, small and large, that it's difficult to even imagine the way the team would look without him. Certainly, it's easy to assume that UCLA, rather than being 20-5, might be a .500 or worse team.
Anderson is the best three-point shooter on the team, the best distributor of the ball, the best ball handler (even with his high dribble), and the best rebounder. It's rare to get the first three in the same package, but to add the last makes Anderson a truly unique player. His play has driven the team virtually every game. He is clearly the best player on the team, and number two isn't particularly close.
For much of the year, it was easy to say that Jordan Adams was probably the next most impactful player on the team, simply because he has the ball in his hands the second most on the team. But over the last few weeks, Norman Powell has made several huge strides in his game, playing more under control and seemingly coming to a better understanding about what his game is. Instead of launching three pointers early in the shot clock offensively, he's playing with a good deal more patience, which has allowed him to show his continuing development as a passer. More importantly, he's attempting to get to the hoop much more, and has shown off several big-time moves off the bounce.
Alford has seemingly recognized the surge that Powell currently is in. Rather than play him the requisite 22 to 25 minutes he was getting earlier in the year, Powell has averaged closer to 30 over the last seven games, a stretch in which he's shot 58.3% from the field. With the way Zach LaVine has faltered lately, we could see a scenario where Powell's minutes continue to go up, to the point where he's playing about the same as Adams and Anderson (about 32 to 34 minutes per game).
Obviously, there's been a great deal of talk about Bryce Alford's minutes on the message board. It's clear at this point that it's not an aspect of the team that's going to change significantly. If we had one gripe, actually, it's that when he's on the court, it'd probably be better if he played a bit more off the ball, especially when he's in with Kyle Anderson. As a spot-up three point shooter, Alford has some real value, but when he's asked to create off the dribble, he runs into trouble, particularly on dribble drives into the lane.
Zach LaVine has hit a wall over the last 8 to 10 games, and doesn't look confident in his shot. There are still six games left, though, to get him in the proper mindset heading into the post-season. If either he or Jordan Adams can build up a good deal of momentum over the next six games, it could significantly change the ceiling for this team.
The defense isn't very good, even if advanced statistics might indicate it's more effective than you'd think. Too often, teams have had wide-open looks from three, and have simply not shot the ball well. It's not a great formula for success in the NCAA Tournament to allow so many three point shots—eventually, and likely sooner rather than later, you're going to run into a team that's hot.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. If you're trying to assess how likely UCLA is to win the next six games and win the Pac-12, it's really dependent on the ultimate subjective factor: how hard UCLA plays. The Pac-12 isn't very good—Arizona is the only very good team on UCLA's schedule this year, and the Bruins have only had to play them once. But, as we said up top, the equalizer for UCLA this year is how inconsistent the effort has been. Against Utah, Oregon State, and at times in the first halves of other games (first half @USC, first half at home against Colorado) the Bruins have looked like they're sleepwalking. Expecting a sweep over the next six games might be a tall order, simply because it includes two road trips, but if UCLA can maintain a consistent level of effort, there's no reason that 5-1 isn't eminently doable.
The question is: what is the ceiling of this team? Right now, it's difficult to say. With the amount of open shots that this team allows from three and the inability to score in the post, we'd say there's real upset potential in the first or second round of the NCAA Tournament. You could also see a scenario where UCLA gets very hot and shoots the ball incredibly well for three straight games in the tournament. It's a volatile team, as we've seen this year, with the ability to play really well for stretches and then the ability to lose concentration against not very good teams.
It has certainly been an exciting offensive team, and Kyle Anderson's development this year has been a great deal of fun to watch. Seeing Norman Powell rapidly developing into a good college player has also been fun, for different reasons, since he struggled so much with his confidence during his first two years at UCLA.
It's not inconceivable that this team could make a run in the postseason. UCLA has one major thing going for it, in that it shoots the ball better than the vast majority of teams in college basketball. If the Bruins can develop Tony Parker a bit more over the next six games (to the point where he can be counted on for 22 to 25 minutes per game), give Norman Powell a few more minutes per game, and play harder for longer stretches of time, then we'd have to guess that the upside of the team will be significantly raised.
Then, what if LaVine actually starts to put it together, which isn't completely inconceivable?
Whether any of this will happen is anyone's guess, but it should make for an exciting finish to the season.