Just two weeks ago, we wrote about how UCLA looked like the likely favorite in the Pac-12 entering conference play, and with an opening game against Oregon looming. At that time, the Bruins were in the midst of a two-game lull to finish non-conference play, but had overall looked like not only the class of the Pac-12, but perhaps one of the few best teams in the country.
Now, two weeks later, the Bruins have suffered their first loss, at the hands of Oregon, and their two-game lull has now stretched to six games. Now, as far as lulls go, the results have been pretty fantastic, with UCLA sporting a 5-1 record over that stretch with double-digit victories in each of the five wins. Even the one loss to Oregon came on a buzzer-beating three-pointer; otherwise, UCLA would have won that game as well.
Qualitatively, though, the wins are not coming quite as easily as they were through the non-conference season, and UCLA's play hasn't quite reached that juego bonito level that the Bruins attained against Kentucky, Michigan, and a few other teams. Some of that, perhaps, is due to some stiffening of the schedule, as UCLA has faced three top-50 opponents (KenPom ratings) in the last six games after facing just two in the first 11 games. More of it, though, appears to be due to a few significant factors, at least from our vantage point.
First, just to get this out of the way, let's address the defense. We'll accept as a given at this point, well over halfway through the season, that UCLA's defense isn't going to rise to that top-40 bench mark in efficiency that is the typical cutoff for likely Final Four teams. UCLA sits at 77th in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency as I write this, and that's been about where UCLA has been hovering for the last few weeks. It's roughly the same story it's been all year, where UCLA's lack of defensive rebounding and inability to force turnovers are inhibiting the defense a great deal. As one positive on the defensive end, UCLA is allowing teams to shoot far fewer three pointers than they have in recent years (right now, UCLA is allowing teams to take just 33% of their shots from three). That's a huge dropoff from the first three years under Steve Alford, where teams customarily took between 37 and 40% of their shots from three, which increased the volatility of results (i.e. the likelihood that a less talented team would shoot the lights out and win). It has had a pronounced effect on UCLA's effective field goal percentage allowed (At 46.5%, it's the lowest of the Alford era by a wide margin, and a legitimately decent mark in its own right).
In any case, the defense is pretty average by high major standards, and well into bad territory by elite standards. Improving defensive rebounding and forcing more turnovers still seem like reasonable goals, and both of those would serve to improve the defense, even if marginally.
Now, through the first third of the season, or so, the defense was almost a secondary consideration given how lethal the offensive attack was. As skeptical as we've been about offense-first teams in the past, even we considered the possibility that the offense might be good enough, with so many weapons, that it would prove to be the exception to the rule that teams have to be good defensive teams to make the Final Four and win the National Championship.
UCLA has been in a (very, very relative) slump offensively of late, though, and that has drawn more eyes to the defensive side of the floor. The defense hasn't been better or worse than it was at the beginning of the year, at least not to any substantial degree, but the slight lull on offense is drawing more attention to the very average defense.
But, as we all have realized over the course of this season, this team isn't building anything on the strength of its defense; if this team is to do anything, the offense needs to be just as lethal and historically good as it was through the first third of the season.
So, given that the defense probably isn't going to improve drastically no matter what, and given that this is clearly, as evidenced by the first third of the season, a potentially all-time great team in terms of offensive skill and execution, the biggest key for the next chunk of the season is very clear: find a way to fix the Isaac Hamilton problem.
Hamilton has been in an egregious slump of late, and while it seems like he goes through one of these every year, this year feels more pronounced, perhaps because he is still getting wide open shots. He has been, almost certainly, UCLA's worst rotational player during conference play, and, yes, that includes Gyorgy Goloman. Hamilton's eFG% is just 23.1% in conference play, which has brought his overall mark down to 53% (which is now last on the team among rotational players). His turnover rate has gone up considerably and his assist rate has dropped. He's also recording fewer steals. All told, he is just 8 of 39 from the field, including 2 of 17 from three, during the last four games.
Making matters worse is that the guy who would make most sense to take minutes from him, and perhaps start over him, is also mired in a (much less substantial) offensive slump himself: Aaron Holiday. Holiday, after being arguably UCLA's second-best guard after Lonzo Ball through the first third of the season, hasn't looked nearly as comfortable in conference play. Holiday's eFG% is just 38.3% in conference play, which is a huge drop off from his 65% in non-conference play. Unlike Hamilton, though, Holiday has contributed in other ways, recording a higher assist rate over the last four games as well as a higher defensive rebounding rate than he had in non-conference. And even though he's in a relative slump shooting the ball, he has still made 5 of his last 12 threes, which has kept his overall percentage near 50%. Coupled with that, Holiday's defense, while spotty at times, has still been consistently better than basically everyone else's.
It's a tricky situation; Holiday is pretty clearly still playing better than Hamilton, even with both mired in shooting slumps, but neither of them is playing close to as well as they played through the early part of the season. UCLA has tried to let Hamilton play through it, which makes some sense. Hamilton has shown somewhat fragile confidence in the past, and with just four guards in the rotation, UCLA has to keep him from going completely into the tank. At the same time, though, he has, again, been the worst rotational player for UCLA over the last four games at least, and he is still playing 30 or so minutes per night.
In any case, the combo of Hamilton and, to a lesser extent, Holiday not quite playing as well offensively has turned a historically good UCLA offense into just an elite one. The Bruins are still excellent offensively, with two legitimate Player of the Year candidates in Ball and T.J. Leaf, a version of Bryce Alford that is actually shooting threes at the rate people always claimed he could, and a big man who can stretch the floor in his own right in Thomas Welsh. It's still the best jump shooting team in the country, even with the slumps of Hamilton and Holiday.
But, as we said above, with the defense not being much better than average, UCLA has to be not just elite offensively, but historically good, and the Bruins have fallen off that mark of late. Somehow pulling Hamilton out of this spiral has to be the number one priority, and it's going to be interesting to see what sorts of confidence boosting techniques UCLA uses going forward. With the mountain trip coming up this weekend, t'll be interesting to see how Hamilton, and the rest of UCLA's jump shooters, do at elevation.
How's UCLA's Main Competition Doing?
Oregon Ducks 15-2 overall, 4-0 in conference
The Ducks appear to have had their season jumpstarted by their win over UCLA in the conference opener. They've beaten their last three opponents by an average of 21 points and Dillon Brooks and Christopher Boucher both look like they've rounded into full good health. They're an overall very balanced team, with a very good defense and a very good offense. What sets Oregon apart is the pair of talented rim protectors the Ducks have. Few, if any teams are going to have the consistent ability to shoot inside on Boucher and Jordan Bell. The Ducks have a relatively easy slate ahead, with the mountain trip still two weeks away, but the back-to-back on Feb. 4 and Feb. 9 against Arizona at home and then UCLA at Pauley Pavilion could go a long way toward determining the conference fates of all of those teams.
Arizona 15-2 overall, 4-0 in conference
Sean Miller is doing a heck of a job so far this season. Despite still not having Allonzo Trier, Miller has still turned out what appears to be a legitimate Pac-12 contender in Tucson. The Wildcats are, once again, a very good defensive team, but the offense has been surprisingly good as well. Freshman Lauri Markkanen has been an absolute stud as not just Arizona's best interior presence but also the Wildcats' best three-point shooter. It's definitely a younger team than Miller has had in Tucson, and it's not a particularly deep team, but they've played very well so far. With three freshmen as the primary players in the rotation, you do have to worry that they will eventually hit some sort of wall. Arizona's trip to the L.A. schools next week could push the Wildcats to the front of the conference race -- or right back into the pack.
USC 15-2 overall, 2-2 in conference
USC's relatively weak non-conference schedule hid the fact that this team is still flawed in some critical ways. The Trojans have now lost two of three, including dropping a game at home to Cal, and USC now has a three-game stretch at Utah, at Colorado, and at home against Arizona, and USC could easily lose all three. Defensively, the Trojans are in roughly the same boat as UCLA, but USC doesn't make up for it with anything close to what UCLA has offensively. outside of Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart, USC doesn't have another really reliable perimeter threat, as Shaqquan Aaron has been more volume than efficient through his first 17 games as a Trojan. Getting Bennie Boatwright back from a knee injury is growing more critical by the game.
California 11-5 overall, 2-2 in conference
Cal's defense is really holding up as one of the better units in the conference and the country, and that has a good chance of keeping the Bears on the fringe of the conference race all season long. Cal is elite on the defensive glass, and also does a nice job of preventing three pointers and defending the paint. Offensively, Cal is just nowhere close to good enough to truly contend in the league. The Bears could really use Jabari Bird taking his game up a level, but that doesn't look like it's in the cards. As it stands, the Bears look like they'll be a tough out for pretty much everyone since their defense is so good, but the team is fatally hampered by an offense that just can't score effectively. Cal should hang in for a while, though, as the only pretty sure loss in the next stretch of eight games will come on the road against Oregon.
Utah 11-4 overall, 2-1 in conference
The Utes aren't great, but they are consistently well-coached, and well-coached teams usually improve as the season goes on, so we'll keep an eye on them. Somewhat like Cal, Utah plays solid defense and rebounds the defensive glass well, but they're not as good defending the paint. They are pretty good offensively, though, and they've been an excellent shooting team this year (if not quite UCLA level). We'd imagine this team improves defensively by the end of the year and contends for an NCAA Tournament berth. Their lone loss so far came against Arizona on the road by 10, but they do have UCLA this weekend, which could prove to be a very fun game.