UCLA’s 2016-2017 basketball season is over, with the Bruins finishing 31-5. UCLA finished third in the Pac-12 conference, lost in the semi-final of the Pac-12 Tournament, received a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and then lost in the Sweet 16 to Kentucky.
It almost feels too soon to do a post-mortem on the season. It’s not just the hangover from the disappointing end in the Sweet 16, but perhaps a lingering feeling from heightened expectations throughout the season that this UCLA team should still be playing and our brains haven’t reconciled that with the season actually being over.
Perhaps it’s also the feeling that, with Lonzo Ball swiftly announcing he will never play for UCLA again right after the loss to Kentucky, it was just an abrupt, jarring coda on the season ending. Not that we have any suggestion on how Ball should have done it; that probably was the best way – just ripping off the band-aid. But dealing with the end of the season after so much expectation, then the stark realization that UCLA was now without the transformative play of Ball was stunning.
We’re not even sure we’ve come to grips with all of the feelings we have about this team just yet. It seems like there’s quite a bit swirling around in our minds still and it hasn’t really settled down to Earth in a way that makes sense.
If we forced ourselves to define it, it probably is one of gratitude for some of the best basketball UCLA has played in years and just simply disappointment. Gratitude and Disappointment – it seems to sum it up pretty succinctly.
No matter how much you want to spin it to smooth over the feelings you have from the end of the season, there is no getting away from the fact that there is disappointment. One of the most distinct feelings that has settled back to Earth is that this UCLA team was better than just a Sweet 16 appearance, and a not-so-competitive appearance in that round at that. Perhaps expectations were raised throughout the season unfairly, but we don’t think so. UCLA had two potential Lottery picks, and one of them being a player that might be a once-in-every-ten-years type of caliber. A top two or three pick in the NBA Draft. It had a six-deep that could play with anyone in the country. It beat Kentucky at Lexington. It beat a team currently in the Final Four. No, expectations were legitimate.
So, why the too-early exit?
That’s perhaps where so much is still unsettled.
It’s clear UCLA had one of the best offensive basketball teams in the country. Statistics indicate it was, actually, one of the best in the last 20 years of college basketball. UCLA’s offense was No. 1 in offensive ffficiency in the nation (1.189), first in points per game (89.9), first in effective field goal percentage (59.8%), first in field goals made per game (33.6), second in actual field goal percentage (54.6%), and third in three-point shooting percentage (40.6%). No other team has been this statistically good on offense since the 2000-2001 Duke national champions.
UCLA was in a completely different league in terms of pure scoring. Five Bruins combined for more points that the entire rosters of most of their competitors. Among the teams participating in the Sweet 15, all five UCLA starters were among the top 33 players in terms of points scored on the season.
UCLA was a scoring machine.
And it wasn’t that they just ran up and down and played at a fast tempo, took more shots so then made more baskets. UCLA’s offensive efficiency stat of 1.189 was the best by a wide margin, with No. 2 Gonzaga at 1.154. That was indicative of a UCLA offense that didn’t just heave up the ball at a monster rate, but led the nation in scoring while doing it in the most efficient way. Those two stats combined – points per game and offensive efficiency – really tell the statistical story.
http://www.scout.com/college/ucla/story/1764607-the-transcendent-game-of... We’ve heaped plenty of praise on Ball, and why he made this happen. But he really was a sort of basketball savant of sorts this season. He was the catalyst to it all. He was second in the county in assists per game (7.61), and had close to 100 more assists on the season than any other player in the Sweet 16. As we got into detail in the story on Ball (embedded at left), Ball transformed UCLA’s offense into an unselfish, pass-first sublime piece of art.
Make no mistake – that leaves UCLA with Ball.
When he stepped onto the Pauley Pavilion floor, this UCLA team was transformed. And now that he’s stepped off, it will go back to being mere mortal again.
One of the elements that made Ball’s offense so effective was that he made everyone around him good. That’s a cliché that’s thrown out often, but in Ball’s case it’s absolutely the truth. Senior guards Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton both had inconsistent up-and-down careers at UCLA, but Ball’s offense smoothed out their blemishes. Having Ball as the primary ball-handler took Alford off the ball, which was a disastrous thing in the 2015-2016 season. As many UCLA observers have said for Alford’s first three seasons: he’s not a point guard and would be much better in a catch-and-shoot role. Alford, a career 38.9% three-point shooter up until this season, shot 43% from three as a senior. With Ball setting him up and finding him with passes, Alford took less bad shots. By putting the ball on the floor and driving to nowhere less, his turnovers dwindled (to an average of 1 per game). Alford found what he needed to finish off his career on a good note, and that was Lonzo Ball.
Hamilton was in a shooting slump for a good portion of the season. Amazingly, his three-point shooting percentage went down in his senior season, from 38.5% to 36.6%. He’s a volume shooter, absolutely, and he took 43 less threes in 2016-2017 than he did in 2015-2016. It’s subjective, but it appeared he got much better looks this season than last; he was one of the two go-to offensive scorers as a junior, and then in his senior year with the addition of Ball and T.J. Leaf to the lineup, it took the emphasis of defenses off him even more. He just simply didn’t shoot it as well this year. His offensive experience, though, knowing how to work in Ball’s offense, where the open looks and great passes should be, was an integral part to the offense. Hamilton also became a much better passer as a senior, in a pass-first and pass-friendly offense like this one.
Freshman forward T.J. Leaf led the team in scoring and rebounding, at 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. It’s funny, too: even though Leaf had an excellent season, you still came away from it thinking he was still a bit under-utilized. Leaf showed immediately at the beginning of the season that he was a potent offensive weapon. It just wasn’t the fact that he was a 6-10, fairly athletic face-up forward that would be able to get good looks because of that combination, but it was the shooting touch. His eye for shooting within 15 feet or so was fantastic. He shot an amazing 61.7% from the floor on the season. His overall feel for the game, too, was very evident – having a knack for moving without the ball and having an innate feeling where to be so Ball could find him with a pass. Given all this, he still only took the third-most shots on the team (He shot it 381 times, while Hamilton and Alford took 426 and 387 shots, respectively). There were times that it seemed UCLA’s offense forgot about him a bit, and was too perimeter oriented. There were clearly plays called for Alford, with Alford running around and popping out from those baseline screens, but not nearly enough clear, set plays for Leaf. There was a natural symbiosis between Leaf and Ball (off the court, too), but it seemed like it wasn’t exploited enough, and that perhaps there should have been a little more deferring from Alford and Hamilton as scoring options for Leaf. Leaf was easily the most consistent offensive player on the team, scoring in double figures in all but two games this season (in which he wasn’t injured), and it’s not coincidental that one of those games was the loss to USC.
Speaking of a high shooting percentage and perhaps not getting enough touches, there’s junior center Thomas Welsh. Welsh shot 58.5% on the season, second to Leaf, and he took the sixth most shots. That’s just thoroughly not a prudent way to take advantage of your offensive players. Welsh’s mid-range jumper was the biggest go-to shot on the team, and he was truly great at finding the places in the offense to pop out and catch it. There were so many times during the season when UCLA’s offense was out-of-sync a bit, and it was a midrange Welsh jumpshot that kept the offense scoring. He developed more of a back-to-the-basket game in his junior season, being able to catch a feed in the post and convert it. Welsh did very well, too, at cleaning up the offensive boards and getting some easy put-backs. He was impressive in getting his 7-foot and not-necessarily fast-twitch body out on breaks to clean up misses.
Sophomore guard Aaron Holiday showed some spectacular offensive flashes this season, while he suffered some inconsistency, too. He fell into a regular pattern: He’d enter the game, force it a little too much and commit a turnover or two, or take a bad shot, then he’d settle in and usually have a sequence in most games where he was the most effective player on the floor. There were some games when he was a very effective passer, and drove to the basket under control. And there were other games where he threw a few errant passes and drove to nowhere. It seemed a bit like there was someone in his ear at times telling him he had to assert himself, and that made him force things. When he was playing well, he was perhaps the second-best offensive player on the team, able to take defenders off the dribble, dish out some nice assists, and shoot the three-pointer with accuracy. He started out the season on fire from three; by the end of non-conference play he was shooting it at a 50% clip. He then settled in, had a few poor shooting games, but still shot it for the season at 41%. His ability to knock down the three was integral to UCLA’s offense. UCLA had the most potent outside shooting offense in the nation, and what really contributed to that was Holiday maintaining the three-point shooting accuracy when he subbed in for the starting guards/wings.
Freshman center Ike Anigbogu had a promising year offensively for it being his first year. He’s obviously an athletic, talented player, but raw offensively, as his high school scouting evaluations indicated. His best offense was being the recipient of a pass that found him on the block for a dunk, or a putback dunk. There were a few moments, particularly against UCLA’s lesser opponents, when Anigbogu showed some composure with the ball in the low-post and the beginning of decent footwork.
Junior forward Gyorgy Goloman had the offensive highlight of his life against Kentucky, when he caught the ball on the perimeter, got a Kentucky defender moving one way, went the other off the dribble and threw down a Sports-Center-caliber dunk over another Wildcat. He showed flashes of that throughout the season, but mostly struggled offensively. There was an on-running issue on the BRO Premium Hoops Forum of why it was Goloman taking a shot in a key situation in which UCLA really needed a high-percentage shot. He shot 10 threes on the season and made one. It is an indication that the Green Light Offense that Alford had used at UCLA in his first three years was still very much alive this season, it’s just that it went through the filter of Lonzo Ball and came out on the other side as a thing of beauty. Goloman, though, did function as a cog in the Ball offense well, and it will be interesting to see how he fits in next season as a senior again coming off the bench, and with more competition for playing time in the frontcourt.
One aspect of UCLA’s offense that was particularly a pleasure to watch was its transition game. With Ball leading it, there was some excellence happening. There were accurate, well-timed passes and players flowing in transition really well. While you might think just getting out and running must be pretty easy, it’s tougher than it looks, and it’s a testament to the overall feel for transition basketball this team had. Of course, again, so much of it was because of Ball; we all know what UCLA’s transition game looked like before he arrived. But give the other players credit too for having the basic tools to be able to flow alongside Ball’s rudder. For instance, Bryce Alford was excellent in transition this season. He didn’t force it, in both taking it to the basket or passing; he was very good at finding open spaces from three both out ahead of the break and trailing, as really was most of the team. He was a very good secondary, supportive aspect to Ball, as was Holiday. Leaf, for an 18-year-old, 6-10 player, was phenomenal on the break, with a great feel and timing. UCLA’s transition game was what gave it its explosiveness, able to balloon out a lead from 3 points to 18 in a matter of minutes. Even when it wasn’t necessarily working, it wore down opponents and eventually broke them, like it did in the second round NCAA game against Cincinnati.
As we said, UCLA’s offense arguably was the best in the country. What made it so successful was that it combined potent transition scoring with a good halfcourt offense. Many times there are run-and-gun offenses that sputter in the halfcourt, but UCLA’s didn’t, for the most part. Of course, again, Ball was the catalyst, but all in all Holiday did a very good job in the back-up point guard role. There were a few games in which Holiday was executing his passing game in the halfcourt with almost some Ball-like vision. Alford, instead of having to force passes like the previous season, made some great passes when the game flowed to him. It was a culture of over-passing, and it really helped UCLA’s offense in finding the higher-percentage shots. Ultimately, there just weren’t too many forced bad shots on the season. This is very much an offense in which coach Steve Alford let it happen, without too much input or interference from the sideline – and you have the luxury to let that happen because of Ball. If we had to nitpick, we’d say it was a little too perimeter oriented; it’s leading scorer and second best percentage shooter (Leaf and Welsh) probably didn’t get enough touches and didn’t have enough plays run for them. It was why you’d see Welsh get a good amount of touches at the beginning of the game (and at the beginning of the second half), when the team was thinking that way initially after probably getting instructions from the coaching staff, and then Welsh not getting near as much a few minutes later. There was probably still a little bit too much emphasis of running plays for Bryce Alford, and him and Hamilton taking slightly too many shots. But there were enough times when it also worked, too, when Bryce did his thing of testing the boundaries of his shot in a game, broke through, hit a couple of threes and buried opponents.
This year’s offense was perhaps the best thing that happened to UCLA basketball since the Final Four years under Ben Howland. As we have throughout the season, we also have to give Steve Alford some credit for UCLA’s offense this season. While it’s a pretty loose motion offense that allows its player a great deal of freedom, it still was perfect for Ball, the senior guards, Leaf, Welch and Holiday. They all fit into like puzzle pieces. The offense was one of those special bits of excellence that a program has that makes it elite in that given year. It wasn’t just about the media attention, and the rave reviews from pundits and such. It wasn’t even how it packed Pauley Pavilion. And it wasn’t even the flashier moments of dunks on a fast break or alley-oops (and this team might have set a record for alley-oops in a UCLA season, if that stat existed). It was just the moments when it was offensive basketball being played at its utmost best, with a unselfish mindset leading to some pretty ball movement and great player movement away from the ball that was finished off by a high-percentage shot or a lay-in. It really was beautiful offensive college basketball, and we’re grateful Ball created it at UCLA and we got to see if it for one, brief, shining moment of a season.
Well, defense is another story. While the offense was one of the best in the country, the defense was mediocre: 143rd in the nation in defensive efficiency (1.0), 79th in opponent’s shooting percentage (46.2%) and 263rd in opponent’s three-point shooting percentage.
You don’t need statistics to reaffirm what was pretty obvious watching any UCLA game: The Bruins just didn’t play good defense.
It’s easy, too, to put most of the culpability on the season being cut short on UCLA’s defense. And justified.
UCLA hasn’t yet had a good season of defense since Steve Alford has been in Westwood. This season was probably one of his best, but it still just didn’t get it done. It is very rare for a team to legitimately compete for a national championship that isn’t among the 50 or so top teams in defensive efficiency, and UCLA wasn’t close.
We at BRO repeated it like a mantra – that UCLA would need to play decent defense this season to go with that offense if it hoped to have some post-season success. There was even a time when during the season UCLA’s offense was so good we were even entertaining the idea that it was such a once-in-a-lifetime offense it might be able to still win a national championship with a poor defense. But that ultimately proved to not be the case.
When analyzing what is wrong with UCLA’s defense, people tend to emphasize a lack of athleticism, and others tend to stress the lack of good defensive fundamentals and tactics under Alford. Some disgard that and say defense is mostly about effort. It truly is all of that.
This year’s team, like Alford’s three teams before it, lacked athleticism in the backcourt, and a lack of athleticism is particularly exposed on defense. UCLA’s two wings, Alford and Hamilton, just didn’t have the athleticism to stay with opposing wings/guards. Since they couldn’t, UCLA played either a sagging man defense to try to keep opposing guards/wings in front of Alford and Hamilton, or a zone. UCLA defensively just couldn’t match up with players who can either take defenders off the dribble or shoot it well, or both. There was a marked difference in athleticism between Kentucky and UCLA in that Sweet 16 game, and far more apparent in that game than in the one UCLA won in Lexington, because Kentucky had improved, its athleticism providing the Wildcats a higher ceiling by March.
We’re going to be candid here now: Most of the reason we know Steve Alford plays this type of defense is to mask the deficiencies of Bryce Alford. It was the same in Bryce’s first three seasons. Bryce isn’t nearly as noticeable for his lack of athleticism or defense when the entire defense is sagging, or in a zone. It also seemed logical, too, because Hamilton isn’t a good athlete either, and that made it seemed even more logical to utilize.
There was a bit of hope about halfway through the season when UCLA instituted a 1-2-2 zone. With Ball at the top of the zone, disrupting passing lanes and creating steals, the zone was a good change of gear. It then also started trapping in the corner out of the zone, and that also had its moments. There were a few games when UCLA mixed its man and zone well, and it kept opponents off-balance and out-of-sync enough to get a good number of stops.
After Alford and his players had paid lip service to playing better defensively for three years – just merely playing harder on defense – there actually was an uptick in defensive effort about this time of the season, too. After the loss to USC at the Galen Center, it seemed the players started to actually come to terms with the realization that they probably wouldn’t be able to really win at the highest level if they didn’t play harder on defense. Again, it was another sliver of hope.
But both the 1-2-2 and the slight increase in defensive intensity proved to not nearly be enough. For one, when your defense is based more on a tactic than good defenders and fundamentals, good opposing coaches will scheme around it, which happened with the zone. And the increased effort on defense dissipated by the post-season, merely a fad for a few games before UCLA fell back into mostly its lazy defensive effort.
Perhaps the No. 1 second guess of the season in terms of personnel would have been to consider increasing Holiday's minutes and decreasing Hamilton's. Once it was pretty certain Hamilton was in the midst of a shooting slump, there's a decent argument that could be made that you wouldn't have experienced a slip on offense with Holiday getting Hamilton's minutes, and definitely an increase in defensive quality. Holiday was UCLA's best defender, and a good on-ball defender, which is what UCLA truly needed. It would have been interesting to see what Holiday's defense and defensive intensity might have changed the complexion of the season. And it really came down to switching a mere 8 minutes per game or so between Hamilton to Holiday. Those eight minutes might have potentially be a big difference, and perhaps lit a bit of a fire under the defense as a whole.
With defense, as everyone knows, it’s not just athleticism and effort, but good fundamentals, technique and coaching. UCLA has lacked all of it under Alford since he’s been at UCLA. Not only don’t the players get in a stance or even get their hands up when defending, UCLA’s help defense and rotations are poor to sometimes non-existent. UCLA’s team defense is poor, with the players not playing together defensively. There are so many aspects of UCLA’s defensive coaching that are poor, from an inability to dictate to opposing offenses, to force offenses to play on one side of the court, poor effort in getting backin transition, when away from the ball knowing how to be in a position to deny passes, how to play off screens, etc. If there was one actual on-court tactic that was perhaps UCLA’s biggest failure of the season was its almost inexplicable inability to defend ball screens. It was mind-blowing sometimes how poorly UCLA’s defenders did it, and opponents exploited it throughout the season.
A good portion of defense is about attention to detail, and this team lacked it.
An old-time basketball coach I know said that a good indication of how good a team plays defense is to merely count how many times it takes a charge. It takes more than just a good individual defender to know how to take a charge, but a well-conceived defense that gives a defender the opportunity to take a charge. This UCLA team might have taken only a handful of charges during the entire season, at the most.
As we touched on, too, this team never really played hard defensively. Except for an occasional 2-to-3-minute spurt in a game of defensive effort, and that increase in intensity over the course of a few games in the second half of the season, it just wasn’t there enough. That, too, has to be laid at the feet of coaching. A coach is responsible for getting his players to put effort into defense.
It was also evident in the way the Bruins blocked out. UCLA players generally didn’t block out this season. When a ball went up, they more often stood flat-footed in the paint. Many times an opponent would run right be a UCLA player standing and watching to get a rebound. UCLA was a decent rebounding team (34th in the nation) but it could have been considerably better if the team blocked out more often and effectively.
Probably the No. 1 takeaway from this season isn’t anything new or particularly revolutionary. In fact, it’s old and boring, but absolutely true: You can’t win without a good defense. Even with a near-generational offense.
It’s been Steve Alford’s biggest bugaboo since he’s been at UCLA and it will remain so. It was a theory we had for the last three years: that if he doesn’t get his Bruins to play better defense he’ll never win at a high level. But this year’s offense absolutely took it from theory to fact, because if you can’t win at a high level without this offense you won’t do it with any other.
Coming in Part 2:
-- An evaluation of Steve Alford’s performance for the season, and the program’s recruiting
-- What happened with Alford and Indiana
-- Whether reasonable expectations for this team were met this season
-- How does next season shape up