UCLA Basketball Preview: Part One

With the official kick-off of the basketball season on Saturday, here's the first part in a series this week that previews the 2001/2002 edition of the UCLA basketball team. Part One: A Look Back at Last Year...

Last Year in Review

Somebody once said: "Those who forget the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them" (unfortunately, I can't remember who said it). As UCLA began practice for the 2001-2002 season this past Saturday, October 13, here's a preview of the season, beginning with a glance back at last season:

The Bruins finished 23-9 overall, 14-4 in the Pac-10 (3rd place), and lost in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament to eventual national champion Duke by a 76-63 score. At season's end, the Bruins were ranked as the #12 team in the country by ESPN and #15 by AP. The Bruins were ranked #7 based on RPI, with a strength of schedule ("SOS") rated as the 2nd toughest in the country. In other words, the Bruins either had a really good year or failed to accomplish much of anything at all, depending on your point of view.

The Bruins registered wins over Stanford, Arizona, Kentucky, USC (twice) and Cal. This was good. Losses to Stanford, Kansas and North Carolina weren't bad. Wins over Purdue and UC-Irvine were good, even if few people recognized it at the time. A loss to Cal State Northridge at home and to Georgia Tech at the Pond may not have seemed so bad with hindsight after the season ended, but that obscured the facts: The Bruins were awful in those games, and they were downright execrable in a regular-season ending loss to 20-game loser Washington that cost the Bruins a second-place tie in the Pac-10 with Arizona and a possible 2nd seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The team started out 4-4 and looked bad enough on defense that reasonable people wondered if UCLA would finish over .500 for the season. UCLA unleashed a fullcourt press and a bewildering series of halfcourt traps at halftime of the North Carolina loss and thereafter won 6 straight games. At 10-4, the Bruins proceeded to lose 2 road games over a 2-week period by 25 and 29 points, respectively, to Arizona and Cal. A 12-6 UCLA squad then played #1 Stanford at Stanford, and the Bruins' victory against the Cardinal started an 8-game win streak that included wins over Arizona and Cal, as well as USC. Another #1 ranked Stanford team ended that streak at Pauley Pavilion.

Every Statistic Tells a Story

Sometimes, stats tell a story. Sometimes, they don't. In conference, the Bruins finished two games behind Pac-10 champion and Elite 8 participant Stanford and one game behind Pac-10 runner-up and national runner-up Arizona (and three games ahead of Elite 8 participant USC), but you wouldn't know that by looking at the season stats. Stanford and Arizona finished in the top 2 or 3 in almost every key team statistical category (even to the extent of opponents' FT%, a matter that begs further study). The Bruins finished in the top 3 in the Pac-10 in only 4 categories (out of 13 possible): Scoring (3rd), Blocks (3rd), Steals (2nd) and Opponent's Turnovers (1st). The Bruins were solid in FG% (4th) and 3 Point FG% (4th), but poor in FT% (9th), Assists (7th), Turnovers (8th), Opponents' Scoring (8th), Opponents' FG% (6th), Opponents' Rebounding (8th) and Opponents' total 3s (8th).

One might argue that the overall team stats reflect an obvious fact, namely, that UCLA utilized an unusual amount of high pressure (and thus high risk) defense: When it worked, the Bruins got steals, caused turnovers and converted (and the more the defense generates offense, the less likely you'll see a high team assist total; UCLA's version of the 1-4 offense, with its emphasis on "read" and dribble-penetration plays, also tends to lower total team assist totals compared to other offenses). When the pressure defense didn't work, the Bruins gave up a lot of high percentage shots and offensive rebounds. The Bruins' own mistakes and poor foul shooting might have kept games closer than they otherwise might have been (of the Bruins' 23 wins, only 9 were by double-digits and only 3 of those wins came against teams which finished over .500 last season), but it's unclear if they cost UCLA any games, though one can argue that the Cal State Northridge, Georgia Tech and Washington games might have been victories with better execution. One can argue that. Or, one can argue that the Bruins just sucked in those 3 games (UCLA has lost 3 straight games to Washington in Seattle, by the way).

Against the 9 double-digit wins, none against a top 40 team, UCLA suffered 4 double-digit losses during the season (by 29 at Cal, by 25 at Arizona, by 13 against Duke in the Sweet 16, by 10 at home to North Carolina). Thus, 19 of UCLA's 32 games were decided by 9 or fewer points. By comparison, only 10 of Arizona's 36 games were decided by 9 or fewer points, and only 8 of Stanford's 34 games were decided by 9 or fewer points. Arizona's SOS was rated #1 nationally, and Stanford's was rated #29. One ponders the meaning of all this...

Appraisal of Performance

So much for the facts. At least, until later. Now for a brief subjective appraisal:

On offense, the team's second go-round with Earl Watson at PG and the 1-4 offense seemed to work somewhat better than the year before. Of more importance, perhaps, was the emergence of Billy Knight and Matt Barnes. Billy's outside shooting and Matt's slashing game, inside scoring punch and passing skills really diversified the Bruin's offensive attack. Jason, Earl and Dan were all more effective because of those two players, and the Bruins could often field 5 legitimate scoring threats on the floor at the same time. TJ Cummings and Ray Young weren't consistent enough last year to give the Bruins 7 legit scoring threats, but when one or the other of them scored well and the team was healthy, the Bruins were able to compete with any team in the conference, regardless of some inherent weaknesses (on offense, the inherent weaknesses were three-fold: Poor FT shooting, too many turnovers, not enough one-on-one skills across the board to fully exploit the offense).

On defense, the Bruins faced an inherent lack of great quickness on the perimeter and the dire need to keep Dan Gadzuric out of foul trouble inside, especially in a year when the Bruins faced numerous teams with powerful, NBA-level inside games. The UCLA coaches responded by installing a variety of presses and traps, taking advantage of the Bruins' relative size compared to most college teams (as an example, Billy Knight, at 6-5, is not the quickest player around, but he led the Bruins in steals in their last 6 games, averaging 2.3 steals per game; basically, 6-5 is 6-5 when you're double-teaming a 6-2 guard, regardless of quickness; Jason Kapono, at 6-7, had a similar height advantage against most college wings). Matt Barnes went from being the "softest" post player in the league to being the quickest post player in the league, and was perhaps the Bruins' key player on defense, a huge turnaround from his first two seasons. Dan Gadzuric emerged as a legit shotblocking presence and rarely seemed to get in foul trouble. Often, the Bruins were able to disrupt opposing offenses for prolonged periods of time. Lute Olson called UCLA's defensive effort against his team at Pauley the finest defensive effort he'd seen that year, and from a statistical standpoint Duke had its worst offensive game of the year against the Bruins. As mentioned above, the Bruins' reliance on high pressure defense sometimes turned against the team, yielding too many easy shots for opponents. The Bruins visibly tired late in some games, not surprising since they really only went 7 deep in high quality players, and when they pulled back from a high octane defense their inherent weaknesses, especially a lack of quickness on the perimeter, but also a lack of bulk inside besides Gadzuric, were often exploited by their opponents.

Final Facts

Before we leave last year, we leave you with certain final facts (what they mean is anyone's guess):

Before the first Stanford game, UCLA was 12-6 and, with recent blowout road losses to Arizona and Cal, seemed poised on the brink of possibly not making the NCAA Tournament. At that point, Steve Lavin decided to make Billy Knight a starter. The Bruins went 11-3 for the rest of the season. The wins included victories over Stanford, Arizona, USC and Cal. 2 of the 3 losses were to Stanford and Duke. In those 14 games, Billy averaged 13.1 ppg, hit 49.2% of his 3s and 75.6% of his FTs, and played 25.6 mpg. In the previous 18 games, Billy had averaged 3.8 ppg, hit 26.5% of his 3s and 69.2% of his FTs, and played 11.4 mpg. There appears to be a direct correlation between the Bruins' improved play and Billy's improved play. Chicken or egg, egg or chicken, chicken or egg, etc. I say forget about the chicken, just hand Billy the egg and let him shoot it...

After leading the Bruins in rebounding only 7 times in the first 24 games, Dan Gadzuric led the Bruins in rebounding in 6 of the team's last 8 games. In those last 8 games, he averaged 12.6 ppg, 10.5 rpg and 3.1 bpg (including 13.3 ppg and 12.0 rpg in 3 NCAA Tournament games). That's the good news. The bad news is, UCLA was only 5-3 in those last 8 games. Prior to those final 8 games, Dan had led UCLA in rebounding as many times as Jason Kapono had (as noted, 7 times apiece). Those last 8 games don't include Dan's Herculean 22 point, 17 rebound effort against Arizona. For the year, Dan averaged 11.7 ppg, 8.6 rpb, 1.8 bpg and made 53.4% of his FGs. However, Dan only managed an abysmal 45.3% from the FT line.

UCLA went 3-3 in its last 6 games. Earl Watson registered 22 assists and 24 turnovers in those 6 games, a negative assist to turnover ratio. In the previous 26 games, Earl had an assist to turnover ratio of 1.72/1, 5th best among starting Pac-10 PGs. Of course, 2 of those 3 losses came to Duke and Stanford, two of the top 5 teams in the entire country.

Matt Barnes averaged 14.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg and 3.1 apg in the last 10 regular season games. He led UCLA in assists in 3 of the last 7 games. Overall, he averaged 11.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.7 apg and 1.6 spg, but made only 57.4% of his FTs and just 12.0% of his 3s.

Jason Kapono led UCLA in scoring in 16 of its 32 games, and finished 2nd in scoring in 5 games. He scored less than 14 points in just 9 games and failed to score in double figures just 7 times. UCLA was 17-4 in the 21 games in which Jason either led the team in scoring or was second, and 6-5 when he did not finish among the team's top 2 scorers. Not surprisingly, both Lute Olson and Mike Montgomery were quoted in the media as stating that their defensive game plan for stopping the Bruins was stopping Jason Kapono. They were 2-2 in that regard. For the season, Jason averaged 17.2 ppg and 5.7 rpg, and shot 45.7% from 3 and 86.9% from the FT line.

Added note on Matt and Jason: Though UCLA only finished 7th in the Pac-10 in team assists, Matt and Jason averaged more assists per game than any pair of forwards in the conference other than Cal's Ryan Forehan-Kelly and Sean Lampley.

Off the bench, key reserves were Ray Young (22.7 mpg, 7.0 ppg, 82.2% from the FT line, only 21.2% from 3) and TJ Cummings (18.8 mpg, 6.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg).

Yet to Come:

Part Two: Personnel (UCLA & the Pac-10)
Part Three: UCLA's Offense And Defense
Part Four: Individual Player Profiles
Part Five: Season Projection

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