In their last three games, the UCLA Bruins, owner’s of the nation’s sexiest offense, have posted efficiencies of 109, 102, and 99 points per 100 possessions. That accounts for three of the Bruins’ six worst 2016-17 performances. Trend or slump? I believe it’s the latter as the Bruins were a little banged up and had perhaps lost the element of surprise. Consider, UCLA’s lackluster performance in the Pac-12 tournament came against two teams it was playing for the third time each. Disinterest? An excuse Steve Alford in fact danced with. Nevertheless, Bryce Alford is 5 for his last 25 from distance (during the aforementioned three games) while Aaron Holiday was 5-19 in Vegas.
And here’s a little food for thought. In ignoring the adjusted metrics (the default KenPom numbers I generally cite and that you’re most used to), I wanted to see just how “bad” UCLA’s defense has performed. By even the adjusted numbers, their defense has most certainly improved, it’s currently sitting at 99.8 points per 100 ranking 78th nationally. The last team to make a Final Four outside the top-60 in adjusted defensive efficiency was VCU (fun fact #23). But I needed some additional perspective. So looking at the raw data, the Bruins indeed rate worse, 101.3 points per 100 (113th nationally), but what of their peers in that 100 PPP range? Kansas, Duke, and Creighton all rank greater than 80th nationally with raw defensive efficiencies of 100 or higher. This is a distinction that, of course, is directly addressed by the the adjusted metrics (most notably impacted by opponent and location). But in trying to contextualize some parts of the UCLA dilemma, I thought this might be helpful. To some extent, it suggests that the Pac-12 was so abysmal it cost what many of us saw as a poor UCLA defense an adjustment into mediocrity (Kansas 28th, Duke 39th, Creighton 40th). Thus, as you sort your brackets, remember all those shots UCLA made and perhaps ignore some punditry.
Furthermore, the Bruins are just fine as a half-court offense, rating in the 72nd percentile nationally. Let’s not mistake it for elite but it’s not poor. It in fact ranks 100th nationally with Florida State just twelve spots better at 88th (0.854 PPP vs. 0.841 PPP, respectively – and note that Synergy PPP data calculates possessions differently. We can disccuss offline if you please). The issue rises in UCLA’s poor ability in transition. They rank “below average” according to Synergy, the nation’s 269th worst transition defense. Here’s Isaac Hamilton attempting to use his foot:
First Round – #14 Kent State
Let’s talk about Jimmy Hall. He’s a 19 and 10 guy and something of the quintessential small school big man. He wouldn’t universally be considered big but he’s 6’8″, grabs all of the rebounds and bullies for all of the points. According to Synergy Sports (and at this point I’m just showing off on behalf of Synergy) Hall gets 35% of his offense in post up scenarios. By comparison, TJ Leaf take 15% of his offense in the post and Tommy Welsh takes 18%. Nationally, Hall had the 16th most post possessions. This has been a fun exploration of Jimmy Hall. Because after that, the Golden Flashes are the 321st best three-point shooting team in the country and the 303rd worst spot up team (Synergy). If the means to beating UCLA is outscoring them (as opposed to stopping them defensively), I’m not sure Kent State has got it.
The Others – #6 Cincinnati
If you like matchups of contrasting style, this could be your kind of contest. We’re well versed on UCLA pace and offense so let’s not dive deep. Instead, we can focus on Mick Cronin’s BearCats (is that how you spell BearCat?) and the delightful contrast that is their brand. They’re amongst the slowest teams in the country with a staunch focus on defending the interior. Cincinnati has the nation’s 4th best 2FG defense nationally, allowing teams just 41% shooting inside the arc. UCLA, of course, has been considered one of the best shooting teams in NCAA history, completing the regular season with the nation’s top eFG% (59%), and connecting at rates of 41% beyond the arc and 59% inside it. Cincinnati, in keeping with our contrasting narrative, has the nation’s 8th best eFG% defense. The issue here, is that while Cincinnati limits your internal attempts, they allow an above average VOLUME of threes. Teams take about 37% of their shots from distance against against the BearCats. The national average is a shade fewer, 36%. When you consider that the American Athletic Conference was the 7th worst three point shooting conference in the country, it begs the question: were the BearCats defending the three point line or just letting the AAC rim out?
The Others – #11 Kansas State
The Wildcats scored 50 points in their loss to West Virginia in the B12 tournament and followed that up with 95 against Wake Forest in last night’s play-in game. Versatility or opponent? As this is an 11-seed I’ll give credit to the latter, noting that WVU is pure chaos (forcing 28% of opponents possessions into a turnover) and Wake is pure offense (6th most efficient offense). You’ll hear a lot about Bruce Weber as a defensive coach but defense isn’t really what beats UCLA, is it? You’ve got to score for which I remind us of Exhibit: Allen Fieldhouse. As you’ll recall, way above in this column we noted that UCLA’s raw defense hovers right around with Kansas’ and earlier this year, a K-State-KU game ended 90-88 (so much offense!) on this play:
Which is my perfect segue to noting that UCLA does/could have something to fear in Bruce Weber’s team and Kansas is built on a House of Cards.
The Bruins haven’t forgotten how to shoot or score and their defense is fine enough to endure a first weekend. I’d love to see Cincinnati against the Bruins as I’m one of those people who loves contrasting styles. Of course if you’re a BearCat fan reading this, I’ll be quick to cite UCLA’s win in Tucson (University of Arizona) in which the game was played at the second slowest pace of UCLA’s season. The Bruins won, scoring 1.17 PPP. And if you’re curious how the Bruins faired in their lowest possession game of the season (64) here’s a number: 158 points per 100. Whoa.