Early Post Season (Defensive) Thoughts

Last few days I have been feeling a strange vibe from here and elsewhere about our basketball team. I am feeling some consternation about our defense. And this is especially uncomfortable considering defense is the foundation of Coach Howland’s program at UCLA.

So I decided to take a cursory look through our defensive stats by visiting UCLA’s section in Kenpom.com and Pac-10’s official statistics site compared those numbers to those from last two seasons (our Final-4 teams).

Year Adj. Def. Eff. Rank (natl) Effective FG Def % 3-Point FG Def % 2-Point FG Def % Scoring Defense Steals/G
2007-08 4 47.8 34.3 46.4 58.9 7.35
2006-07 2 47.6 35.1 45.7. 59.9 7.47
2005-06 3 45.9 32.9 44.6 58.7 5.74

Looking at those numbers I think we can make a strong argument that our defense compared to last two years hasn’t fallen off. Sure we have dropped a few notches. But to complain about a defense that is ranked number 4 nationally compared to number 3 last year is just silly. Also the drop off in other important categories are fairly negligible.

Also note how our opponents are scoring less (per game) compared to last year’s Final-4 team and we are actually much more aggressive in terms of steals per game compared to the team that went to the Finals two years ago.

Considering the fact that we broke in a true freshman in a starting line up were in our first year without AA, and don’t have senior defensive specialists such as Bozeman and Hollins, I think the defensive stats for this squad is downright remarkable. So in terms of just looking at numbers I think lot of the concern or unsettling feeling about our defense is off base.

But hold it … after watching the games against Bay Area schools I like many others came away with the feeling that our defense hasn’t been as sharp as it was earlier in the season. I have been thinking that it probably has to do with couple of reasons:

1) injuries to our defensive glue (with all due respect to RW) Prince Luc
2) the adjustments Pac-10 teams made against our offense during the second go around.
So I tried to drill down into just our opponents FG% and find out if we could detect any noticeable different before and after Luc’s multiple injuries and also whether the number was also impacted during the second half of the Pac-10 season.

Here are the numbers of the opposing team’s FG% based on Luc’s two injuries this season (concussion against Southern Cal (Pauley) and ankle sprain against Arizona (Pauley).

I broke up the Pac-10 season in following segments and opponents FG made and percentage numbers are in the parenthesis (following numbers gleaned from UCLA box scores on WWL:
  • Pre-concussion: (@ Stanford, @ Cal, UDub, WSU) [97/226, 42%]
  • Concussion: Southern Cal [28-46, 61%]
  • Post-concussion w/o Luc: @ Oregon [28/58, 48%]
  • Post-concussion to pre-ankle sprain w/ Luc: ASU, Arizona [42/97, 43%]
  • Post ankle sprain w/o Luc: @ WSU, @ UDub [49/103 48%]
  • Post ankle sprain w/ Luc: @ Southern Cal, Oregon, @ASU, @ Arizona, Stanford, Cal [143/306, 47%]
  • Post-injury w/ Luc: ASU, Arizona, @ Southern Cal, Oregon, @ASU, @ Arizona, Stanford, Cal [185/403, 46%]
I didn’t count the games against Oregon State because IMO those games don’t tell us much.

I marked the game against Southern Cal at Pauley in bold because in that game Luc missed the entire second half in a game UCLA was up by 1 at the half (compared to the Zona game injury in which the fate of the game had been already decided as a blowout was on).

So what do we see from the data?

It appears UCLA with a healthy LRMAM came out on fire defensively in its first four Pac-10 games this season. Before getting hurt against Southern Cal at Pauley our D was holding the opposing team’s shooting percentage at 42. Without Luc our D struggle at Oregon where we were bailed out by an epic performance from KL. Then again we could also attribute to that with our issues against spread offense.

UCLA seemed to get its defensive mojo back after Luc came back from his first injury as they held the Zona schools at 43% in Pauley (the number would have been even better if not for Zona scoring meaningless garbage points in the closing mins of that blowout game).

Now after the Arizona game Luc sat out for the road trip against Washington school in which they shot 48% (49/103).

After Luc came back following Washington game our opponents shooting rate dipped to 47% (143-306), which was no doubt inflated a little by our horrific defensive performance again Cal.

Do these numbers tell us anything? I am not sure.

I guess we can conclude that prior to Luc spraining his ankle against Zona our defense with him in the lineup were holding their opponents in low 40s during the Pac-10 play.

During the period following his second injury our defensive performance improved a bit (until the game against Cal) when he returned to the line up. So yes based on the numbers I guess we can make an argument that Luc’s presence do impact our D, but its not a conclusive one. But then again I think we can also attribute to the fact that following the Arizona game, Pac-10 defenses had the Bruins better scouted in the second go around. I think it would be reasonable to postulate that played a factor in increase of the FG% of our opponents.

I think the key for us defensively during the upcoming post season is whether we can sustain our lockdown defensive intensity for 40 mins. I think it will be imperative for our team to come out with a sense of urgency in every game in the Big Dance.

I don’t think we can count on our guys to make our comebacks game after game. FWIW the comeback we made against a squad like Davidson in Wooden Classic is going to be a much more difficult proposition in the Big Dance, when there will not be another game to play. The pressure is going to be lot greater. I hope our guys can sense that urgency at least in the first game of the Pac-10 tournament and of course every game of the Madness.

So here is to our guys coming out focused and determined and play like they did against Pac-10 opponents during first half of the conference season. Here is to them showing same ferocity they specifically displayed against the Zona schools (and Washington State) at Pauley.

Hopefully that will translate into good starts in every game in which they won’t have to scrap from behind. All I am hoping for right now is for our boys to stay healthy and play their proto type Ben Ball. Let the chips fall where they may from there on.

I want to conclude this post by saying that as for me I am more than happy with how this season has turned out. Going into this season my hope was for our team to defend its Pac-10 title and position itself with a great seed in the Big Dance out in West. We have already accomplished the first goal and very close to second one. Yes, I know here everyone is anticipating banner number 12. But people should also take a step back and realize how difficult it is for a team to make the Final 4 three years in a row. As much as we like to think it is our birthright it is just unreasonable to expect us to go the Final-4 three years in a row.

To Coach Howland and our players’ credit they have positioned themselves as one of the best teams in America who will have a legit shot on paper to make another run. For that I am grateful. I will be beyond ecstatic if the current students at UCLA get to experience what Menelaus, Ajax, and yours truly experienced as students back in 1994-95.

Fingers crossed, knocking profusely on our wooden table.

GO BRUINS.
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