UCLA Has Improved Defensively: Fact or Fiction?

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Bumped. GO BRUINS. - BN Eds.

There's a narrative making the rounds right now, and it goes something like this: Steve Alford's Bruins have improved defensively, and even though UCLA isn't a top defensive team yet, they are significantly better than they were earlier in the season. My problem with this claim, aside from its vagueness with respect to a time frame for the alleged defensive improvement, is that I continue to see the same defensive lapses individually and collectively that were a feature of our non-conference games. Does Bryce Alford still fail to close out on perimeter shooters? Yes. Does Zach LaVine still show poor defensive footwork? Yes. Do we continue to give up points in the paint on drives through our porous defense? Yes. So how has our defense improved? Are we making those mistakes less often, or have we found a way to compensate for them?

If my perception is wrong and our defense has improved, it should be straightforward to find statistical evidence since there is a single statistic that best measures defensive effectiveness: points allowed. For the season so far, UCLA is giving up an average of 70.0 points per game. If our defense has improved, then our points allowed per game average should be dropping. But it's not. Here's a quick breakdown of our points allowed per game average:

Non-conference games: 69.9 points per game allowed

Conference games: 70.0 points per game allowed

No improvement whatsoever. Or, for those who would try to argue that our alleged defensive improvement occurred after we started playing Pac-12 games, there's this:

First half of the conference schedule: 70.1 points per game allowed

Second half of the conference schedule: 69.8 points per game allowed

The difference in average between the first and second half of Pac-12 play is insignificant as it is equivalent to a single missed free throw over the course of the four games we've played so far in the second half of our Pac-12 schedule. Incidentally, our defensive average at the midpoint (game 7) of the conference games we've played was 70.3 points per game, so there isn't a significant defensive trend in evidence by looking at points allowed in Pac-12 games. .

Some people might object to this admittedly simple analysis on the basis that it doesn't account for the superior offensive firepower of Pac-12 opponents. In other words, if Pac-12 teams are higher scoring teams than our non-conference opponents, then looking only at average points allowed conceals our defensive improvement. With that argument in mind, I calculated the scoring average for Pac-12 teams (minus UCLA):

Pac-12 opponent scoring average: 70.16 points per game

Since the Bruins are allowing 70.0 points per game in conference play, there's no statistical evidence to support the claim that we're locking down our Pac-12 opponents. Furthermore, looking at each of our games individually and comparing the points allowed in each game to the scoring average of our opponent produces this breakdown:

Number of games where our opponent scored less than their Pac-12 scoring average: 6

Number of games where our opponent scored more than their Pac-12 scoring average: 6

Number of games where our opponent matched their Pac-12 scoring average: 1

(Note: for these comparisons, I used Pac-12 scoring averages rounded to the nearest integer value.)

Again, statistical evidence to support the idea of a significantly improving defense is lacking. Am I missing something? I realize that UCLA fans like the idea that our defense is getting better, and they may be more willing to buy into that narrative because they want it to be true, but I can't find any factual basis for it. Until someone uncovers some statistical evidence to show that Steve Alford's team is improving defensively, I'm going to regard the claim as fiction.

<em>This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of BruinsNation's (BN) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of BN's editors.</em>

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