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Arizona at UCLA: The Arizona Offensive Blueprint was the Difference

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Part 1 of 3 Articles on Arizona's 96-85 Win over UCLA

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at UCLA
Leaf was missing on the defensive boards yesterday
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Whenever UCLA has a big win or a big loss everyone tends to overreact one way or another. The Arizona game is no exception. However, for the first time in my memory, Sean Miller out-coached a UCLA coach. (Note: Miller has out-recruited UCLA in recent years often but this time he plain out-coached Steve Alford.) An ESPN article details how he and other coaches can do it.

But you’ll give yourself your best chance if you deny the Bruins their first shot, blend transition with a little bit of patience on offense, make Bryce Alford spend some energy on defense and crash your offensive glass.

Now it is up to Steve Alford to correct and fix the problems. I’ll add my two cents to some of the items.

1. Rebounding.

Arizona’s 12 offense rebounds may not sound like that great a number but considering they shot 50% and had 24 second chance points, it is significant.

In Pac-12 play, coach Steve Alford’s team ranks No. 9 in a 12-team league in defensive rebound percentage. It’s simply not what UCLA is built to do, which is to score at a high rate. Well, one way you can hope to keep up with that scoring is to send your best player to the offensive glass.

The solution is TJ Leaf. Leaf had his career low in rebounds (3) yesterday. This is not because of an athletic deficiency. Leaf had the second best rebounding game (13) of his career against Kentucky. Leaf needs to crash the boards, especially on defense.

Part of that problem is Lauri Markkanen dragged Leaf away from the basket. However, Leaf was also playing five at times in the four guard lineup and was also down low in the zone. Generally Leaf was not near the boards. Steve Alford needs to make sure Leaf’s number one focus on defense is rebounding.

2. Bryce’s Defense

Everyone is sick of talking about Bryce and his defense. First, let me give Steve Alford some credit on this front. At the end of the first half when Arizona called a timeout to set up a play, he took Bryce out on defense and after our timeout put him back in. Steve Alford realizes there is a problem with Bryce on defense. As ESPN puts it:

The Wildcats had some success in isolating Alford in man-defense situations, particularly in a few instances when the Bruins senior was guarding Kadeem Allen. On more than one such possession, Allen eschewed customary niceties such as passing the ball to teammates and simply drove on Alford. That was doubtless Coach Miller’s intent: Drive the ball at the defense’s weak link.

However, it is obvious that Steve Alford does not realize how big a problem. Bryce simply can’t cover an athletic D-1 player man-on-man. To Bryce’s credit, his defense effort has improved. However, his poor technique and athletic limitations remain a huge obstacle.

So what can Steve Alford do? And, before you say bench him, Bryce did hit 4 three pointers and take out a desperation three or two toward the end, he was very effective on offense in the second half. You need to play Bryce as the ESPN article points out.

There are two possible solutions. Years ago, there was a season where UCLA’s best player was Michael Roll. Unlike Bryce, Roll played proper defensive technique. Like Bryce, though, Roll simply could not keep up with a Pac-12 athlete on defense. Ben Howland, who lived and died by tough man-to-man defense, was forced to play zone to keep Roll on the floor.

When the other team has five athletes, there are going to be times, when UCLA needs to play zone or bench Bryce. It is probably not a coincidence that UCLA started its comeback when they went zone yesterday.

The other solution is more risky. If you want Bryce in man-to-man, he has to have a shot blocker behind him. Bryce needs to be paired more with Ike Anigbogu. Now, this creates other problems and not sure this works, but you have to play Bryce some minutes, then you have to adept on defense.

Keep in mind this problem was not just the Arizona game, but throughout this season where teams have isolated a man against Bryce. Steve Alford has to realize that Bryce is not just the worst defender on the team, but a really bad defender at the elite level.

3. To Run or not Run

I think the most brilliant part, and the hardest thing to do, is to run when it’s there BUT not get sped up the rest of the game. I mean, it is hard to be playing fast some of the time and then slowing it down the rest of the time. As ESPN puts it:

On the other hand, when you aren't getting out on the break, feel free to run some clock. This is precisely the balance that Arizona achieved, and I have to believe it was no accident. The Wildcats took some opportunities in transition, but when they backed the ball out, they often took the possession well down into the shot clock.

This is where I have to give Miller chops. He was the first coach to do this successfully. Again, this is not easy to switch from playing fast to playing slow. For example, Kentucky could never do it. Arizona did it and beat UCLA convincingly.

The best answer in this case may be ball pressure from Aaron Holiday. Last season, Holiday was, at times, a one man press. Unlike say Lonzo Ball, Holiday has seemingly unlimited energy. Thus, have Holiday pick up the opposing point full court and overplay the point guard. This still will not always work, but it is hard to not get sped up when your point guard is pressed full court and constantly. It is also hard to take down the clock.

Of course, this strategy is not without risks. It means you need Holiday playing more minutes. Holiday can get into foul trouble. And, the point guard can beat Holiday for overplaying him. Still, in the rare cases, a team is able to switch between fast and slow, this may be one of the better alternatives.

Miller’s best skill as a game coach is the way his athletic players buy in and play defense so hard and well. His second best skill is working the refs. However, he did not win from either of those yesterday. In the past, UCLA has overachieved (like last year when a terrible UCLA team beat them) against Miller’s teams, in part, because Arizona’s offense could never take advantage of UCLA’s bad defense. Before the game, the thought was if the game is in the 80s, UCLA wins and, if it is in the 70s, Arizona wins.

However, on Saturday, it was Miller’s offensive game plan that won the game. UCLA needs to be ready to deal with this on defense whether that means more of Leaf crashing the boards, more zone or less Bryce, and other alternatives. Steve Alford needs to address the problems without hurting the offense for this team to reach its very high potential. I concede that Arizona is a very good team, but Arizona does not have Lonzo Ball and it is up to Steve Alford to take advantage of that factor.

Go Bruins!