The media and hype machines certainly do not have long memories. Everyone seems to be handing Oregon the Pac-12 title after their dominant win over Arizona at home. Everyone seems to think UCLA basketball is doing better on defense after their dominant win over Markelle Fultz and UW. Reality is everyone seems to have short-term memories.
First, let’s discuss Oregon. Yes, Oregon had a “perfect” game over Arizona last time out where they blew out Arizona in every facet of the game. Yet, the game before that, they barely beat 9th place ASU at home and the game before that they lost to tenth place Colorado on the road.
Oregon is not only a winnable game but a game UCLA should win at home against Oregon. Keep in mind that it took Oregon a couple “lucky breaks” including a last second three and a couple missed free throws for Oregon to beat UCLA at home.
And, UCLA must win this game.
UCLA is 1-2 against the top 50 in RPI. They need this win. UCLA’s “great win” over Kentucky has turned into a very good road win but Kentucky is not a #1 team in the nation. UCLA needs a win both to stay in the hunt for the Pac-12 title and to have a chance to stay out West in NCAA tournament.
Which turns us to the next hype topic, is UCLA’s defense improving?
UCLA’s adjusted defensive efficiency as of Tuesday was 102.6, according to analytics guru Ken Pomeroy. That ranked the Bruins No. 117 out of 351 teams.
That’s a bad spot to be in for a team with national championship aspirations. No team in the last decade has made the Final Four with an adjusted defensive efficiency ranking worse than Virginia Commonwealth’s No. 88 in 2011. The average ranking of the last 40 teams that made the Final Four was No. 16, with only two teams at No. 51 or higher.
At least UCLA is trending in the right direction. The Bruins have climbed 10 spots since their loss to Arizona last month and are coming off what Coach Steve Alford described as their best defensive effort “by far” against Washington on Saturday.
I am mixed on this. UW looked like a team that did not try. Yes, UCLA’s effort is better but it helps when the other team does not care. A key to the better defense may be the zone defense. As Bolch writes:
Alford said UCLA has bolstered its defense by utilizing the length of 6-foot-6 Lonzo Ball at the top of its zone. The Bruins have also been getting more aggressive play from their big men in pick-and-roll coverage, which has lessened the burden on the guards. And shooting guard Bryce Alford said everyone is talking more and being more active with their hands.
As we have discussed often the zone is a key for UCLA’s defense, especially when Bryce is in the game. The zone helps hide Bryce. To be clear, Bryce, to his credit, is giving more effort on defense but he is just not a good enough athlete nor does he play proper technique. Last time, UCLA and Oregon played Payton Pritchard took Bryce apart late in the game. UCLA needs to play zone when Bryce is in most of the time in this game (or play Aaron Holiday more minutes for Bryce, lol.)
The next point though is, if Ball is the top of the zone, Steve Alford MUST give Lonzo a blow. Lonzo has looked good in the top of the zone but that means he is expending a lot of energy on offense and defense. Lonzo has looked tired late in the halves of games. A tired Lonzo fouls and makes mistakes. A rested Lonzo is the best player on the floor. If Steve was smart he would even use a first half timeout to rest Lonzo.
Oregon is 35 in KenPom adjusted offense. With the help of the SPTRs, UCLA can play defense at an adequate level to win at home.
UCLA needs this game. The offense will be there, will the defense be good enough? Steve Alford says it is getting better and it is his job to make what he says true.