UCLA is on course to miss the NCAA tournament this year. ESPN’s Bracketology, UCLA is now in the “next four out.” In other words, UCLA is outside even the bubble. More interesting, Washington is now ahead of UCLA on the “first four out” bubble.
The reason is obvious. Even though Kenpom is more optimistic with UCLA at #59 in his overall ranking, his defense ranking for UCLA is now the WORST of the Alford era at #134. This is incredible considering the 2015-16 team was terrible on defense and had some very bad athletes and raw players. It is also almost a hundred spots worse than his best team in his first year at #37. That team had some great athletes too, but, quite frankly, I think this team has better potential. More importantly, that team had a bunch of Howland veterans who were taught defense.
I also believe the defense is key to our offense. This team is not very good in the set offense and that was obvious in the loss to Oregon. While Holiday sitting was a big factor too (he only played 10 minutes in the disastrous first half), the defense let Oregon shoot 56% with zero turnovers in the first half. UCLA’s comeback began with a tighter defense that held Oregon to 38% and led to 8 turnovers and 13 points off turnovers in the second half.
So, let’s address the defense. Is there talent here and potential for good defense? Let’s compare to Alford’s best defensive team with this year. (NOTE: this is only on the defensive side of the court. 2014’s team had the players in different positions on the offense side starting with MVP and point guard Kyle Anderson, who never played that position on defense.)
Center 2013-14 Travis Wear v. 2017-18 Thomas Welsh
No comparison, Thomas Welsh is much better than Travis Wear. Stats can make the case here. Welsh has almost as many blocks (23 v. 20) and OVER twice as many rebounds (75 v. 157) in 17 less games. Welsh is a legitimate center on defense who helps out other defenders and does a good job on the defensive boards. Wear was a poor rebounding four playing center.
EDGE: Big 2018
Power Forward David Wear v. GG Goloman
These two are actually on a similar pace on defense rebounds for the season in similar minutes. GG leads his team and has three times as many blocks already this year (22 to 7) and again a similar pace on steals. However, I have to be intellectually honest in that stats do not tell the story here. David was an adequate post defender. GG is not a good defender who often gambles which helps his stats. In addition, GG has been bad rebounding in the Pac-12 with 2 or less rebounds in 5 of his 8 Pac-12 games. That is ugly.
Small Forward: Kyle Anderson v. Kris Wilkes
Kyle Anderson led his UCLA team in defensive rebounds, blocks and was second in steals. As far as stats, Kyle was awesome. However, Kyle was not a good man-to-man defender. While big and long, his nickname was “slow-mo.“ Kyle relied on smarts and effort on the boards.
Kris Wilkes is on a similar pace on blocks as Anderson. But, unlike Anderson, Wilkes combination of size, strength and speed to credibly cover anyone on a switch but a tall center. Wilkes has the athletic ability to an elite defender.
Edge: 2018. This is on potential. Anderson was the MVP of that team. Wilkes may be the best combination of size, strength and speed on this team.
Shooting Guard: Jordan Adams v. Prince Ali
Adams led UCLA in steals and there is no way anyone on this year’s team is going to catch up to him. Adams as the two guard was the second leading rebounder on the team, which is an obscene stat. Adams was the defensive stopper on the team the year before and the number 2 defender on this year’s team. While not the most athletically gifted, he was, like Anderson, a smart defender.
Prince Ali is tied for second on the team in steals and is sixth in rebounding. While a great vertical leaper, Ali has struggled at times on defense.
Edge: Big Edge 2014
Point Guard: Norman Powell v. Aaron Holiday
Powell and Holiday were both their team’s top defenders. Powell was really a shooting guard forced to cover points as no one else in the starting lineup had a chance against a point guard. Holiday is as quick and strong as any point guard. Unlike Powell, Holiday is built to defend a point guard. Holiday likes pressing point guards and is good at it.
Edge: Narrow 2018, because of ability to defend the point.
Bench Tony Parker/Zach LaVine/Bryce Alford vs. Jaylen Hands/ Alex Olesinski/Chris Smith
This one is tougher. Parker is a better five defender than the starter as is Olesinki as a four. However, it is not even close as a five. The edge inside goes to Parker and 2014 because Parker was a space eater and a decent defender. Zach LaVine was an even better athlete than Hands, although not by much. I consider this a wash on defense as two raw freshmen athletes with a lot of potential on the defensive end. Bryce Alford vs. Chris Smith is not a wash. Alford is on the all-time worst defender in UCLA history team with the combination of being athletically limited and no interest in trying; Smith on defense is better than the starting four and has the size/speed/strength to cover multiple positions.
Edge: 2018, only because Bryce was so awful
Breaking this down, this year’s UCLA team has the potential to the best in Alford’s time at UCLA. Right now, it is the worst.
It is more important than ever that UCLA plays good defense because this team needs to play good defense to make up for its problems on set offense.
Personally, I think UCLA should bench GG and make him the backup center. I would start Chris Smith with the caveat that I would tell Chris he is not allowed to shoot a three-pointer or from outside. Chris has made six for his last ten, in part, because he has only attempted one three (which he air balled). In his previous ten shots, he was 2-10 with five misses and no makes from three. I would have Alex Olesinski split time with him and play more if the opponent was taking advantage of Smith on offense.
That said, Steve Alford has an easy game Thursday against an awful UC Berkeley that is 1-6 in the conference. He needs to take advantage of this easy game to not overplay Holiday and begin to fix the defense if he wants any chance (no matter how slim) to make the NCAA tournament.