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UCLA Men's Basketball: Six Observations from the Bruins' Non-Conference Games

What did we learn about Steve Alford's Bruins from their 13 nonconference games?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

1. "Attendance" at Pauley Pavilion is up!

Let's start with good news. "Attendance"--as defined by UCLA Athletics--for the Bruins' nonconference home games is up substantially over last season. In 2014, UCLA's average "attendance" for its eight nonconference home games was 6,566. This season, average "attendance" for the Bruins' eight nonconference home games was 7,016, an increase of almost 7%.

A big chunk of that increase is a result of playing Kentucky at home. UCLA Athletics reported an "attendance" of 12,202 for the game against the Wildcats, which is significantly higher than the 10,006 reported "attendance" for last season's marquee matchup with Gonzaga.

Although it's encouraging to learn that "attendance" is up for UCLA men's basketball, it would be nice to know what the actual attendance is for our home games. And by attendance, I mean the number of people who show up for the game. UCLA Athletics is by no means unique in redefining attendance to mean something other than the number of people in attendance. However, in the interest of transparency and in order to understand the scope of the problem in filling Pauley to anything close to capacity on a regular basis, it would be helpful if UCLA Athletics would distinguish between ticket sales and attendance.

One of my concerns is that the relative difference between ticket sales and actual attendance is larger for UCLA than for other college basketball programs. In any case, for the problem of attendance at Pauley to be addressed effectively, UCLA Athletics can't continue to do more of the same and conceal the scope of the problem by redefining attendance.

2. "If you want to play slow, go to UCLA."

I wrote about pace of play at the end of last season, and in particular, the boast of Dan Guerrero that Steve Alford would bring uptempo basketball to Westwood and Andy Enfield's counter that "if you want to play slow, go to UCLA." After Alford's first two seasons in charge of UCLA's basketball program, the facts weren't on Dan Guerrero's side. From Ben Howland's final season through the end of 2014-15, UCLA's pace factor rank dropped each season, from 34th to 50th to 75th. Meanwhile, over at Southern Cal, Enfield's teams lost game after game, but the Trojans' pace factor rank steadily increased from 116th to 33rd to 25th. It seemed Enfield was right: if you want to play fast and lose, go to USC.

Of course, my analysis was based on just three years of data. Was the steady slowing down of UCLA's play under Alford simply a two-year aberration? Would Andy Enfield's teams continue to play fast even though they'd been a miserable failure on the court?

This seems like a good time to check in with each program to see if the trends I found back in May are continuing. In this analysis, I'm using KenPom's Adjusted Tempo (AdjT) metric, but I use rankings rather than AdjT itself so that comparisons between years make sense. (Specifically, AdjT varies with rule changes, so direct comparisons of AdjT between years are useless.) Also, please note that I've included data for the season before Alford and Enfield began coaching in southern California for the sake of comparison.

Season USC AdjT Rank UCLA AdjT Rank
2012-13 101 30
2013-14 26 38
2014-15 25 111
2015-* 41 163

As you would expect, Steve Alford's big-big lineup hasn't helped UCLA's AdjT ranking. As the Bruins head into conference play in 2015-16, their AdjT rank is 163rd, down substantially from last season's 111th-ranking, and down even more substantially from the 30th-ranking of Ben Howland's final UCLA team in 2012-13.

Meanwhile, Enfield's Trojans are playing slightly slower this season, relatively speaking. Perhaps Enfield  has finally realized that winning is more important than pace. I don't see USC getting to 20 wins this season, but they have a good shot at finishing the season with a winning record. After back-to-back 20+ loss seasons, Enfield's Trojans finally seem to be taking a step forward. Apparently fast-paced losing basketball wasn't the selling point that Enfield imagined.

For the record, I'm not criticizing Steve Alford for not playing the uptempo basketball that Dan Guerrero promised. As I wrote back in May,

I don't care if the team plays fast or slow. I want to see good, fundamentally sound basketball. I want to see effort at both ends of the floor. I want to see evidence of individual and collective improvement over the course of a season. I want to see players playing to the best of their ability. Therefore, to be absolutely clear about this, I'm not condemning Steve Alford for his teams' slower pace.

Dan Guerrero is responsible for trying to sell UCLA fans the promise of uptempo basketball. Was it his hope to put fans in seats by promising uptempo basketball even though Steve Alford had no history of uptempo basketball, or is he utterly clueless about the style of basketball that the coach he hired plays?

3. How big has Steve Alford's big-big lineup been?

I've previously referred to Steve Alford's big-big lineup as a novelty. Because neither Tony Parker nor Thomas Welsh can play effective defense away from the basket and since both have been a liability in transition defense so far, I'm not convinced that it's a smart default lineup against all opponents. In my opinion, it would be better to take into account the size and skills of each opponent before choosing a lineup and a strategy.

On the other hand, Alford seems to believe that his big-big lineup puts his best five players on the floor. He's undoubtedly right about that. It probably isn't his best team, but it is surely his best five players.

As you might expect with any lineup advertised as "big-big," the Bruins have been a pretty good rebounding team so far this season. The Bruins currently rank 19th nationally in total rebounds per game, and 21st in offensive rebounds per game. Of course the Bruins were a pretty good rebounding team last season too, before Alford starting using a two-centre lineup. In 2014-15, UCLA ranked 24th in total rebounds per game, so in a certain sense, inserting Thomas Welsh into the lineup with Tony Parker has helped to offset the loss of Kevon Looney. Nevertheless, in terms of rebounds per 40 minutes, the difference between Welsh's rebounding rate (11 boards/40 minutes) and Jonah Bolden's rebounding  rate (10.5 rebounds/40 minutes) is relatively small.

An argument in favor of the big-big lineup is the highly efficient scoring of Parker and Welsh compared to Bolden. Surely Alford's big-big lineup has enabled UCLA to relentlessly pound the ball inside for high percentage shots, right?

In a word, no. As many in the BN community have noted, the UCLA  guards haven't consistently run the offense through the bigs. In spite of their size advantage and the relatively high shooting percentage of Parker and Welsh, the Bruins haven't done a good job of getting shots for their bigs. The stats bear this out. UCLA's bigs (Parker, Welsh, Bolden, Olesinski, and Okwarabizie) have played 41.6% of UCLA's total minutes, yet they've had just 39% of the Bruins' field goal attempts. That would be about right if UCLA's guards shot the same percentage as its bigs, but they don't. In fact, it's not even close. The field goal percentage for UCLA's bigs is 53.5%; the field goal percentage for UCLA's guards is 42.5%. Even accounting for three-pointers by comparing effective field goal percentages shows that UCLA is under-utilizing its big men.

Even though I'm skeptical of the wisdom of starting every game with a big-big lineup, when it's used, it should be used in a way that maximizes its strengths. In my opinion, that means run the offense through the bigs. Until the Bruins' guards do that consistently, the big-big lineup won't fully deliver on its potential.

4. The Bruins are deep on paper but not in practice.

After touting the depth and versatility of this year's team, especially compared to last year's squad, Steve Alford is using his players in much the same way he did last season. Bryce Alford's minutes are up. Isaac Hamilton's minutes are up. Tony Parker's minutes are up. Freshman Aaron Holiday is averaging 32.8 minutes/game. If this year's team has such great depth, why are this year's starters logging so many minutes?

Injuries may be a factor, with Gyorgy Goloman yet to play, but Jonah Bolden missed just one game and Prince Ali just two. However, roster depth is supposed to compensate for short term loss of players. Noah Allen and Alex Olesinski and Ikenna Okwarabizie have been available to fill in when other players have been out with injuries. They are part of the roster depth that Steve Alford touted. Which leads back to the question I asked before: if this year's team has such great depth, why are this year's starters logging so many minutes?

Let me quantify this. In 2014-15, UCLA's bench averaged a total of 40.8 minutes per game. This season, the bench is averaging 42.2 minutes per game, which is only 84 seconds more per game than last year. In other words, the Bruins' improved depth this season is worth a total of 84 seconds per game.

I'm inclined to believe that roster depth has utility beyond rainy day value. Keeping players fresh is an important part of getting the best performances from them. With that in mind, does it make sense for Steve Alford to have Bryce play 38 minutes against Cal Poly, 38 minutes against Louisiana-Lafayette, and 36 minutes against McNeese State? Is the quality of our bench so poor that we can't afford to rest Bryce against teams currently ranked 129th, 161st, 301st by KenPom? Even against 289th-ranked Cal State Northridge, in a game that the Bruins won by 32, Bryce played 31 minutes. Is that the best use of Steve Alford's resources this season?

In my opinion, the only way to develop a deep, strong bench and to build confidence in that bench is to give bench players playing time. Steve Alford said essentially the same thing back in 2014 when Noah Allen saw extended playing time against Oregon because of one game suspensions for Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson. After the game, Alford had this to say about Allen (emphasis added):

"He did a lot of good things. It gives us confidence that we can go deeper into the bench."

For the record, after Allen's confidence-building performance against the Ducks, he played a total of 12 minutes in UCLA's remaining 9 games.

Steve Alford talks a great game when it comes to roster depth, but when it comes to developing a bench and using it, his actions don't match his words.

5. How tough was UCLA's nonconference schedule in 2015?

The difficulty of UCLA's nonconference schedule is an interesting topic that was raised by Northcampusbruin88 recently. Steve Alford has mentioned repeatedly how tough the schedule has been, but is that opinion based on perception or reality?

There is more than one method for quantifying strength of schedule. However, the standard, widely used method of calculating strength of schedule (SOS) is a good place to start. By that metric, UCLA played the 47th hardest nonconference schedule, ranking the Bruins behind conference foes Stanford (15th), Arizona State (31st), Oregon (42nd), and Utah (44th).

It's also worth noting that all four of the UCLA's nonconference ranked opponents played more difficult nonconference schedules than the Bruins.

The recognition that the Bruins played a reasonably strong but not brutal nonconference schedule shouldn't take anything away from what they achieved in knocking off Kentucky and Gonzaga, but it should put into perspective where this season's team is at as it begins its 2015-16 Pac-12 campaign.

6. How good is the Pac-12 this season, and where do the Bruins rank relative to their conference foes?

Let's face it: the Pac-12 isn't blessed with a few elite teams this season. At best, it has one: Arizona. The Wildcats currently hold the 8th spot in the AP Poll, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them slip out of the top-10.

On the other hand, there's not all that much separating the top six or seven teams in the conference. Seven Pac-12 teams are receiving votes in the USA Today Coaches Poll, and two formulaic ranking systems (SRS and KenPom) rank at least half a dozen Pac-12 teams in the top-50.

AP Poll Rank Team AP Poll Points Coaches Poll Points SRS KenPom Rank
8 Arizona 1081 544 23 16
21 Utah 224 94 35 41
25 UCLA 51 20 59 44
RV Oregon 45 17 39 29
RV Colorado 15 5 38 45
NR California 0 3 33 40
NR USC 0 1 28 34
NR Arizona State 0 0 50 53
NR Stanford 0 0 52 89
NR Washington 0 0 56 114
NR Oregon State 0 0 67 48
NR Washington State 0 0 97 118

As the table shows, the Bruins rank higher in both of the subjective rankings than they do in either of the objective ranking systems. In terms of its position relative to Pac-12 opponents, UCLA is the third highest ranked Pac-12 team in both polls, the 10th-ranked team according to SRS, and the 6th-ranked team according to KenPom.

CBS Sports' Jerry Palm predicts six tournament bids for the Pac-12. Is it too early to be predicting such things? Absolutely. But his prediction does give a sense of the strength of the conference, or at least at the top of the conference. Is it too early to be speculate about brackets? Of course, but that didn't stop Palm. By his reckoning, the Bruins will be an 8-seed in the West, with a potential Round of 32 matchup with Kansas.

UCLA's nonconference victories over Kentucky and Gonzaga have generated a fair amount of optimism about this season's team. Although the Bruins' 9-4 record is about what I expected from their 13 nonconference games, the path they took to those 9 wins and 4 defeats is not at all what I expected. After 13 games, I have to concede that the Bruins may have a higher ceiling this season than I expected. On the other hand, too many inconsistent performances against mediocre (at best) competition leaves me skeptical about their ability to make a serious run at the Pac-12 title.

Winning a game or two in a single-elimination tournament at the end of March is not a good measure of success; winning the conference championship is. In seven seasons as UCLA's head coach, Steve Lavin won plenty of NCAA tournament games and guided teams to a handful of Sweet Sixteen appearances and even one Elite Eight game. But Lavin won just one conference title, and that came in his first season.

Good coaches and good programs win conference titles. As Steve Lavin proved, you don't have to be a good coach to win a couple of NCAA Tournament games. The Bruins should start the 2016 Pac-12 season with a couple of wins this weekend. If they don't, the optimism created by their upsets of Kentucky and Gonzaga will fade very quickly.