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UCLA Basketball Round Table: NCAA Tournament or Ninth Place in the Pac-12?

Bruins Nation’s basketball writers give their thoughts on this season.

California v Utah
Can UCLA rise to the top of the Pac-12 tournament and still make the Big Dance?
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Bruins Nation basketball post-game writers got together for a quick roundtable to discuss this season for UCLA Bruins basketball. While much of the focus is on the future, this talented but underachieving team has a shot to make some noise in the Pac-12, and maybe, just maybe, win the Pac-12 tournament and go to the NCAA Tournament.

On to the questions.

Dimitri Dorlis: This has been one hell of a season, what with the freefall to end the non-conference slate, the firing of Steve Alford and promotion of Murray Bartow to interim head coach, and the unreal comeback against Oregon.

I don’t want to get into predictions, but I guess I’ll start by asking what your collective expectations for the rest of the year are?

DCBruins: I think, with our talent and this terrible Pac-12, a reasonable minimum expectation is a protected seed in the Pac-12 tournament. In other words, we have to finish in the top 4. Also, we have a scheduling break in that we only play the Arizona schools once at home. This should be easy.

Markybcool: Why does this feel like déjà vu? Didn’t we just have this same conversation during football season about expectations or lack thereof of the football team? Well, I guess it is a little different since UCLA basketball has a more realistic chance to do something than the football did, although the football team was mathematically in the hunt late in the season. Anyway, my expectations are that the Bruins will play hard, we will see improvement in the way this team plays on both sides of the ball, and that the Bruins will figure out a way to run a half-court offense and value the basketball. Not too much to ask, right?

Dimitri Dorlis: I guess I don’t even have that level of expectation for this team. By that, I mean I don’t particularly expect them to do great or poor in Pac-12 play, I just want to see effort. If guys develop, great. If they win games, that’d be nice, but my focus at this point is on who gets hired to take over.

But let’s keep the focus on this season for now, and on new interim coach Murray Bartow.

In your opinion, should Coach Bartow focus on player development or on winning at all costs and getting back into the NCAA Tournament?

DCBruins: I think he is trying to win now and I am not sure that is good for the players, but I am fine with it as we don’t know what the next coach will want. A great example is we have become an exclusively zone defense team. Learning man-to-man defense is helpful, generally, and is a part of player development. Unless the next coach is Jim Boeheim or one of his disciples (like Washington’s Mike Hopkins), next year we will likely play a man defense or a defense with man principles.

Dimitri Dorlis: I don’t think those have to be mutually exclusive and, really, they create sort of an ouroboros between each other. Believe it or not, the current players do possess a good deal of talent. So, a focus on player development would lead to more wins and more wins leads to more player development and on and on the cycle goes. The point is that good coaches don’t make a decision between the two because they recognize that both can co-exist. For example, Kentucky teams under John Calipari are notorious for starting slow but getting progressively better as the season goes on and, at the same time, Calipari is trying to win every game because it can make the Wildcats’ path to the Final Four that much easier.

Markybcool: With this team, and every team for that matter, winning and player development should happen simultaneously. Again, making a comparison to football, why has UCLA had two coaching groups that have been labeled as groups that fail to grow the talent that comes to UCLA? I wrote in a recent comment section on Bruins Nation that the lack of development on this team not only needs to be attributed to Alford, but also Tyus Edney, Duane Broussard, Murry Bartow, Kory Barnett, and Kory Alford. All of these coaches have taken a group of highly touted players and brought them into this year with most of them showing almost zero improvement in their game. That is a systems failure and, when all is said and done, this entire coaching group should be held accountable for the lack of player development that has occurred with this UCLA team in recent years.

DCBruins: This is still a Steve Alford team, but with a Coach Bartow twist.

What are your overall thoughts on Bartow’s twists such as extensive use of zone, deep bench and desire to play faster?

Markybcool: The things that are mentioned above I guess could be called “twists,” but UCLA has played two really bad teams and scored a lot of points, one average team plagued with injuries and struggled, and a good team that ended up crushing the Bruins. I have not seen anything from this team since Bartow has taken over that has me jumping up and down except for their effort. The Bruins seem to play harder, especially on defense, but they have been in zone almost exclusively. Zones conserve energy and a deep team in zone should be very active. This team did not value the ball with Alford at the helm, averaging about 13 turnovers per game and they value it even less with Bartow, averaging 17 turnovers per game. So, the play faster approach, which has always been a goal of this team, continues to result in this team not being able to value possessions. Without a true and talented point guard, is that the best philosophy for this team to have?

Dimitri Dorlis: I don’t think Bartow is doing anything revolutionary in terms of scheme. The zone we’ve been seeing is the same one Alford was employing and the offense is unchanged. The bench has always been there and all we’re really seeing is Bartow being a bit more willing to use it in conference play compared to the notoriously-short benches Alford would employ. Really, the only thing Bartow appears to be doing is actually encouraging the players and building them up rather than tearing them down. That’s no small thing, mind you, and it’s a good example of the difference between the Bob Knight and John Wooden styles of coaching. That positivity is infectious and has led to better play and increased effort.

DCBruins: I want him to go all out for his tweaks on defense. In the UC Berkeley game, the press looked real. In the Oregon State game, it look half-assed. I want to see the press used to make things happen and to play the young players more minutes. It leads to his desire to player faster as well.

Dimitri Dorlis: The Pac-12 is bad. Like, real bad. Like, the highest current KenPom ranking for the conference is Washington at 43 bad.

With that said, nothing is out of the realm of possibilities for this team, so where do you think the Bruins end up by the end of the season in the conference standings and how do they do in the conference tournament?

DCBruins: I think we have a real shot to make the NCAA tournament. Unlike other Alford teams, this team is built to win three games in three days in the Pac-12 tournament. It is deep everywhere but point. The biggest question is: How bad this team will be outside of Pauley? We have only one neutral court or road win. That win was dramatic in overtime. Alford teams without Lonzo Ball have never swept a road trip. We need to sweep the Northern Cal trip this year. I think we get to the Pac-12 finals and lose. I think we do this from a protected seed, in part, because the Pac-12 is so bad.

Dimitri Dorlis: This conference is so awful that UCLA could theoretically win the conference or place 9th, with both options being just as likely. Right now, I’d say they end up in 3rd behind Washington and, I don’t know, let’s go with Arizona State. As for the Pac-12 Tournament, I’d guess that they’d take advantage of a tired opponent in the second round before getting handily beaten in the semis, but anything can happen between now and then.

Markybcool: The Bruins better finish in the top four in Pac-12 Conference play and not play their first tournament game until the quarterfinals and, without a doubt, it will be a disappointment if they are not playing for the championship on Sunday, March 10th. Anything other than those results would be a continued failure of everybody involved with this program and will most likely result in the Bruins not even having the chance for a play-in game this year.

What do you think? Feel free to share your thoughts on where this UCLA should finish and where you think they will.

Go Bruins!