The No. 4 team in the country still thinks it is nowhere near reaching its full potential.
That should scare the rest of NCAA men’s basketball.
After jumping as high as No. 2 in the AP Polls before settling into its current No. 4 spot, UCLA’s 16-1 record should be celebrated for a team that was picked to finish just third in the Pac-12 preseason media poll.
By most measures, these Bruins have already overachieved, running one of the country’s most explosive offenses behind freshman guard Lonzo Ball. Yet even with a 18.7 point differential, no one on the team is content with being one of the biggest surprise stories of the young season.
“It’s kind of fun. You’re at 16-1 yet you can still see an awful lot of growth that we still have ahead of us and things we got to work on to get better and improve, and that’s a positive,” said coach Steve Alford. “If we were 16-1 and can’t do things any better, then I think we’d plateau out. But I think the ceiling for this team is still very, very high and that’s exciting.”
The team’s ball movement zips around as the Bruins have adopted a very pass-happy and fast-paced system.
They can go faster.
“We can get better on offense too,” Ball said. “Our pace has been picking up recently.”
Regardless, the biggest questions for UCLA are all on the defensive end. How well they improve on that aspect of the game will probably determine how far the Bruins can go in March.
Freshman forward TJ Leaf said that a huge focus has been put on the defensive effort, and coaches have started pointing out times where the focus and intensity have waned.
“We still need to get a lot better talking (on defense),” Leaf said. “Every possession, myself included, we have guys just taking possessions off for rebounding. Once we make the stop, once the ball gets up and we get a good contest, some of us just have a habit of standing a little bit too long instead of getting a body of someone and team rebounding.”
Accounting for its fast pace, UCLA has a defensive rating of 97.6, which sits at 113th out of 351 NCAA Division I teams. Not ideal for a team vying for a Final Four run.
But this team is composed of high-character upperclassmen and freshmen willing to learn. Alford has said that his players regularly want to get extra time with him in the film room.
Once the defense starts matching up with the prolific scoring, the already monumental expectations for these Bruins might just rise even higher.