The hype and level of play have been building all year, but some things still stay the same for UCLA men’s basketball.
The focus on defense, the preparation and, most importantly, the approach have not changed, even as the Bruins picked up the wins and a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Even with the elevated level of expectations, the Bruins have continued to reinforce that those expert picks won’t guarantee them a banner April 3.
“The noise isn’t going to determine who wins this tournament,” said coach Steve Alford. “It’s who can play well at both ends of the floor, together and tough for three weeks that’s going to give them the best chance of winning.”
The glue that keeps them together is Lonzo Ball, the freshman point guard, who is likely headed to the NBA draft as a potential No. 1 pick this spring,
Ball, too, has remained the same despite the attention from media outlets and NBA scouts, simply carrying on with what he’s done since playing at Chino Hills High School – win basketball games.
The Pac-12 Freshman of the Year led the Bruins to a 29-4 record this season, a 13.5-game turnaround from their 15-17 record last year.
“He’s a championship-caliber individual,” Alford said. “I think he’s ready for this. He’s ready to orchestrate this team and do the things he’s got to do. This is the way he’s been built.”
Ball’s demeanor – a mix of competitiveness and calm determination – carries over to the rest of his team as they try to balance focusing on the task at hand with understanding that any mistakes could be costly in the tournament.
“It’s basketball, it’s 40 minutes and they’re going to throw the ball up out there and we’ll give it everything we’ve got,” said junior center Thomas Welsh. “It’s about going 1-0 every day, whether it’s a game or a practice. We’re there to get better and give everything we’ve got, so that’s what we’ve got to continue to do.”
UCLA’s Golden State Warriors-esque offense has led to its top-10 ranking, but the defense, one of the weaker parts of its game, has been the key to the team’s turnaround since late January.
According to basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy, however, the Bruins are still ranked No. 77 nationally in defensive efficiency and no championship team has been outside the top 30 since 2002.
Against Arizona Friday, their shots faltered, but it was their defensive performance that was more concerning.
The Wildcats finished the game shooting 50 percent from the floor and 50 percent from 3-point range.
The Bruins won’t have a shot to redeem themselves until Friday night. And if their defense lets them down again, they won’t have another game until the fall.
“We can score and we can score with the best of them, but it all comes down to defense.” said senior guard Isaac Hamilton. “I know against Arizona when our shot wasn’t falling, we had to get stops and that would have taken us over the edge to win that game.”