Fixes in defense power UCLA men’s basketball to victory against USC
UCLA’s defense has been on the upswing after its loss to USC back in January. Since then, the Bruins have limited their opponents to just 41 percent shooting. (Miriam Bribiesca/Photo editor)
Feb. 19, 2017 4:10 p.m.
What a difference three weeks make.
Seeking revenge for a January loss to USC that prompted a players-only meeting about the need for more defensive intensity, UCLA put forth a dominant defensive effort in Saturday night’s 102-70 win over its crosstown rival.
“After our last ‘SC game, we talked about it as a team and really just buckled down,” senior guard Bryce Alford said of the defense. “If you look at every game after that first ‘SC game, we’ve gotten better on defense. The stats won’t lie to you.”
The stats Saturday night were certainly impressive. The Bruins held the Trojans to just 33.8 percent shooting, which is USC’s second-worst performance of the season.
Over the five games since the January loss at USC including Saturday’s game, UCLA’s opponents have shot just 41 percent as the Bruins raised their level of commitment to the defensive end.
Much of the improvement has come from simple fixes, such as an emphasis on players maintaining proper defensive stances and putting their hands up to disrupt passing lanes and produce deflections.
“They’re just very focused,” said coach Steve Alford of the players. “We won a lot of games early by running away and scoring 100 points. Then when you lose a couple, it gets guys’ attention.”
In the first half, when the Bruins defended the goal next to their bench, Steve Alford spent many possessions with his hands up in the air, yelling for his players to do the same.
The Trojans shot a measly 33.3 percent in the opening half and barely improved in the second period.
UCLA closed out possessions, too, winning the rebounding battle 50-33. USC’s offensive rebounding percentage of 27.1 percent was comfortably below the Trojans’ season-long mark of 31.7 percent.
UCLA’s offense also put up the most efficient performance of any USC opponent, per Kenpom.com, but much of that was fueled by the defense, with stops producing easy opportunities on the other end.
“We’re just as good as anyone in the country in transition, if not better,” said freshman forward T.J. Leaf. “When we do get stops, it just accelerates our transition even more.”
The key player in that transition game, freshman point guard Lonzo Ball, has been a catalyst for the recent defensive improvements as well, harassing opponents whether he’s glued to a key wing player or stationed at the top of the team’s 3-2 zone.
“Lonzo’s stepped it up big time on both ends, but especially defensively,” Leaf said. “It’s definitely contagious, just like his unselfishness is contagious. On the defensive end, when he’s getting into people, it builds for everyone else. Everyone wants to get down, get in a stance, talk and get stops.”
The defense has not been perfect. In the first half against Oregon, it looked awful as UCLA surrendered 48 points.
But the Bruins, with their remarkably efficient offense, don’t have to play perfect defense. They just have to improve, Steve Alford said, on the level that they played throughout the early part of the season.
Saturday night’s dismantling of USC was arguably the most complete performance of the year for UCLA, a team that seems to be hitting its stride in the weeks before postseason play.
“I like how our guys are gaining some momentum,” Steve Alford said. “We’re playing much better now than what we were playing even a month ago. We’ve got very few lapses.”
Early in the year, the Bruins seemed like a national-title contender, rising as high as No. 1 in the country. January’s two-game blip against Arizona and USC knocked UCLA out of the top ten and relegated them to a No. 4 seed in the NCAA’s sneak peek at the potential tournament bracket.
But over the past five games, with the Bruins looking good on both ends of the floor, perhaps UCLA should be back in the conversation as one of the nation’s elite teams.
“We know we can score with anybody in the country,” Ball said. “Once we guard, we’re a hard team to beat.”