UCLA men’s basketball has traversed an up-and-down season in coach Steve Alford’s fifth year in Westwood – from suspending three freshmen for shoplifting in China to defeating Kentucky for the third consecutive year. Ahead of a tantalizing three-game stretch against likely NCAA Tournament-bound teams USC, Arizona and Arizona State, Daily Bruin Sports editor David Gottlieb and senior staffers Matt Cummings and Hanson Wang are here to break down a multitude of Bruin topics.
David: First things first: What’s your take on the UCLA stock at this point of the season? Do you think they can make the tournament?
Hanson: Let’s face it: As of today, I don’t think UCLA is an NCAA Tournament-caliber team. The Bruins only have three top-50 RPI wins, and only one – versus Kentucky at the CBS Sports Classic in New Orleans – was on the road. Simply put, this is a team that struggles both against good teams and away from Pauley Pavilion. Games against Creighton (RPI No. 26), Cincinnati (No. 16) and Michigan (No. 36) were all golden opportunities to bolster a barren resume, but UCLA wasn’t able to take advantage of them. Only five more matchups against top-50 RPI teams remain on the schedule, and four of them are on the road, meaning going 4-1 or 3-2 with a win at Arizona next week might be necessary to put the Bruins back on the right side of the bubble. I don’t think it’s going to happen, so I’m going with stock down.
Matt: If the season ended today, the Bruins would not make the NCAA Tournament. But they do have that sweet road win over Kentucky on their resume, and the Wildcats just jumped back into the top-25. With a strong close to the season and a decent showing in the Pac-12 Tournament, UCLA should be able to earn a bid to the Big Dance. Next week’s road trip to Arizona and Arizona State will be important, but I don’t think UCLA has to win both games. If the Bruins pick up a road win against either of those two teams and also win five of their other remaining six games, I think they’ll reach the tourney. It’s not an easy task, but it’s doable and considering the youth of this team, I’ll bet on UCLA to hit its stride in the late stage of the year.
David: A lot has been said and written about the Bruins’ troubles with defense, mental toughness, streaky shooting and lack of ball movement. Of course, when you have offensive firepower like UCLA’s, you can afford to be more lax on the defensive end. But as we’ve seen multiple times this season, when the shots don’t fall, the Bruins have seldom been up to the task of winning a game with their defense. What seems like the biggest culprit?
Hanson: Given its talented, uber-athletic wings, UCLA would obviously love to attack in transition as much as possible, but that starts with getting consistent defensive stops. Alford has stated that he wants his team’s defensive efficiency to stray no higher than 100, yet that number is currently north of 102 according to KenPom.com. The biggest culprit, in my opinion, is the lack of defensive identity. When UCLA needs to get a stop, will it turn to man-to-man or zone defense? The Bruins are long and tall enough to suffocate opponents with a zone, but they also lack the focus and cohesiveness to flow as a unit and limit open backdoor baskets.
Matt: In terms of purely forcing opponents to take tough looks and miss shots, I don’t think this team’s defense is all that bad. In Pac-12 play, UCLA is holding opponents to the third-lowest effective field goal percentage in the conference, per KenPom.com. But that’s not all that it takes to produce a good defense. The Bruins struggle to close out possessions with defensive rebounds and they’re very bad at forcing turnovers, ranking 10th in the Pac-12 in both areas. Take the loss to Oregon State; UCLA would have won if it had any control of the defensive boards. The Beavers put up their worst shooting performance of the season, but still finished with an offensive efficiency of 110.3 thanks to a whopping 19 offensive rebounds. And UCLA’s inability to force turnovers has been even more pervasive. The Bruins rank 327th in the nation in defensive turnover rate, per KenPom.com, and it’s hurt them. When they force 10 or more turnovers, they’re 13-2. When they force fewer than 10, they’re just 2-5.
David: Freshman guard Jaylen Hands just dropped a career-high 10 assists and a Sportscenter Top-10 worthy under-the-legs lob to fellow freshman guard Kris Wilkes against Stanford. In the same game, Wilkes scored 18 points on an efficient six-of-seven shooting line. Are these freshmen rounding into shape for the home stretch? Or do you foresee future struggles for them?
Hanson: Nah, I think the change to a four-guard lineup will make both players more comfortable, and therefore better. Previously, whenever senior forward GG Goloman or senior center Thomas Welsh pulled down a rebound, they had to find junior guard Aaron Holiday and give him the ball before UCLA’s offense could go in motion. Now, any of the four guards can get a rebound and immediately push the ball in transition. And by all accounts, Wilkes and Hands thrive much better in transition – either exploding into the paint against backpedaling defenders or leaking to open perimeter spots to shoot uncontested 3-pointers. I could see some issues adjusting to USC, Arizona and Arizona State’s level of competition, but their talent is there, and it’s undeniable.
Matt: First things first, I think people are too fired up about this between-the-legs alley-oop. I mean, it was fun and cool. And it was brave to pull it out in the middle of a game. But I don’t think the degree of difficulty is that crazy, especially when you can get as high in the air as Hands can. Also, Wilkes didn’t even dunk the ball. Alright, rant over. With regards to whether the freshmen are figuring it out, I think we’re seeing encouraging signs but there’s still a ways to go. Wilkes seems to have overcome a midseason slump and figured out how to consistently put up double-digits at the college level by shooting, slashing and running in transition. But I still feel like he’s got more potential to unlock in terms of being able to carry the offense for a stretch, especially during the rare moments when Holiday is on the bench. And for all his flair, Hands needs to be more efficient offensively. He’s shooting just 36.5 percent from the field in conference play and just 31.1 percent over the past five games. He has immense upsides, but he still has a long way to go to reach it.
David: We’ve almost gotten through this entire piece and not even touched on Holiday. He leads the team with 19 points in just under 37 minutes per game, and those numbers have slightly ticked up in conference play to 20.7 points in nearly 38 minutes per game. Holiday is UCLA’s bell cow, but he’s occasionally guilty of trying too hard on the offensive end, evidenced by his 3.6 turnovers per game. He also has played at least 39 minutes in eight games this season, so should we be worrying about his workload?
Hanson: I’d be more worried about the emotional toll this season is taking on Holiday. It can’t be easy for him to know that he could’ve been drafted to the NBA after last season but instead chose to return to school to have to occasionally carry the entire team on his back. Physically, I don’t think his workload affects him too much. After the loss to Colorado, I asked Holiday if playing heavy minutes and often guarding the opponent’s best player affects his offensive performance. His verbatim reply: “No, it doesn’t.”
Matt: I’m not that worried about how the workload affects Holiday. He’s clearly in incredible physical condition and never really seems gassed, even when he plays nearly the whole game. I’ve also been very impressed with his ability to maintain his efficiency even as he’s asked to so dramatically expand his role from previous years. All that said, it worries me from a team standpoint how much the Bruins rely on Holiday. It’s easier said than done, but if an opponent figures out how to handle him, the Bruins have a hard time adjusting for long stretches. I also think alleviating his offensive workload would help him make the immense defensive impact he’s capable of. His steal rate and defensive rebound percentage are both down in conference play this year as compared to last year.
David: As we mentioned in the intro, it’s Alford’s fifth year at the helm, and this might be his most talented freshman class yet. A glaring hole in his resume is the lack of a regular season Pac-12 title, but he has coached his teams to three Sweet Sixteens. His football counterpart, Jim Mora, only lasted six years before his teams’ performances slacked too much and athletic director Dan Guerrero fired him. Is Alford’s seat starting to warm, especially if UCLA finishes this season similar to the 2015-16 season and isn’t invited to any postseason tournament?
Hanson: Before I give my real answer, I think it’s important to note that Chip Kelly’s apparent limited availability – there were numerous reports that Florida was heavily courting Kelly and nearly had a signed deal – was a major catalyst for Mora’s outing. In Alford’s case, there’s no slam dunk replacement for him plus UCLA would have to pay another exorbitant buyout, so I think his job is safe for the time being. He has another monster recruiting class led by five-star center Moses Brown coming in next fall, and his coaching style is pretty much cemented from his 27 years of experience. But if there was something to change, I think Alford should be more inclined to recruit more defensive-minded players, and not just up-and-down transition athletes.
Matt: (First off, this is definitely not his most talented freshman class – he had two first-rounders last year, plus another guy who fell to the second round mostly because of injury concerns. Also, I think they’ll at least be invited to the National Invitation Tournament).
Yeah, I think it’s tough to envision UCLA making two major coaching changes in the same year and, with Kelly coming in, the athletic department can hope the hype around football overshadows any grumblings from the fan base about the state of the basketball program. Missing the NCAA Tournament this year would be a pretty bad result given the talent on this squad, but I don’t think it would get him canned, given Kelly’s arrival. Guerrero just doesn’t have a whole lot of pressure to make a move – the fan base, even if it isn’t convinced Guerrero was wholly responsible, is thrilled to have an elite football coach entering the fold.
David: Alright, it’s prediction time. Who wins UCLA vs. USC on Saturday, and what’s the biggest storyline of the game?
Hanson: USC has very quietly shot up the Pac-12 standings with six consecutive conference wins. And every time the two rivals match up, it seems like at least two of USC’s players out of Jordan McLaughlin, Bennie Boatwright, Elijah Stewart or Chimezie Metu take UCLA for a spin. I think that trend continues, with the main storyline of Metu dominating a hobbled Welsh and undersized Wilkes inside and another Trojan channeling his inner Nick Young and raining 3s all over Pauley Pavilion. Here’s a fun fact: Four of the Bruins’ conference opponents have made over 45 percent of their 3-pointers, with three teams over 50 percent. And for that reason, I’m out. USC 85, UCLA 80.
Matt: UCLA is at home and pretty much needs a win to help keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive. I’m betting the Bruins come out fired up and win a tight one thanks to huge games from Holiday and Wilkes. I’m not quite as concerned about the 3-pointers. Yes, USC can shoot it at a high percentage from deep, but it’s not a huge part of the Trojans’ offense. They prefer to get the ball inside when they can. Metu is incredibly athletic, but if Welsh can stay out of foul trouble, I think the Bruins will protect the rim enough to win. I’ll take UCLA 78-74.