If you haven’t been paying attention, the 2014-15 UCLA hoops season’s been disappointing.
And that’s putting it mildly. UCLA’s sitting at 11-9 on the season and 3-4 in conference. Seven of the Bruins’ nine losses have come by double-digits and Steve Alford’s squad hasn’t beaten a ranked team this season.
It’s bad. And while you can’t expect much from a team that lost so much personnel to the NBA draft and is replacing those bodies with incredibly raw (albeit highly-talented) 18-year-olds, this is the nature of college basketball.
In any case, whether or not you believe the program’s trajectory is trending in the right direction doesn’t matter—this current rendition of UCLA hoops is terrible. Statistically, the team is quite deficient in areas that have damned them time and time again. Here are two areas and numbers that tell the story of Bruin basketball up to this point:
If you happened to watch the Jan. 24 debacle against Oregon, you probably came away with the impression that UCLA’s three-point defense is … well … awful.
And the numbers would back up your assumption. UCLA is in the bottom six percent of the country in opponents’ three-point attempts, allowing 445 on the year, 22.5 a game. Those same opponents are burying 159 of them, awful enough for bottom-10 nationally. (There are 347 Division I schools in the country.)
That’s not a drop-off from last year either, by the way. That’s about on par with the 2013-14 Bruins, even with drastically different personnel. The justification for last year’s deficiency at defending the three were that the team lacked athleticism (a fair theory—Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, and the Wear twins weren’t known for their athletic abilities). The same reasoning can’t be applied to this year’s squad; even if the team’s raw, the likes of Kevon Looney, Isaac Hamilton, Norman Powell, Noah Allen, and Wanaah Bail (who’s now academically ineligible) are more than talented enough to extend to the perimeter.
But the players were never at fault. Steve Alford’s defensive scheme—which is not hard to explain, since he defaults to playing a simple 2-3 zone, particularly when Bryce Alford’s on the court—leaves open a fair amount of gaps on the perimeter and is prone to complete collapse when the offense shoots gaps with dribble penetration. That makes rotation out to shooters much, much harder and far too tall of a task for even the most talented defenders.
Before the season, UCLA figured to have a frontcourt capable of wreaking havoc, and for the first game or so, that was true. With Looney, Bail (pre-academic ineligibility), Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh, the Bruins figured to have an interior that could physically dominate most Pac-12 teams and keep up with the likes of Arizona.
And while they’ve been impressive in some domains (particularly rebounding), how they’ve been utilized offensively has been disappointing. Although Looney is quite efficient, the offense has been run through guards Norman Powell and Bryce Alford (the latter of which is statistically the most inefficient player on the team, but much has been said about Alford’s role in the program so I won’t hash that out now). Both players lead the team in usage rate (the percentage of plays that a player uses while he’s on the court), with Powell’s usage rate sitting at 24.7 and Alford’s sitting at 23 percent.
One number worth looking at is points in the paint, in which the Bruins have scored 40 percent of all their points this season (and 45 percent in conference). It’s tragic that the NCAA doesn’t consider this an official stat and its collection nationally is pretty variable. Instead, I’ve compiled three data sets: points in the paint percentage for UCLA, Utah, and Arizona. Utah and Arizona are two teams generally considered better on the interior, and they’re also the top two teams in the conference. Sadly, this graph doesn’t paint much of a picture (except that Utah succeeds without dominating the paint).
But I compiled it, so I might as well share it.
Is that all?
Although UCLA is mediocre at a lot of things, interior offense (and thus floor spacing) and three-point defense have been the themes of the Bruins’ demise this year. The interior defense is probably indicative of a larger issue (perhaps the Bruins’ lack of ball movement, which is only statistically addressed by assists and assist percentage), while the issue with the Bruins’ perimeter defense has some pretty clear culprits.
In any case, UCLA has a lot of work to do to get better in both of these domains, and much of that has to do with chemistry and actual schematic adjustments. One just requires time and practice (chemistry) while the other requires significant effort and reflection from the coaching staff (adjustments to scheme). At this point, it’s pretty unlikely things get better for the Bruins this late in the year.