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Pac-12 Basketball: Can UCLA break the “defense wins championships” adage?

UCLA has shattered preseason expectations despite looming questions about its defense, which remains an issue.

NCAA Basketball: California at UCLA Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The UCLA Bruins continued its impressive 2016-17 campaign Thursday night by holding off California to move to 15-1 on the season.

As the college basketball season enters its nitty gritty portion of the year, we start finding out more and more about the contenders and pretenders for the NCAA Tournament.

UCLA, without question, is a legitimate national championship threat. Steve Alford’s team has the most imposing offensive attack in the country, a roster oozing with experience and a historic freshman class, and great guard play - something that is always imperative to a postseason run.

What’s concerning with this UCLA squad, however, is its defense. Many speculated coming into the season that the Bruins would have a tough time stopping opponents, especially if the backcourt trio of Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford and Aaron Holiday chose to frequently push the tempo. UCLA stumbled to a dismal 15-win season last year, mostly due to a tissue soft defense that allowed 80 or more points in half of its conference games.

Luckily for Alford and company, the defense isn’t nearly as awful as it was last season. If it was, well, the Bruins wouldn’t have already tied its 2016 win total before its fourth Pac-12 matchup.

In order to gather some context on whether UCLA’s defense will be enough for a deep run in March, I gathered a handful of key metrics from the last five season’s Final Four teams to see how well UCLA compared to the nation’s elite. This year’s UCLA team is also included in the sortable table, and the statistics used are briefly explained below.

  • Opp PPG Rank - average points allowed per game rank
  • Tempo Rank - average possessions per game rank
  • Def Eff Rank - defensive efficiency rank (points allowed per 100 possessions)
  • Opp TOV% Rank - opponent turnover percentage rank (possessions that end with a turnover)
  • Opp eFG% Rank - opponent effective field goal percentage rank (shooting metric that properly weighs 3-pointers more than 2-pointers)

Final Four Defensive Stats, 2012-16

Team Year Opp PPG Rank Tempo Rank Def Eff Rank Opp TOV% Rank Opp eFG% Rank
Team Year Opp PPG Rank Tempo Rank Def Eff Rank Opp TOV% Rank Opp eFG% Rank
North Carolina 2016 100 94 21 167 84
Oklahoma 2016 157 93 18 202 55
Syracuse 2016 30 322 17 48 59
Villanova 2016 15 267 5 43 42
Duke 2015 110 112 12 204 70
Kentucky 2015 3 271 1 45 1
Michigan St 2015 94 268 30 312 24
Wisconsin 2015 12 347 38 334 110
Uconn 2014 31 247 10 82 15
Florida 2014 3 328 3 23 27
Kentucky 2014 81 221 32 303 40
Wisconsin 2014 40 297 36 325 76
Louisville 2013 15 133 1 2 32
Michigan 2013 86 218 39 243 148
Syracuse 2013 20 248 7 23 5
Wichita St 2013 46 201 20 173 44
Kansas 2012 44 104 3 164 6
Kentucky 2012 25 147 8 301 1
Louisville 2012 32 116 1 36 4
Ohio St 2012 18 120 4 60 56
Average 48.1 207.7 15.3 154.5 44.9
UCLA 2017 117 11 82 266 74

Here are a few quick notes:

  • The worst defensive efficiency to reach the Final Four the past five seasons was Michigan’s 39th ranked defense in 2013. Each of the last 20 Final Four teams have finished in the top 40 in defensive efficiency. UCLA currently ranks 82nd.
  • Only twice (both last season) has a team reached the Final Four the past five seasons with a top 100 tempo rank. UCLA loves to push the pace, as the Bruins are 11th in the nation in tempo.
  • Five of the previous 20 Final Four squads ranked lower in opponent turnover percentage, but three of those five also finished in the top 40 in opponent effective field goal percentage. The other two? Those were the 2014 and 2015 Wisconsin Badgers teams, which both finished 1st in the country in offensive efficiency.

The following table stacks up this year’s UCLA team against the best, worst and average Final Four defenses in the last half-decade.

UCLA vs. Best/Worst Final Four Defenses, 2012-16

Team Opp PPG Rank Tempo Rank Def Eff Rank Opp TOV% Rank Opp eFG% Rank
Team Opp PPG Rank Tempo Rank Def Eff Rank Opp TOV% Rank Opp eFG% Rank
Average 48.1 207.7 15.3 154.5 44.9
Lowest 157 347 39 334 148
Highest 3 93 1 2 1
UCLA, 2016-17 117 11 82 266 74

UCLA’s defense might not be prepared for a rainy day

“Why are you concerned about UCLA’s defense when it has one of the best offenses college basketball has ever seen?” Because teams can get cold in the tournament.

Last year’s Oklahoma team was a perfect example. The Buddy Hield-led Sooners rode its formidable offense all the way to the national semifinal, where it met the eventual champion, the Villanova Wildcats. After averaging a 116.3 offensive efficiency and 100.3 defensive efficiency the first four games, the Oklahoma offense (and defense) was completely slaughtered by Villanova, yielding a 80.9/150.8 off/def efficiency rate in the 95-51 blowout loss.

This game was an anomaly, sure. It’s not an everyday occurrence that a team goes 35-49 and holds the player of the year under 10 points, but when national contenders go cold on offense, those teams usually can fall back on a stingy defense to force turnovers or bad shots and create easy transition baskets on the other end.

As good as this UCLA offense is, no team is ever immune to a cold-shooting night, especially when the lights get brighter. The defense must show strides from now until the Pac-12 Tournament.

Turnover percentage and effective field goal percentage

Opponent turnover percentage and opponent effective field goal percentage are also vital to a deep tournament run. As mentioned earlier, there have been five Final Four teams that ranked lower in opponent turnover percentage. However, defenses are structured differently.

Not all defenses are centered around forcing turnovers as well as contesting each shot. It is ideal, but not realistic. Some teams are more focused on forcing bad passes and pushing a fast break the other way, and then you have teams that are content with staying in front of their opposition in hopes of contesting each and every shot, which limits the likelihood of creating a turnover.

UCLA’s offense would be perfectly paired with a turnover-igniting defense, but the Bruins are 266th in opponent turnover percentage. UCLA opponents are far more inclined to slow down the pace when on offense (236th in average possession length) while the Bruins move at a rapid speed when they have the ball (9th in average possession length.)

Because UCLA doesn’t pressure opposing offenses, it would hope to fall back on a defense that prevents good looks at the basket. Alford’s team isn’t bad in this area by any means, but it is far from elite.

Defensive Stats for Final Four Contenders, 2017

Team Opp TOV% Opp eFG% Average
Team Opp TOV% Opp eFG% Average
Kentucky 26 35 30.5
West Virginia 1 52 26.5
Villanova 203 86 144.5
Duke 107 22 64.5
Virginia 18 10 14
Baylor 173 8 90.5
Kansas 199 47 123
North Carolina 102 54 78
Gonzaga 221 6 113.5
Wisconsin 122 45 83.5
Louisville 36 3 19.5
UCLA 266 74 170

The trend among contenders that rank ahead of UCLA in KenPom is a mediocre defense in terms of forcing turnovers, but a stout opponent effective field goal percentage. The defending champs, Villanova (203rd in opponent turnover percentage and 86th in opponent effective field goal percentage), is the only exception.

Conclusion

Will UCLA overcome its average defense to make a deep title run? Time will tell. History says that the Bruins have a lot of work to do if it plans to be one of the last teams standing.

UCLA has gone 2-1 in its three biggest games of the season to this point, a thrilling 97-92 victory over Kentucky in Lexington, an incredibly efficient 102-84 win against Michigan at home, and a tough 89-87 defeat at the hands of Dillon Brooks and Oregon in Eugene last week.

UCLA’s defense efficiency in those three games? 121.9. That would rank 347th in the country if Bruins played those three teams every night. It’s a small sample size and is not fair to UCLA because these are games exclusively against top 30 KenPom teams, but there is some substance to the trend. Matchups against Arizona and Oregon down the stretch should provide an interesting glance at UCLA’s defensive strides.

What are your thoughts on UCLA’s defense? Be sure to leave a comment below or contact @boettger_eli and @PacificTakes on Twitter.

(All stats used in this article are courtesy of KenPom and Sports Reference.)