Welcome to the Madness.
After a disappointing showing in Las Vegas and defeat to Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals, UCLA was drawn as the South region’s 3 seed to face off against 14 seed Kent State out of the MAC on Friday night in Sacramento. You can see the rest of the NCAA Tournament bracket here.
The South regional looks to be the top-heaviest, with UCLA alongside top seed North Carolina and 2 seed Kentucky, both of whom won their respective conferences in runaways. A rematch with Kentucky looms in the Sweet 16 in Memphis if seeds hold and Dayton or Wichita State don’t pull the Round of 32 upset.
The Tar Heels have a manageable path to the Elite 8 on paper, with scuffling 4 seed Butler and overachieving 5 seed Minnesota looking especially ripe for upsets by Middle Tennessee State and Winthrop respectively.
But first things first, Steve Alford and company have to escape Sacramento unscathed. The last time a Steve Alford team was a 3 seed, things didn’t go quite so well. Assuming UCLA defeats Kent State on Friday, the Bruins will face either 6 seeded Cincinnati, winners of 29 games and American runners-up to SMU, or either Kansas State or Wake Forest, who will kick the First Four off on Tuesday in Dayton as 11 seeds.
All four of Kent State, Cincinnati, Kansas State and Wake Forest present their own unique set of challenges. But in order for UCLA to end this great season with a championship, the Bruins have to do these three things well to get to Memphis next weekend and Phoenix after that.
Get some Windex to clean the glass
At first glance, it may seem odd to pick rebounding as UCLA’s number one factor to tournament success. After all, the Bruins collected the 5th most defensive rebounds this season and rank 26th in total rebounding per game. Lonzo Ball is an elite rebounding guard, and Thomas Welsh and TJ Leaf both average nearly 9 rebounds a game.
Rebounding proved vital in the wins over teams like Kentucky and Arizona this season. But hear me out.
The trials and tribulations and hand-wringing over UCLA’s defense have been well-documented to the point of exhaustion. UCLA does not defend well consistently; the 100% intensity and lock-it-down-ness on that end of the floor come in fits and spurts, and when it disappears, it feels like an AAU team could score on the Bruins.
That is why rebounding is so vital. UCLA’s ability to limit teams to one trip on offense saves the Bruins from defending more than they need to. It mitigates the risk of UCLA trying to press on offense and forcing bad turnovers, or taking bad, panicky shots like they did on Friday against Arizona.
It’s trite to notice how good defense leads to good offense, but given the way UCLA plays at their best on the run, it is especially true.
Kent State, UCLA’s opening opponent, will test UCLA’s rebounding acumen. The Golden Flashes are 8th nationally in rebounds per game and have the second most offensive boards over the season. Only North Carolina, the region’s 1 seed, grabs more offensive rebounds than Kent State.
Kent State grabs an elite 40% of its misses. However, they do miss a lot, shooting just 43% overall and less than 32% from distance.
But the Bruins shouldn’t give an inferior team any more chances than it deserves. UCLA has a clear talent advantage over Kent State, but the Bruins will have to keep the boards clear to avoid the upset Friday night.
Also of note: were UCLA to face Cincinnati on Sunday, the Bearcats go hard on the offensive glass, too. They clean up 35% of their misses, a top 25 clip.
The more regularly UCLA can clear out the boards on defense, the more able UCLA can get out in transition and be at their best. Which is a nice segue into point number 2:
Be quick, but don’t hurry
One of Coach Wooden’s most sage pieces of advice will serve UCLA well this month.
At its best, UCLA’s offense is absolutely devastating. It can eviscerate teams Oregon and Arizona and buries bad teams under a heap of threes. Watching the Bruins soar can be unlike any other experience in college basketball this season.
However, when the Bruins are struggling to defend and can’t get out and run, the results look uggggggggggggggggly. Both Arizona losses and the USC loss were exhibitions in painful basketball.
In the three games, UCLA shot a combined 20-76 from three, a horrid 26% and nearly 15% down from the team’s season average. Bryce Alford reverted back to 2016 mode, gunning up contested threes to try and make something happen. He shot 6-25 from distance in those games.
Lonzo Ball looked out of sorts as he was hounded by athletic wings in Allonzo Trier and Elijah Stewart. He had just 18 assists to 13 turnovers in those three games, that 1.4 assist-to-turnover ratio falling far below his season average of 3.1.
Given all of this, Cincinnati poses a match up nightmare on paper. The Bearcats play at the 25th slowest pace in the country, yet are also 25th in offensive efficiency, scoring 113 points over 100 possessions and having the 15th fewest turnovers nationwide.
There is a Pac-12 team that has a similar statistical profile to the Bearcats: Arizona.
Buckle up. The Bearcats could make it bumpy.
In order to avoid the first weekend upset, UCLA has to stay cool and calm if the game turns into a rock fight.
Happiness starts from the inside
This last point is mostly wishful thinking.
UCLA is a team built from the outside in, and with Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford, Aaron Holiday and Isaac Hamilton, that makes 100% sense.
When UCLA has the perimeter cooking, they are impossible to stop. But when it doesn’t, the Bruins need, need, NEED to get the ball inside more than they do.
Thomas Welsh and TJ Leaf arguably don’t get the ball enough. They combine to shoot 12-19 per game, and both shoot around 60% from the floor. That’s as close to a sure thing as you’ll find, and at only 19 shots a game, they should absolutely get more touches.
You know about Welsh’s midrange game, good as gold from 15 feet. TJ Leaf, given a full week to rest the ankle, can go to work on the block against anybody. He’s taken two future NBA bigs - Lauri Markkanen and Ivan Rabb - to school time and time again.
Cincinnati doesn’t have the height to match up with Leaf or Welsh in its 8 man rotation. No one who gets significant minutes is taller than 6’8.
Kent State’s Jimmy Hall does it all but is only 6’7. He’ll likely face Lonzo Ball when he has the ball and is too short to hang up front on defense.
Kansas State’s Deon Johnson is a big body, but Welsh and Leaf can stretch him on pick and pops and dribble drives respectively.
Wake Forest’s John Collins is an elite scorer and will make for a fun match up with Leaf. But the Demon Deacons had one of the worst scoring defenses in the ACC and allowed teams to shoot nearly 53% from two.
UCLA has lived and died by the three this season, and in 30 or so games, they lived. But the Bruins have two weapons down low they should use more when they fire blanks from outside.