Sunday, December 25, 2016

UCLA's sizzling start sparked by Lonzo Ball earns high marks for the Bruins' report card

Thanks, MalibouAL, for posting this article on BZ.
dec 23, 2016 | matt norlander | cbs sportS | ARTICLE LINK

With its non-conference portion of the schedule complete, let's take a look at maybe the most entertaining team in America.

UCLA (13-0) has become so watchable, and because of this, the Bruins are also at the forefront of the national conversation for Final Four contenders. For the first time in a decade, UCLA fans can point to their team and confidently say that their Bruins have the goods to win a national title.
But why not look a little bit deeper into what they've done so far? Let's grade out the different facets of such a fascinating team. It's such a fun group, you'll enjoy looking at through the nooks and crannies of what makes Steve Alford's squad so good this season.

Offense: A

One of the easiest grades you could hand out. UCLA is averaging 120.3 points per 100 possessions, which amounts to the No. 2 offensive efficiency in America. UCLA, ranked second in the country, only -- appropriately -- trails No. 1 Villanova in points per possession. The Bruins averaged 95.8 points per game, second in the nation. Their 23.6 assists-per-game average is No. 1 in the country.
The offense is fluid, fun, filled with 3-point attempts and a bunch of guys who are shooting it well from deep. Did you know UCLA's five best players are all shooting 39 percent or better from 3? Yeah, and they're averaging 64 treys per guy at this stage. The team's 42.8-percent clip from deep bodes well for league play.
Then you've got Lonzo Ball creating new ways to find guys all the time. He's the leader of the offense, the freshman with the vision and anticipation. He fools the defense often, and often casually. Witness.
Alford's been able to take a philosophy on offense and perfectly blend it to the personnel he has. The Bruins were sub-.500 last year. Alford actually gave money back to the university. Now he's apparently unlocked all he's needed to in order to restore this program to glory.
For more on Alford and the see-saw 2016 he's had, be sure to read Gary Parrish's column. His life is a lot different on Dec. 23 than it was on Jan. 1.

Freshman adaptability: A

So the Bruins are undefeated, have two future lotto picks in Ball and T.J. Leaf, and the team's as good as it's been since the Ben Howland Final Four years. They're a national title contender, and that's something nobody was saying in the preseason about the Bruins.
So much of this is because of the play of Ball and Leaf. Ball got the headlines in the first two weeks, but at this point Leaf is nearly as valuable and is putting up huge numbers. I think UCLA loses at Kentucky if Leaf isn't on the roster. He roasted the Wildcats in the game.
Leaf has won Pac-12 Player of the Week twice already.
Leaf is averaging team-high 17.5 points to go with 9.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 70 percent shooting from 2-point range. He also can step out and hit 3s, which he's doing at a 50-percent clip (15 for 30) this season. It's nuts. He's so versatile. Lottery pick, people.
We've written so much about Ball here already, too. His vision is tremendous. His shot is funky, but it works. Ball is averaging 13.7 points, 8.3 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals. He's big, savvy, aggressive and more athletic than he's been given credit for. Both he and Leaf have stepped in immediately and become top-15 players of talent and value in the sport. Remarkable.

Lonzo Ball and UCLA have good great across the board -- with one exception. USATSI

Defense: B-

Think it should be lower of a grade? I don't. UCLA's not going to be an elite defensive team this year, but it's not terrible on that side of the floor. Again: not terrible. The Bruins rank 65th in America in defensive efficiency. They also aren't prone to fouls, which can be a good thing and/or a bad thing. For now, it's working. And for what it's worth, UCLA might have had its most meaningful defensive game of the season this week, when it held Western Michigan to 68 points while scoring its second-lowest total of the season (82 points!).
I'd like to see some more ball pressure, but honestly, if UCLA's going to be averaging in the neighborhood of 95 points, then the style it's going with right now is working. On a micro-level, yes, the team is going to need significant stretches in big games where it's capable of making stops. But I don't think UCLA being an average team on defense will prevent it from winning a national title.
Strive to be better, but don't screw with the formula. This is UCLA's best start in more than 20 years.

Bench utilization: B

The good: UCLA has the best sixth man in the country. Aaron Holiday would start for ... 347 other teams in America, I think? He started for UCLA last year.
Then he accepted his new role, went to the bench and was OK with Bryce Alford and Ball starting ahead of him. In the process he's become extremely valuable. He's fourth on the team in points average (14.5) and second in assists (4.3). He's shooting 51 percent from 3-point range. It's a luxury most teams don't have. He essentially is a sixth starter.
But beyond that, UCLA isn't too deep. It ranks 345th out of 351 teams for bench minutes. Foul trouble hasn't been a problem for the Bruins, but that's not likely to always be the case. If two guys pick up their fourth fouls with, say, eight minutes to go in a Sweet 16 game, then what happens? Gyorgy Goloman and Ike Anigbogu should hopefully see more minutes (they're both under 15 per game), because there are no options beyond them.

Pace: A

This could be under "coaching" too, really, because Alford's been a master in this so far.
See, playing with pace is something a lot of coaches would like to do. Many try it. Many succeed -- to a point. But to play with a fast pace that's also efficient, fun and has diabolical tactical purpose, well that's basketball porn right there. Think the best of what San Antonio and Golden State do at the NBA level.
With UCLA, we're getting the best we could ask from from amateurs. College basketball is better with a few big-name tames able to put up 90-plus per game and look capable while doing it. The Bruins are averaging 14.1 seconds used every possession. That's being quick but not hurrying. John Wooden would be very proud.

Overall grade: A

UCLA has to be an A. The last time the Bruins were unbeaten in non-league play was 1994-95. Remember what happened that year? Yep: national title for UCLA. That team had -- man, this is going to take me back -- Cameron Dollar, Tyus Edney, Toby Bailey and the O'Bannon brothers.
Another omen of goodness: The last time UCLA started this strongly (13-0), it made the Final Four. That was the team with Russell Westbrook, Aaron Afflalo (loved his game in college) and Darren Collison.
There are just six unbeatens left as we turn to Christmas. UCLA joins Villanova, Creighton, Baylor, Gonzaga and, how about that, cross-city rival USC. The LA teams' resurgence has been a big story there locally, and we'll be hitting on the Trojans in short order here on the site, too. But UCLA's ability to win with style and look like a completely rejuvenated program is all a credit to Alford and his staff.
UCLA's got the No. 1 field goal percentage in the country (55 percent) and the No. 2 assist-to-turnover ratio (1.91). It's averaging 10.8 3-pointers per game -- and I expect that average to creep above 11 by the end of January.
If UCLA fans want to feel really good about this season, know this: Nine of the previous 12 times UCLA started a season 13-0, it won a national title. Conference play begins Dec. 28. UCLA's first Pac-12 game is probably going to be its toughest: at Oregon. If UCLA is going to take the crown in the league this season, a win there would set the tone and make it definitive.

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