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Take Two: Previewing UCLA

You already know about UCLA from past experience, so you’re cool if I just waste your time with bad jokes, right?

NCAA Basketball: Colorado at UCLA


Somehow game photographers always manage to capture coaches at their worst moments
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Want to see happiness displayed in number form? Take a gander at some amusing data:

UCLA margin of victory in Pac-12 wins: 19 points
UCLA margin of defeat in Pac-12 losses: 6.5, including a double overtime loss

Thanks in part to some bad luck in close games, the Bruins are 4-4 with a middling RPI and one value win to their name. Their computer numbers will likely continue to sink under the weight of the crummy Pac-12. Unless they can pull upsets on their Arizona road trip or win the Pac-12 tournament, the NIT is the best they can hope for. This pleases me.

Of course, we’re still talking about UCLA. That means the never ending train of top prospects will continue to roll into Westwood. But this doesn’t bother me as much as it used to thanks to the inherent nature of UCLA basketball fans, who will be perpetually miserable no matter how many brilliant players they get to watch because their current head coach is even less like John Wooden than usual.

But back to the current Bruins. Why is this particular version so mediocre? UCLA has an offense that can score right with Arizona, ASU, and USC. Unfortunately, their defense is bad even in the context of one of the more defense-less seasons in Pac-12 history. They’ve allowed every Pac-12 team other than Washington to score more than a point/possession - yes, even including Cal.

Roster

Starters

PG Aaron Holiday - UCLA’s playmaker and most important player - all around threat as an offensive point guard.
G Prince Ali - versatile off-guard typically good for 10-12 points a night.
G Kris Wilkes - a bit of an iffy shooter (against everybody but Cal) but otherwise an athletic, rangy wing.
F Gyorgy Goloman - Similar to Welsh (see below) but a weaker shooter with a much lower usage rate. Struggles as a rebounder for his size.
F Thomas Welsh - the same player he’s always been - a hyper efficient stretch 4/5 with a foul drawn/committed rate of a low usage guard. UCLA has NEVER had an above average defense with him as a rotation cog and in this case I think correlation might be causation.

Bench

G Jaylen Hands - combo guard who plays point on rare occasions when Holiday sits. Solid shooter/distributor, struggles with his finishing.
F Alex Olesinski - Like Golomon but even lower usage. Alford really loves his stretch 4/5s.
G Chris Smith - dire shooting and a concerning turnover rate has caused his usage in conference play to fall.

UCLA’s offense is a pretty typical example of a modern basketball offense - give the ball to a solid playmaker (Holiday), surround him with reasonably athletic shooters, and you’re going to be just fine. UCLA doesn’t really have any one lights out shooter, but nobody who actually takes shots is anything but average or better. The only area of offense that UCLA struggles with is getting offensive rebounds, probably because their bigs aren’t especially athletic.

It’s defense where things fall apart, but more on that later.

Statistical preview

Let’s talk about the UCLA defense. The Bruins, likely by design, don’t force turnovers at all. Not coincidentally, Cal had their 3rd lowest turnover percentage in a game against UCLA. But the real issue for the Bruins are the other three factors, where they are equally middling. UCLA is surprisingly mediocre at stopping good shots, locking down the glass, or avoiding fouls.

Cal’s offense took advantage of most of these weaknesses in the first game (particularly offensive rebounding), but UCLA scored an absurd 107 points in 75 possessions to render that very much irrelevant.

The problem is that even if Cal’s offense takes advantage, Cal’s defense would have to somewhat slow down the excellent UCLA offense. I’m reminded of how frustrated we all were at Cal’s offensive struggles last year, and now I’m oddly nostalgic for the days when we were at least awesome on one side of the ball.

Keys to the game

1. Pray for UCLA to miss shots

We’ve been operating under a pretty simple reality as Cal fans this season - if the other team hits an average or better than average amount of their open looks, Cal doesn’t have the offense to keep up. UCLA is a team that can outshoot strong offenses on the right night, so this isn’t exactly a high value prayer . . . but we also don’t have much choice.

Alternatively, I’d advocate playing man defense in this game, since UCLA shoots too well and it’s not like we stopped them from getting the ball to the rim with our zone the first time around.

2. Punish them inside again

In Berkeley the Bears dominated the paint on offense. Or, more acurately, Marcus Lee dominated the paint, with 8 buckets and 11 offensive rebounds. Goloman fouled out in 16 minute and Cal as a team almost had as many offensive rebounds as UCLA had defensive rebounds. Something similar is going to have to happen again.

3. Find a way to disrupt Holiday on defense

It’s not easy, but in a few of UCLA’s losses Aaron Holiday hasn’t been his normal self - a bit turnover prone, iffy from the field, and just generally a bit less influential. UCLA has enough offensive talent to weather a poor game from their floor leader, but if he’s off (because of Cal disruption or otherwise) it increases Cal’s upset chances.

Our Computer Overlords Predict

Kenpom sez: UCLA 86, Cal 70, 7% chance of a Cal win

Sounds bleak, but you could actually make an argument that this is Cal’s most winnable road game left on the schedule, depending on how you feel about the impacts of altitude on road performance.

Still, to state the obvious: Cal lost at home to UCLA by 23 despite one of their better offensive performances of the season. UCLA’s comparative struggles aren’t in the same ballpark as Cal’s struggles. This would be about as shocking as the SDSU upset, but no less sweet if it happened.