Can UCLA Keep Up the Pace?


Just less than nine months ago on March 20, Steve Alford wrote a letter to the UCLA fan base apologizing for the abysmal season the Bruins had just concluded. They had went 15-17 overall and 6-12 in conference play. It included losses to Monmouth, an eleven win Wake Forest team and not one, not two, but three losses to cross-town rival USC. In his letter, Alford announced he would return a one year contract extension he received at the end of the 2013-2014 season. It seemed as though this storied program was heading for rock bottom.

That possibility didn’t make sense, though. Why was a team with so much talent failing to produce results on the court? Last year’s squad had studs in Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford, Tony Parker, Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday. Yet they only won 15 games. But with all of those guys back except Parker, things had to turn around this season. Mix in stud recruits Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf and there was now no excuses or next years for Steve Alford and his team. They had to win games. Now.

And, so far, UCLA has done just that. They’re out to an 11-0 record, just 4 wins shy of last season’s total. That 11-0 start includes wins over Texas A&M, at Kentucky and Michigan. The Bruins are putting up insane amount of points (97.9 per game) and looking good while doing it. Lonzo Ball is becoming a star and potential #1 draft pick while TJ Leaf has emerged as one of the best big men in the nation. The guys who were part of last season’s team are meshing incredibly well together now. The turnaround has been incredible.

We know how talented this team is. We’ve seen that they can beat really good teams (Kentucky). We know they can put up crazy offensive numbers. We know they can make the highlight reel passes and dunks. We know they can get up and down better than any team in the nation. The only questions now are these: Can UCLA keep up the pace? Can the Bruins defend well enough to win in March?

Do The Bruins Play *TOO* Fast?

Through eleven games, UCLA is playing at a lightning fast speed of 75.6 possessions per 40 minutes (AdjTempo). That’s currently 13th in the nation. As conference play hits, that number of possessions will most likely drop a little bit, as will the rest of the nation’s, as teams start to play opponents that are more familiar with each other. So I went back and looked at the teams over the past eight seasons that have had an adjusted tempo of 73+ possessions per 40 minutes. Here’s some of the numbers I found:

2016
Number of Teams With AdjTempo of 73+: 22
Teams that made NCAA Tournament: 1, Green Bay (First Round)
Average KenPom Rank of Teams: 190.59

2015
Number of Teams With AdjTempo of 73+: 4
Teams that made NCAA Tournament: NONE
Average KenPom Rank of Teams: 276

2014
Number of Teams With AdjTempo of 73+: 4
Teams that made NCAA Tournament: NONE
Average KenPom Rank of Teams: 228

2013
Number of Teams With AdjTempo of 73+: NONE
Teams that made NCAA Tournament: NONE
Average KenPom Rank of Teams: NONE

2012
Number of Teams With AdjTempo of 73+: 7
Teams that made NCAA Tournament: 2, LIU Brooklyn (First Round), BYU (First Round)
Average KenPom Rank of Teams: 195.85

2011
Number of Teams With AdjTempo of 73+: 20
Teams that made NCAA Tournament: 5, LIU Brooklyn (First Round), North Carolina (Elite Eight), Oakland (First Round), Missouri (First Round), Washington (Second Round)
Average KenPom Rank of Teams: 192.75

2010
Number of Teams With AdjTempo of 73+: 26
Teams that made NCAA Tournament: 6, Texas (First Round), Washington (Sweet 16), Villanova (Second Round), BYU (Second Round), Houston (First Round), K-State (Elite Eight)
Average KenPom Rank of Teams: 189.69

2009
Number of Teams With AdjTempo of 73+: 20
Teams that made NCAA Tournament: 6, Wake Forest (First Round), North Carolina (National Champs), Washington (Second Round), Cal St Northridge (First Round), Siena (Second Round), Missouri (Elite Eight)
Average KenPom Rank of Teams: 166.5

I don’t really pay attention to the average ranking of the teams playing at that pace as low-major schools whose only chance at winning is by playing ultra fast brings that way down. What I do notice, though, is the number of teams playing at such a fast pace that have made the NCAA Tournament and then their success once they get there. Over the past 8 seasons, just 20 teams have made the Big Dance that have an AdjTempo of 73+. Out of those 20, only 5 have made it to the second weekend of the tournament. That number scares me if I’m a UCLA fan. One, I think games played at high speeds actually FAVOR, the underdog, contrary to the popular belief that slow paced games do. In my opinion, more possessions equal more chances for a hot underdogs team and more opportunities for mistakes for a struggling higher seed team. It’s also just so rare for a team that plays at that speed to have great success against other really good teams in the NCAA Tournament, as these numbers show.

That doesn’t mean, though, that teams playing at that pace don’t have success in March. 2009 Missouri (73.4 AdjTempo) made it all the way to the Elite Eight, while 2010 Kansas State (73.0 AdjTempo) and 2011 North Carolina (74.0 AdjTempo) also made it to the regional finals. Then there’s 2009 North Carolina, who played at super fast speed of 75.5 possessions per 40 minutes. That team won the national championship, dominating Michigan State in the title game, 89-72. That Tar Heel team was more talented than this UCLA team (Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green, Deon Thompson), but they show UCLA that you can win it all playing at a fast pace in college basketball.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself “Wait a minute. Kentucky is playing faster than UCLA. Why aren’t you concerned about them?”. That is true. Kentucky’s AdjTempo is 76.0, slightly higher than the Bruin’s. I’m not concerned about their pace of play, though, because I know Calipari’s teams can win games that are slower paced. The last three seasons, Kentucky AdjTempo has been 65.7, 63.0, and 68.2. Cal’s team will be able to slow it down. I’m not so sure about UCLA’s.

So the answer to question of whether or not UCLA plays too fast isn’t a sraightforward: No I don’t think it’s too fast. I think UCLA can win big games and make a long run playing at their fast pace, BUT they need to be able to win games that get slowed down as well. Can they do that? I’m not too confident in that aspect of their game.

Can The Bruins Defend Well Enough?

In Steve Alford’s letter in March, he emphasized how poorly his team defended last season. He stated that it should never happen again. Here we are in mid-December, though, questioning whether or not his team can defend well enough to win the big games when it matters. UCLA’s current adjusted defensive efficiency (AdjD) is 98.1. That ranks 71st in the nation. Last year’s team was 119th in the country at 100.7. Better, but is the improvement enough? Let’s look at the AdjD numbers of Elite Eight teams over just the past three seasons for reference:

2016
89.3, 89.7, 89.9, 93.0, 93.0, 93.5, 95.3, 102.9,

2015
82.5, 85.5, 86.9, 90.0, 92.0, 92.8, 93.3, 98.5

2014
85.8, 87.4, 90.9, 94.1, 95.3, 95.6, 99.0, 99.9

4 of the last 24 Elite Eight teams had AdjD numbers worse than where UCLA’s current number sits. So it certainly can be done with a not so great defense. But the Bruins aren’t even into conference play yet, where the caliber of teams will pick up. That number could very well get into the 99s or even around 100. When you can score like UCLA can, that will make up for the defensive struggles. If they go cold, they could be very upset prone, though. That’s what makes me nervous about this team, especially come March. The Bruins will have to beat a good, physical defensive team to make a run. Facing a team that will limit their offense, can they get enough stops to win those games? That remains to be seen.

Conclusion

UCLA’s quick turnaround is one of the best stories in college basketball of this young season. When the Bruins are good, college basketball is more exciting. So don’t take this post the wrong way. I want UCLA to be good and be a major contender in March. It will make this season and Big Dance that much more fun. The questions I pose here are legit questions, though. If UCLA proves they can defend and that their fast paced play can consistently beat good teams, then I’ll start believing. Until they show that, I’m remaining cautious in my hype of this team.

The Bruins play Ohio State on Saturday at 3:00 PM EST on CBS. That should be a very fun game against a NCAA Tournament caliber team in the Buckeyes. It will also be another chance to continue to silence the doubters like myself.

For great college basketball coverage all season long, follow @Madness2017 on Twitter!

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