Giant Killers: Why UCLA is vulnerable

ByJOHN GASAWAY via <a href="" title="ESPN" class="espn_sc_byline">ESPN </a>
February 09, 2017, 4:41 PM

&#151; -- If you had told Steve Alford before the season that his team would reach early February sporting a record of 21-3 with a win at Rupp Arena to its credit, I believe he would have taken that gladly. Any coach would.

So why does it feel like the Bruins are getting so little, to use a preferred term of grievance in college basketball, respect? Not a day goes by that we don't hear UCLA's ranking for adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom fairly flung up in the team's face. It is said over and over that any team with a unit that ranks in the 100s is at risk, if not flat-out doomed, come the postseason.

Well, the Giant Killers model agrees. Of the 16 teams currently projected by Joe Lunardi for seeds on the top four lines of the bracket, UCLA carries the lowest Giant Rating in the group. Our model gives the Bruins just a 77 percent chance of winning a hypothetical matchup with a would-be "Killer" seeded at least five lines lower than Alford's team.

Is porous defense the reason? Yes and no. The good news for UCLA fans is that this defense might not be so very hopeless after all. The bad news is that the Giant Killer model actually has concerns about the Bruins on both sides of the ball.

Shooting, scoring and tournament success

UCLA started the 2016-17 regular season with a magnificent display of accuracy, one that led some observers to forecast a correction toward more normal shooting. The correction has indeed occurred, but it has hardly been what you'd call dramatic. The Bruins are still No. 1 in Division I in terms of effective field goal (eFG) percentage, posting a rather incredible 61.6. Having Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford and TJ Leaf all on the same team will do that.

Of course, even UCLA has its "off" nights. The difference is that when the best shooting team in the country has a bad night, it equates to average for the rest of Div. I. For example, in Pac-12 play, the Bruins have recorded an eFG under 54 percent in four of their 11 games. Again, that level of shooting is still very good, but it's a mark that opposing teams will record with far greater frequency than they will the Bruins' season-long number of 62.

When UCLA has one of those "off" shooting nights, it is indeed vulnerable. The Bruins lost two of those four games: Arizona beat Alford's team 96-85 at Pauley Pavilion, and USC defeated UCLA 84-76 at the Galen Center. In those two losses, the Bruins shot 56 percent on their 2s but just 31 percent on 3s. This team takes very good care of the ball but is below average on the offensive glass, so in a way, shooting is the offense. Sometimes that won't be enough.

In other words, the Bruins' own experience -- during the best of all conceivable shooting seasons, no less -- seems to bear out what everyone always says. You can't rely on great shooting alone to show up every night and carry you to six consecutive wins in the NCAA tournament.

Or can you?

If Villanova won it all with accuracy, why can't UCLA?

Just last spring, we watched Villanova win a national title with shooting that was, if you can believe it, even better than what we're seeing from UCLA right now. In six tournament games, the Wildcats converted 50 percent of their 3s and 63 percent of their 2s. Why doubt the Bruins' chances of doing something that another (less accurate during the regular season) team just did?

The whole-tournament numbers for Jay Wright's team were indeed extraordinary, but even Villanova had its off night. It came in the form of a tough Elite Eight showdown with top-seeded Kansas. Against KU, the Wildcats were limited to 4-of-18 shooting on their 3s -- and they won the game anyway. Wright's guys held the Jayhawks to 59 points in a 65-possession game.

That game was no fluke. Last season, Villanova had the best defense in the Big East, one that held its conference opponents to 0.95 points per possession. The UCLA defense's corresponding figure in Pac-12 play this season is 1.09. Even bearing in mind that the Bruins are exposed to much better opposing offenses (e.g., Arizona, Oregon and even Utah) than what Villanova had to face in its conference last season, this is a significant gap.

Can UCLA's defense improve, even a little?

The Bruins' defense has an issue with volume

I wrote earlier that there was "good news" for UCLA fans regarding their defense. This might not set off celebrations in the streets of Westwood, but the truth is this defense really isn't all that bad, statistically. For one thing, it has hit the league average in Pac-12 play, and those conference opponents are actually shooting a relatively low 47 percent on their 2s. Certainly,? Thomas Welsh?is capable in terms of rim defense. Why, then, is this defense such a topic of national skepticism?

The true source of concern if you're Steve Alford starts with the fact that Pac-12 opponents never commit turnovers against your defense. Indeed, UCLA is one of the best offenses in the league in terms of holding on to the ball, yet the Bruins have actually operated at a turnover deficit relative to their opponents. Add the fact that this group is a hair worse than the league average on the defensive glass, and the real issue is clear. Opponents attempt shots in greater volume against UCLA than what the Bruins record themselves on offense.

To put it another way, UCLA needs that incredible accuracy it has been recording. All those makes on offense and all those attempts allowed by the defense make for great viewing, no doubt. That said, the Giant Killers model sees this combination of traits as making the Bruins unusually vulnerable to an upset by a lower seed come March.

Thanks to Liz Bouzarth, Kevin Harris and John Hutson of Furman University for research assistance.

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