UCLA is 19-2, and if I had transported you from October to now in a time machine, you would be really, really impressed with that record.
Well, you should be, even after a 96-85 home loss to a very good Arizona team on Saturday. However, though the Bruins are unquestionably elite, they have some vulnerabilities that were usefully highlighted by the Wildcats.
Want to beat Lonzo Ball and UCLA? Here’s what we think we’ve learned:
Deny the Bruins’ first shot
Before we go any further, let there be no misunderstandings about Saturday's game. There might be some accounts saying the Wildcats “slowed the game down,” but the bottom line is the contest clocked in at 73 possessions -- right at the Bruins’ average tempo (74) in Pac-12 play coming into the showdown.
Nevertheless, a game’s number for total possessions is just a proxy for what we’re really trying to describe. Did UCLA run up and down the floor and score on a succession of dunks and open 3s? Against Sean Miller’s Arizona team that answer, for the most part, was no.
The Bruins still operated their offense at an accelerated pace against the Wildcats, but during the balance of the contest, Arizona was able to at least deny UCLA’s first run toward the rim and/or close out on their first 3-point look. Even though the ensuing possession might have lasted a very short time, the fact that the Bruins had to operate in a half-court offense of sorts lowered their chances of success.
Speaking of no misunderstandings, “success” against Ball and UCLA is defined with some leeway. The Bruins scored 1.16 points per trip against the Wildcats. With any normal offense, that would be a great game. For the Bruins, it was below their Pac-12 average. Chalk that up as a success for Arizona.
Mix transition offense with a time-of-possession game
If I say you should “seize any opportunities you get in transition” against UCLA, I’m merely restating what would be true for any team against pretty much any opponent. Well, it bears repeating.
One of the most common mistakes observers -- and possibly even coaches -- make is to think that you “don’t want to get into a running game” with a team such as the Bruins. Actually, if you can get an open shot by seizing a transition moment every now and then, by all means do so. Then turn right around and make sure they don’t do the same thing to you.
On the other hand, when you aren't getting out on the break, feel free to run some clock. This is precisely the balance that Arizona achieved, and I have to believe it was no accident. The Wildcats took some opportunities in transition, but when they backed the ball out, they often took the possession well down into the shot clock.
UCLA’s offense is far better than its defense, so why wouldn’t you maximize the amount of time that the former is on the floor and minimize the exposure of the latter? Just as in football, time of possession matters.
Make Bryce Alford play defense
The Wildcats had some success in isolating Alford in man-defense situations, particularly in a few instances when the Bruins senior was guarding Kadeem Allen. On more than one such possession, Allen eschewed customary niceties such as passing the ball to teammates and simply drove on Alford. That was doubtless Coach Miller’s intent: Drive the ball at the defense’s weak link.
None of this is meant as a swipe at Alford. He could play downright terrible defense on every possession (which he doesn’t), and it would still balance out as a positive for UCLA because he’s a high-volume 3-point shooter connecting on 46 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. But if you’re an opponent and you have to defend a game-changing perimeter threat such as Alford, you’ll also want to seize any openings he offers you when he’s on defense.
Crash your offensive glass
Arizona pulled down 34 percent of its misses against UCLA -- not an eye-popping number but far better than what the Bruins managed on their offensive glass (25 percent).
In Pac-12 play, coach Steve Alford’s team ranks No. 9 in a 12-team league in defensive rebound percentage. It’s simply not what UCLA is built to do, which is to score at a high rate. Well, one way you can hope to keep up with that scoring is to send your best player to the offensive glass.
Emphasis on "player" singular. Crashing the offensive glass might sound like crazy advice when you’re playing a fast-paced opponent known for its explosive offense, but Arizona proved that you can pull down a fair share of your misses and still get back in transition on defense.
Do all of the above against a team as superb as UCLA, and you still might lose. But you’ll give yourself your best chance if you deny the Bruins their first shot, blend transition with a little bit of patience on offense, make Bryce Alford spend some energy on defense and crash your offensive glass.
Good luck, and be sure to score a ton of points. You’ll need to.