UCLA’s offense has been the talk of college basketball all season, as the team has rolled through a 29-4 year. The defense, however, has been a concern. And as the Bruins get set to play in the NCAA Tournament, it remains the biggest question mark for a team with Final Four aspirations.
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Preseason expectation: The Bruins, picked third in the Pac-12 preseason media poll behind more experienced Oregon and Arizona squads, were expected to do some good things this year. They were nationally ranked in the AP Top 25 Poll (16th) and Coaches Poll (20th). Those rankings may have seemed surprising for a program that finished 15-17 last year, but there were obvious reasons for people to believe the team would improve. Coach Steve Alford brought in the nation’s 11th-best recruiting class according to 247Sports, which included three top-50 recruits in point guard Lonzo Ball, power forward TJ Leaf and center Ike Anigbogu. Add those three to a roster returning four of its top five scorers, and the signs for a big improvement were there.
December 3: After a fairly easy beginning to their non-conference schedule, the Bruins draw their first big test — John Calipari’s (then) top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats in Rupp Arena. In a high-scoring affair, the Bruins announce themselves as a national contender with a 97-92 win. Six players score double-digit points, and Lonzo Ball stuffs the stat sheet with 14 points, seven assists, six rebounds and a steal and block apiece. That includes a three with 5:19 left that basically secures the game.
December 10: Following the marquee match-up with Kentucky, the Bruins could have been forgiven for coming out flat in their next game against John Beilein’s Michigan team. Instead, the Bruins win going away, 102-84, while hitting 15 of their 24 three-point attempts. Maybe more impressive are the 23 assists that UCLA racks up while committing just eight turnovers.
Key Dates: After wins against Kentucky and Michigan, UCLA finishes their out-of-conference schedule by beating UC-Santa Barbara, Western Michigan and Ohio State. The win over the Buckeyes, 86-73, is particularly impressive, as the Bruins pile up 12 steals and get out in transition for easy points. With the non-conference schedule behind them, the team could look ahead to Pac-12 play, which opened against the conference’s preseason favorite, Oregon.
December 28: The Bruins travel to Eugene and play a tight game with the Ducks. After trailing by five at the half, 52-47, they storm back to take a four-point lead, 87-83 with just 0:24 left in the game. That’s when the defense, which had been suspect all year but overshadowed by the winning streak, came back to bite them. On consecutive Oregon possessions, they allow a three to Peyton Pritchard (87-86), and then the go-ahead three to Dillon Brooks with just :02 left. However, UCLA has a chance to win this game if they just make free throws down the stretch, but Bryce Alford misses the front end of a one-and-one immediately preceding the Brooks three.
January 21 and 25: After the Oregon loss, the Bruins run off six straight wins heading into another big match-up, this time with 14th-ranked Arizona. The defense falls short once again, allowing the Wildcats to shoot 50% from the field and 45% from three in a 96-85 loss. Still reeling from the loss to Arizona, UCLA falls flat in their next time out against USC, turning the ball over 17 times in an 84-76 loss. The two-game losing streak is the only losing streak the team suffers all year.
February 9: The Bruins begin to figure it out on defense in the two games following the USC loss, allowing 79 and 66 points against Washington State and Washington. Next is fifth-ranked Oregon at home, a potential revenge game for earlier in the year. And revenge is exactly what they get, as they hold off the Ducks, 82-79, allowing them just 42-percent shooting from the field and 36.4-percent from three. This win continues a run of games in which they look much better defensively.
February 25: In the midst of a six-game winning streak, UCLA, once again looking for revenge, hits the road for a Saturday night prime-time match-up with Arizona. The Bruins continue their run despite Wildcats’ guard Allonzo Trier racking up 28 points. While Trier gets his, the rest of the Wildcats can muster just 2-of-12 shooting from three and 15-of-37 from the field overall. During their nine-game winning streak to end the season, the Bruins cut their opponents’ scoring down from 75.3 per game on average to 70.5. They enter the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas as the conference’s 3-seed.
March 9-10: The Bruins escape USC in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals, 76-74, before falling to Arizona in the semifinals, 86-75. Lonzo Ball has one of his worst games of the season with just eight points on 2-of-7 shooting (1-6 from three-point) and six assists versus four turnovers.
The road ahead: UCLA dominated 14-seed Kent State in their opening contest and made quick work of Cincinnati in the Round of 32. Next up? A rematch with John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats, who the Bruins beat at Rupp Arena back on December 3rd.