After its upset victory on the road against Kentucky, UCLA showed the world that it is the obvious favorite in the Pac-12 this season.
It’s not a surprise that UCLA is better this year than it was last year. The 2015-16 season was one to forget for the Bruins. UCLA finished 15-17 overall, 6-12 in the Pac-12, and missed out on the NCAA tournament. The season went so poorly that head coach Steve Alford returned the one-year contract extension he signed just one year earlier.
It is a little surprising, though, just how good the Bruins have been through the first nine games of the regular season.
UCLA is undefeated and is scoring points at a ridiculous rate. Its most impressive win during this early run came on the road December 3 at Rupp Arena against then-No. 1 Kentucky. The Bruins beat the Wildcats fairly comfortably, holding a double-digit lead throughout most of the second half.
Freshman point guard Lonzo Ball and freshman forward TJ Leaf combined for 31 points, and four other Bruins finished with double-digit points as well. Leaf posted a double-double, Ball added seven assists, and the team shot 10-of-23 from three-point range. UCLA exposed the few flaws that Kentucky has and ran away with the contest, silencing the Kentucky faithful.
That win over Kentucky vaulted the Bruins from No. 11 to No. 2 in the AP poll and put them in the national spotlight as one of the country’s best teams. It also solidified them as the clear favorites to win the Pac-12. In terms of pure talent and preseason expectations, Arizona and Oregon pose the biggest threat to moving the Bruins off the top spot as the season progresses, but based on how UCLA has performed thus far, that doesn’t seem likely.
According to KenPom.com, UCLA ranks 10th in adjusted efficiency margin, third in points scored per 100 possessions, and 13th in possessions per 40 minutes. The Bruins are also second in the country in points per game, first in field goal percentage, first in three-point field goal percentage, first in assists per game, and second in assist to turnover ratio.
They play fast, they play aggressively, and they put the ball in the basket at a ridiculous rate. UCLA is also built around a veteran core, which makes it all the more dangerous.
They get phenomenal guard play from seniors Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton and sophomore Aaron Holiday. Alford is averaging 15.6 points per game and is shooting 42.3 percent from deep. Hamilton leads the team with 17.7 points per game and is also shooting incredibly well from three-point range at 45.6 percent. Holiday adds 13.3 points per game of his own and is shooting a remarkable 60.0 percent from beyond the arc.
UCLA’s guard play is impressive, and its front court is just as strong.
The Bruins are tied for 45th in rebounds per game and are tied for 13th in blocks per game. The Bruins have a veteran core that plays both in the front and back court, and that gives this team a stable, talented backbone. It’s the pair of freshmen, though, that have taken UCLA to the next level.
Ball, ESPN’s No. 4 player from the Class of 2016, is averaging 15.0 points, 8.8 assists, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game. He is second in the nation in assists per game and has looked like one of the most complete players in the country.
Fellow freshmen Leaf, the No. 13 member of the Class of 2016, is almost averaging a double-double with 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game and 1.2 blocks on the side for good measure.
These two freshmen elevate UCLA to a level that not many other teams in the country can match. Maybe only a fully healthy Duke could match up with them player for player, and the eight-man rotation that UCLA employs allows it to keep up its high-tempo offense going as they rotate players in and out.
Only Arizona and Oregon could hope to go toe-to-toe with UCLA in the Pac-12, but both have struggled to get into any kind of rhythm through the beginning of the season.
Freshman forward Lauri Markkanen is No. 19 Arizona’s go-to player. The seven-footer from Finland is averaging 16.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, and he’s the only player on the team that plays more than 30 minutes per game. He is also a reliable deep threat, knocking down 47.7 percent of his shots from three-point distance.
Fellow freshmen Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons are also averaging points in the double-digits and are shooting well from the floor, and upperclassmen Kadeem Allen and Dusan Ristic have been able to contribute effectively.
Arizona’s problems, though, lie in the fact that its three best players — by far — are all freshmen. Without an imposing veteran core to stabilize it, Arizona is susceptible to falling against better competition. The Wildcats have already lost games to Butler and Gonzaga so far this season, and they struggled against Santa Clara and underwhelming Michigan State. Arizona could find a way to unseat UCLA, but it will need more from its veterans going forward to even have a prayer.
No. 22 Oregon sits just behind Arizona in KenPom.com’s rankings, but is probably the better candidate to potentially take down the Bruins. Now that Dillon Brooks is back, the Ducks have two legitimately dominant upperclassmen in Brooks and senior Chris Boucher to go along with graduate transfer Dylan Ennis and sophomore Tyler Dorsey.
Brooks, Boucher, and Dorsey are all averaging more than 13 points per game, and Ennis is putting up 9.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game, but Oregon needs to improve its distance shooting to pose a real threat in the Pac-12. The Ducks shoot a dismal 32.3 percent as a team from three, tied for 260th in the country, and are 36th in points per 100 possessions according to KenPom.com.
Fortunately, Oregon’s defense has helped it out of jams when the offense isn’t moving. The Ducks rank 12th in points allowed per 100 possessions and have held every opponent they’ve faced to less than 70 points. Oregon has yet to put together a complete offensive-defensive performance, though.
The Ducks have lost games to Baylor and Georgetown, and edged out Tennessee, Connecticut, Boise State, and Alabama, none of which are basketball powerhouses. As tougher teams appear on the schedule, Oregon is going to have to find a way to score consistently.
By the time we’re entrenched in conference play, it’s possible that either of these teams, particularly Oregon, could go toe-to-toe with UCLA. For now, though, the Bruins are head and shoulders above the rest of their conference and sit right among the elite squads in the country. The scariest part is that as the season progresses, they’re only going to get better.
This isn’t your father’s or your grandfather’s UCLA team, but it is certainly a talented one, and the Bruins should be feared by every team in the country during the 2016-17 season.
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