UCLA, Arizona, and Oregon are all talented teams, but are they good enough to truly compete for a national title?
The Pac-12 is far from the deepest conference in the country, but it does boast three of the country’s more talented teams at the top. UCLA, Oregon, and Arizona rank third, sixth, and seventh respectively in the latest iteration of the AP poll, and each of the three teams boasts some of the best players in the country.
UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball seems destined to go in the top three during the NBA draft in June and Arizona forward Lauri Markkanen is likely to join Ball in the top 10. In addition to Ball and Markkanen, UCLA forward T.J. Leaf is a near-certain first-rounder, and Oregon and Arizona each have multiple other players with NBA potential on their rosters.
But are all three teams legitimate national title contenders? Do any of them belong in the same conversation as Villanova, Kansas, North Carolina, and Gonzaga?
Let’s break down each of the Pac-12’s three best teams and see which, if any, should be considered serious national title favorites heading into March Madness.
No. 3 UCLA Bruins
The Bruins are, first and foremost, an offensive-minded team. Not only that, but they have the best offense in the country. UCLA is a fast-paced team. It ranks 16th in possessions per 40 minutes (adjusted tempo), but it also does not lack for efficiency.
UCLA ranks first in the nation in points per 100 possessions (adjusted offensive efficiency) according to KenPom.com. It also ranks first in scoring offense, field goal percentage, and assist to turnover ratio, fourth in three-point field goal percentage, and fourth in scoring margin. Six different players average more than 10.0 points per game including future NBA players T.J. Leaf (16.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists per game) and Lonzo Ball (14.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 7.6 assists per game).
In short, UCLA gets buckets.
If UCLA played a modicum of defense consistently, the Bruins wouldn’t be just one of the better teams in the country, they would be the favorite to cut down the nets on Apr. 3 in Phoenix. The only problem is that they haven’t for most of the season.
Steve Alford’s squad is currently tied for 253rd in scoring defense, a deplorable mark for the No. 3 team in the nation. Some of the that can be attributed to UCLA’s pace of play; because the Bruins run the floor so quickly and create so many possessions throughout the game, it only stands to reason that their opponents would get more possessions during a game, too.
However, that doesn’t excuse UCLA from allowing its opponents to score as easily as they do. The Bruins rank 94th in points allowed per 100 possessions (adjusted defensive efficiency), are tied for 66th in field goal percentage allowed, and are tied for 255th in three-point field goal percentage allowed.
The advanced metrics and rate statistics help account for pace of play in a way that standard raw statistics do not, and UCLA does not sit favorably in any of those numbers defensively. Its defense has been poor enough, in fact, that despite its stellar offense, its adjusted efficiency margin according to KenPom.com has suffered. The Bruins currently rank only 13th that category.
All that said, UCLA has shown some improvements on the defensive side of the ball lately. In their first nine conference games, the Bruins allowed 80 points or more six times, but during their current seven-game winning streak, they have yet to allow more than 79 points in a game.
Of the teams currently in the AP top-five – Kansas, Villanova, UCLA, Gonzaga, and North Carolina – UCLA is at least tied for last in five of the major defensive categories. The Bruins are better than all four of those other teams in essentially every offensive category, but not by a large margin.
|Adjusted Efficiency Margin||Defensive Efficiency||Scoring Defense||FG% Allowed||3PT FG% Allowed|
|Adjusted Tempo||Offensive Efficiency||Scoring Offense||FG%||3PT FG%||Assist to Turnover Ratio|
UCLA’s offense is fantastic, but the best teams in the country are almost as good on offense and much better on defense. If the Bruins can keep the type of defense they have been playing recently going for the rest of the season, they should be considered a legitimate title threat right alongside the best of the best.
But, if UCLA slips back into old habits – poor rotations, slow getting back, lack of on-ball support – it becomes a lot more vulnerable in the tournament despite its excellent offensive ability.
No. 6 Oregon Ducks
This year’s Ducks are relatively similar to last year’s Ducks, who fell in the Elite Eight to Oklahoma. Oregon lost only one major contributor from that team and statistically it has remained just about the same in each offensive category and improved in most defensive categories.
However, whereas the Ducks finished last season 12th in adjusted efficiency margin and 13th in offensive efficiency, this season they currently sit at 17th and 24th respectively in those categories. The defensive improvement is seen in the rankings, though. Oregon was 37th in defensive efficiency last season and is currently 21st.
Oregon employs a seven-man rotation this season as it did last season and is once again led by junior forward Dillon Brooks, sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey, and senior forward Chris Boucher, who are each once again averaging more than 10.0 points per game and are shooting much better than 40% from the floor.
|Adjusted Efficiency Margin||Offensive Efficiency||Defensive Efficiency||Scoring Offense||Assist to Turnover Ratio||FG%||3PT FG%||RPG|
This team goes as Brooks goes. Brooks is averaging 15.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game on 51.7% shooting from the floor and 42.3% shooting from three-point range. In Oregon’s four losses, Brooks either did not play due to injury or put up fewer than 10 points, with the lone exception the loss to UCLA in early February. Brooks did everything he could in that game offensively, but the Bruins were just a little bit better.
Brooks has also become adept at saving Oregon from the brink with buzzer-beating shots. He has hit three game-winners for the Ducks so far this season, one in overtime with fewer than 25 second remaining, one with less than one second remaining to hand UCLA its first loss of the season, and one to cap a 16-point second-half comeback, also with less than one second remaining.
Without Brooks’s clutch gene, Oregon could very well have seven losses instead of just four and be out of Pac-12 title contention. Instead, the Ducks are tied for the league lead with one game left and are ranked No. 6 in the country.
Unfortunately, although Oregon is a solid offensive team, it does not stack up against the best teams in the nation. Compared to Kansas, Villanova, Gonzaga, and North Carolina – all members of the AP top five, the projected No. 1 seeds by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, and four of the strongest teams nationally by both advanced metrics and the eye test – Oregon’s offense is lacking, particularly in terms of efficiency. That is important to note because the Ducks rank 262nd in possessions per 40 minutes, which means that efficiency is vital to their success.
|Adjusted Efficiency Margin||Offensive Efficiency||Defensive Efficiency||Scoring Offense||Scoring Defense||FG%|
Defensively, the Ducks are right about where the rest of these teams are and are in fact better than Kansas in defensive efficiency and scoring defense and are better than North Carolina in scoring defense. Unfortunately, Oregon is not one of the elite defensive programs in the country like Virginia, Florida, or Louisville that can overcome a few offensive issues.
Whereas these four other elite teams have elite offenses and solid defenses, Oregon is just solid at both ends. That’s certainly not a bad position to be in, but if you are trying to compete for a national championship, it’s not as great as you might think.
Of the last 10 national champions, only two finished outside of KenPom.com’s top three teams in adjusted efficiency margin (oddly enough, both were Connecticut). Also, of those 10 champions, only one (2011 Connecticut) won without being top-10 in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, or both.
The Ducks are not top-10 in any efficiency categories. That doesn’t mean the Ducks can’t buck convention, but there’s a reason national champions regularly fall into those statistical categories. Winning a national title is incredibly difficult and almost always you have to be one of the very best teams in the country to cut down the nets.
Oregon is pretty good on both offense and defense but is not excellent at either. Although the Ducks have found ways to win a lot of games this year, they have stumbled against a few lesser opponents, losing twice to teams outside the RPI top-50 who will not reach the NCAA tournament and requiring last-minute heroics to escape a few others.
Oregon might find a way to a title – stranger things have happened during the Big Dance – but there’s a better chance the Ducks bow out before getting to Phoenix.
No. 7 Arizona Wildcats
On paper, Arizona looks relatively similar to Oregon. The Wildcats are a well-rounded, solidly structured team with balance on both sides of the ball and talented athletes. And like UCLA, they possess a probable lottery pick in freshman forward Lauri Markkanen.
But Arizona’s problem when it comes to its national championship hopes is that, like Oregon, Arizona is pretty good at everything, but not excellent at anything.
The Wildcats currently rank 22nd in adjusted efficiency margin, 29th in offensive efficiency, and 31st in defensive efficiency. They are only tied for 124th in scoring offense, although they also rank 302nd in adjusted tempo, which contributes to their lack of total points.
It does help that sophomore guard Allonzo Trier is back for the final stretch of the season after missing the first 19 games due to a PED suspension. In his first 11 games, Trier is averaging 16.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 48.6% from the floor and 42.0% from deep.
With Trier back to lead the offense, some of the pressure is taken off of Markkanen, which could help although Markkanen was playing exceptionally well when the offense was run through him. The 7-foot Finn is averaging 15.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game and is shooting an exceptional 44.4% from distance. That pair – aided by freshmen Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons and junior Dusan Ristic – has to be at its absolute best when Arizona takes on top competition otherwise things go awry.
In the loss to Oregon, the two combined for just 16 points on 5-for-15 from the floor. During the loss last weekend to UCLA, Trier went off for 28 points but Markkanen put up just 10 points and shot only 4-11 from the field. The Wildcats need both of these players to lead the way and be productive offensively not only because of the slow tempo at which the team plays, but also because the defense, like Oregon’s, is good but not completely shut-down.
|Adjusted Efficiency Margin||Offensive Efficiency||Defensive Efficiency||Scoring Offense||Scoring Defense||FG%|
Comparing Arizona to the same four teams that we’ve compared UCLA and Oregon to, the Wildcats sit the least favorably. Although they rank better than Kansas and North Carolina in scoring defense, and better than North Carolina in field goal percentage, those are the only two categories where they are better than any of those four teams. Arizona is worse off in all of the efficiency categories and in scoring offense even when compared to fellow slow-paced team Villanova.
Arizona is a definitely a good team that should compete well in the tournament – no team will sleep on the Wildcats – but it doesn’t excel at any one facet of the game and it may not actually be as good as its record portrays either.
To the Wildcats’ credit, they don’t have a single bad loss on their resume. All four of Arizona’s losses came against teams currently in the RPI top-15 and Ken Pomeroy’s top-20. That’s something to be proud of. Even the best of teams occasionally fall to a much worse team on an off night and Sean Miller and company have managed to avoid that thus far. Kudos.
But if you look at just about every other team in the country that has four losses or fewer, they all have multiple wins against the RPI top-25. The only teams that don’t are SMU, Cincinnati, and Wichita State, whose conference schedules don’t regularly afford them opportunities against top competition like Arizona’s does. Arizona, however, is just 1-4 against the RPI top-25 so far this season. That is a little worrisome heading into the tournament. When the Wildcats are asked to take on the best of the best, more often than not they come up short.
Will that trend turn around when Arizona is likely matched up with a top team in the Sweet 16 or, worse yet, an under-seeded top team in the first or second rounds? Maybe, but based on what we’ve seen so far, don’t expect Arizona to end its 19-season Final Four drought just yet.
Every team entering the tournament has question marks – some more than others – and when it comes to reaching the Final Four and winning a national championship, any of those question marks could be the cause of a team’s downfall on a given night.
All three of these teams are genuinely talented and will be difficult outs for most squads during the Big Dance. That said, all three have question marks. Can UCLA play consistent defense? Are Oregon and Arizona, though well-rounded, as strong as the top teams in other conferences?
Of these three Pac-12 giants, UCLA probably has the best shot to win it all. Off shooting nights regularly doom teams in March and April and generally it takes strong defense to help the best teams overcome those off nights and advance. UCLA has rarely had an off night all year, though, and its defense has improved over the last month. At the very least, they can ride that vaunted offense to wins more often than not and that gives them a chance.
Oregon and Arizona are talented, but probably don’t have enough firepower or strong enough defenses to make it all the way to the title game.
Selection Sunday is quickly approaching. The regular season will conclude this weekend and before you know it Apr. 3 will be here and we’ll be crowning the 2017 National Champion. A Pac-12 team could be that champion, but with the flaws of the three teams, it’s more likely to come from somewhere else.
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