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UCLA Is Both Glorious and Deeply Flawed

The Bruins are exactly who they’ve been all season: a team with a devastating offense and an awful defense. Can Lonzo Ball and Co. make a run? Plus, Virginia has emerged as a legit ACC threat.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

For the second time in school history, Gonzaga has ascended to the top spot of the subjective and meaningless list of college basketball teams known as the AP poll. This ascension coincided with nearly every other highly ranked team losing at some point in the last two weeks, prompting many to wonder if the undefeated Zags deserve their no. 1 ranking. I’ve already gone through the reasons why it’s dumb to assume that Gonzaga will choke in the NCAA tournament, which is to say, I pointed out that the Zags don’t have a history of choking as much as people think they do. But the no. 1–ranking argument is different than the choking argument, which is why I wanted to take a second to make my stance clear: I don’t give a shit.

Let’s be honest: You don’t either. So why are we pretending this matters? The AP poll has no bearing on tournament seeding, voting for player/coach of the year award, or whether Mark Few’s eyebrows will ever grow back. The only thing it might affect is recruiting, and even that doesn’t matter in Gonzaga’s case, since the Bulldogs just load up on transfers looking for a change of scenery and foreign players who were conned into believing that Spokane is a suburb of Seattle. Why, then, is this becoming a thing? And why is Gonzaga the only program that has to deal with these nonsensical discussions? If every other team lost this week and West Virginia rose to become the new no. 1, people would just shrug and say, “Meh, I guess the Mountaineers deserve it, but rankings don’t matter anyway.” Any time Gonzaga sits down at the adult table, though, people lose their mind as though it somehow affects their livelihood to see the Zags succeed.

We, as a college basketball community, need to stop caring about stuff that doesn’t matter. Instead, let’s channel our energy toward things that are truly important:

  • Tom Crean’s buyout drops from $4 million to $1 million on July 1. It’s financially sensible for Indiana to wait to fire him until then, but July is far too late in the basketball calendar for a program to make a coaching change. This is a problem with no obvious solution, and I’m losing sleep trying to figure out what I’m going to tell athletic director Fred Glass when he calls and asks for my advice.
  • Is Baylor’s Scott Drew a good coach?

12. North Carolina (20–4)
11. Cincinnati (20–2)

10. UCLA (20–3)

I can’t tell if I’m a contrarian or if everyone else is way too reactionary, but my feelings toward UCLA this season always seem to be the exact opposite of the general consensus. When the Bruins beat Kentucky 97–92 in Rupp Arena in December, the college basketball world foamed at the mouth over how UCLA’s offense could cure cancer, while I scratched my head and wondered if anyone else noticed its awful defense. And now that the Bruins recently dropped two straight (96–85 to Arizona on January 21, and 84–76 at USC four days later), the hype train seems to have gone completely off the rails, as though everyone forgot how unstoppable this offense is. UCLA is like the Ken Bone of college basketball: Everyone was intrigued at first, and as we discovered more we couldn’t resist letting our praise get out of control. Then we found out too much and decided to pick the Bruins apart, like it’s their fault that we exalted them so quickly.

So no, I’m not panicking about UCLA “being exposed” against Arizona and USC, mostly because those games didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. Well, I guess that’s not true: They confirmed my suspicion that the Bruins are a team made up of human beings who can, in fact, lose games that don’t involve miraculous buzzer-beaters. Otherwise, UCLA remains the same team today that it was at the start of the season: a supremely talented offense that’s among the most efficient and entertaining the sport has ever seen, and a defense that could best be described as “absolute dog shit.”

I’m a devout believer in great defense being more important than great offense in the NCAA tournament, so I should probably touch on UCLA’s abysmal defense before I get to the fun stuff. And let me be clear: The Bruins really are that bad defensively. Never mind their intelligence, ability, or cohesiveness on that end of the floor. The real concern is there doesn’t seem to be a player on the roster who gives a damn. Instead of treating defense as an opportunity to impact a game, UCLA’s players appear to view it as a nuisance, like they’re children who have been sent to timeout and are just rolling their eyes and staring at the clock until they can go back outside and play. Sure, every so often someone on the Bruins will block a shot or jump in a passing lane to a trigger a fast break. But these sorts of moments are fool’s gold — the only reason UCLA cares in these instances is because the Bruins never pass up an opportunity to make a highlight play.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The other side of that coin, of course, is that UCLA’s offense is basically nothing but highlights. That’s hardly hyperbole, by the way. Freshman guard Lonzo Ball, who seems to be a lock as a top-five pick in the 2017 NBA draft, has turned college basketball on its head with his ridiculous court vision, his ugly jump shot that finds a way to go in no matter where he pulls up from, and his general showmanship that makes you wonder how he could have possibly gone anywhere other than UCLA. Freshman forward TJ Leaf’s numbers (17.0 points and 8.9 rebounds per game) aren’t that far off from what Kevin Love posted in his lone season in Westwood, when Love was the Pac-10 player of the year and a consensus first-team All-American. Senior guard Isaac Hamilton is averaging 14.9 points per game and would be the best player on all but maybe 25 or 30 teams in America. And up until Leaf went nuts and scored 32 points in a 95–79 win at Washington State on Wednesday, none of the aforementioned guys were even the team’s leading scorer, as senior guard Bryce Alford is averaging 16.2 points per game.

A hundred years from now, when college basketball is played by robots on Mars and people are complaining about how the game isn’t what it used to be, some idiot will try to convince everyone that 2016–17 was the golden era of the sport because he came across a tape of this UCLA offense. Will that be enough for the Bruins to overcome their defensive deficiencies and win a national championship? Probably not. But who cares? Only one team wins the national title every year anyway, and while I’d like to see UCLA start actually giving some effort on defense, I don’t think it needs to bother trying to change its identity. At this point in the season, the Bruins should double-down on their approach, cross their fingers, and hope the March Madness gods look down upon them favorably.

Maybe UCLA will lose some games it shouldn’t along the way, but I like to think of that as an occupational hazard that comes with its style of play. For all their flaws, the Bruins are capable of beating any team in the country by 25 on any given night, which is something that can’t be said of anyone else.

9. Wisconsin (19–3)
8. West Virginia (18–4)
7. Villanova (21–2)

Halftime

It’s halftime, which can mean only one thing: It’s time for Dick’s Degrees of Separation, the most mildly amusing internet game involving college basketball! You know the drill: I give you the end point of a Dick Vitale tangent and you pick the path he took to get there. Let’s get to it.

During Saturday’s Oklahoma–Florida game in Norman, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Scotty Thurman?

A. Brent Musburger, who is calling the game with Vitale, comments that Florida–Oklahoma would be a good game in football, too. Vitale cautions Musburger against selling these basketball programs short before launching into a bit of trivia. Vitale explains that Oklahoma is the only school with two Naismith Award winners in the last decade, and that Florida is the only SEC school besides Kentucky to win a national title in the last 20 years. Then, mistaking it for a fact that is interesting or relevant, Dickie V. points out that the last non-Kentucky, non-Florida SEC team to win a championship was Arkansas in 1994, led by Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman.

B. Early in the game, Musburger points out that Sooners coach Lon Kruger once served as the head coach at Florida, taking the Gators to their first Final Four in school history. Vitale reminds viewers that run took place in 1994, and then, as if trying to confirm his own memory, says that Florida lost to Duke in the national semifinal game. This was the same year, Dickie V. continues, that the Blue Devils lost to Arkansas in the title game when Scotty Thurman hit a game-winning shot for the Razorbacks.

C. The camera cuts to 39-year-old Florida coach Mike White, who Vitale says looks young enough to be a player instead of a coach. This triggers a spiel about how old Vitale and Musburger are, during which Dickie V. informs viewers that this will be the last game the duo ever calls together. After a beat, Musburger points out that the SEC has a handful of coaches who could still probably play a little, including Alabama’s Avery Johnson and Vanderbilt’s Bryce Drew. Vitale then offers Arkansas assistant Scotty Thurman as his contribution to the list.

6. Virginia (17–4)

Jay Wright may have won last Sunday’s battle of heartthrob coaches when Donte “The Big Ragu” DiVincenzo tipped in a buzzer-beater to lift Villanova to a 61–59 win over Virginia. But it’s possible that Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett will win the war. That’s because Virginia is finally starting to look the part of a Final Four team, something I never thought I’d say about this group in November. I’ve thought all season that the difference between this Virginia team and the ones of the recent past is that this squad lacks an elite individual talent. Specifically, I worried about whether Virginia could find a wing to replace what Justin Anderson and Malcolm Brogdon brought to the table the last few years. Part of what makes that role so critical is providing off-the-ball scoring so London Perrantes (who I think is the country’s most fascinating player) can fluctuate between scoring and distributing instead of having to force the issue all the time. But, as is always the case with Virginia, the real impact of a great wing is felt on the defensive end.

What has made the Cavaliers’ pack-line defense famous over the last few years is discipline, as the Hoos are more concerned with staying in position than making a spectacular play. Knowing this, you might think Virginia’s defense traditionally hasn’t been disruptive, and that the Hoos instead try to force opposing offenses to beat themselves. But with Anderson and Brogdon, that wasn’t always true. Those guys made life hell for whoever they were guarding, and they did so in a way that kept the cohesiveness and discipline of the collective unit intact.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

There’s a subtle difference between Virginia defenses that are reactive and proactive, but it’s significant enough to separate a team that wins games from one that wins titles. I expected this Virginia squad to fall into the former category, and for most of the season it has. But the recent play of Devon Hall and Marial Shayok, two talented junior guards who have struggled with consistency, has caused me to rethink Virginia’s ceiling. That’s not to say that either one is anywhere close to Anderson or Brogdon’s level. But both are 6-foot-5, provide a ton of energy, and have given the Hoos exactly what they need on both ends of the court for the last month.

That’s why the Villanova game might prove to be a win in the long run for Virginia. The Hoos went on the road against the no. 1 team in the country, Perrantes played his worst game of the season, and this group still had the defending national champions on the ropes. Shayok was great all afternoon; Hall handled being asked to do a million different things wonderfully; and junior forward Isaiah Wilkins, who has looked like the reincarnation of Anthony Gill of late, continued playing out of his mind. And that’s to say nothing of Ty Jerome, the freshman guard who went from putting up a two trillion in a 88–76 loss at Pitt on January 4 to waving off his entire team to sink a game-tying shot at Villanova.

What was once Perrantes and a bunch of other dudes has transformed into a team full of capable playmakers that just might win its third ACC title in four seasons and advance to the Final Four. Virginia still has concerns: This is clearly the least talented team Perrantes has been on since his arrival in Charlottesville (which says more about how great the other three teams were), and the pack-line defense remains susceptible to teams that can shoot 3s (specifically ones with big men who can shoot 3s). Junior guard Darius Thompson continues to look lost on the court, while freshman guard Kyle Guy’s ACC slump has been a bummer for anyone who is a fan of man buns and/or “Guy” puns. (Can you imagine how insufferable Virginia fans would have been if Guy had played for the Hoos when the “Who has two thumbs…” joke was popular?)

But that’s the beauty of college basketball: Every team has obvious flaws. All they can do is try to limit how damaging those flaws can be. This is something Virginia has more or less mastered the last few years, which explains why the Hoos haven’t lost a game by more than a possession in regulation since December 3 and sit a half game back from the top of the loaded ACC standings. Not bad for a team that supposedly lacks elite talent.

5. Louisville (18–4)
4. Arizona (20–2)
3. Baylor (20–2)
2. Kansas (20–2)
1. Gonzaga (22–0)

The “Retiring” Broadcaster of the Week

When I think of Brent Musburger, a handful of things come to mind: (1) his love of gambling; (2) his love of Katherine Webb; (3) “SECOND DOWN AND NINE”; (4) trying to remember whether his first name is Brett or Brent; and (5) his voice being synonymous with a big game. You could point a camera on a group of turtles taking a nap, and I’ll be 100 percent into it if the first thing I hear is Musburger saying, “You are looking live …” So yeah, I guess you could say I was bummed when he decided to call it a career.

And sure, it seems fishy that Musburger suddenly arrived at this decision, that he didn’t wait until the end of the college basketball season, that his final game came on the last day of a month (January 31). But ESPN was running tributes to him throughout the entire day, which it totally wouldn’t have done if it was forcing him out the door, you guys.

Brett — it’s Brett, right? — definitely made this decision completely on his own, so stop asking questions and just let the man go in peace. With that, I’ll let Musburger’s final sign-off double as the sign-off for this column.

The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is B. See you next week.