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Just How Bad Is UCLA’s Defense?

Bad enough to derail the Bruins’ title chances? Absolutely. So bad as to make a title run impossible? That’s where it gets tricky.

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

To understand the potential consequences of UCLA’s defensive deficiency, we must first hit the books and go to law school. The Bruins boast one of the best law programs in the country, so bear with me for a quick second.

In the legal world, the concept and application of legal precedent is paramount. It plays into decisions and rulings as much as the interpretation of law itself. The thinking behind this is pretty straightforward: Rulings in past court cases provide principles for judges to use when considering a current case.

Sports are similar. Here, the word “precedent” is turned from judicial jargon into slightly less pretentious phrasing like “trend,” “tendency,” or even “gambling advice,” but it carries the same concept. Precedent tells us that having a good quarterback in the NFL is nearly essential to having a shot at the Super Bowl. In the NBA, precedent helps us infer that a team without a superstar can rarely, if ever, win a title. In baseball, the Giants’ even-year magic had a good run, but now the only reliable precedent we have seems to be that if your franchise employs Theo Epstein, you’re in good shape.

College basketball is a volatile sport — it’s called March Madness for a reason — but one precedent is that, to have a shot at a national title, a team must be in at least the top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

To cut down the nets, you must guard them as well as you can hit them. But as UCLA heads into the Sweet 16 and into a high-powered matchup against the Kentucky Wildcats on Friday, the Bruins can do only the latter well.

UCLA is second in the nation in offensive efficiency, bringing a high-scoring, up-tempo style that includes an affinity for the 3-point shot to the college basketball desert plains previously filled with low-scoring games in the mid-60s. This season, the Bruins have all but single-handedly stymied the conversation about college basketball’s lack of excitement.

But as the casual fan relished the shot-thirsty Bruins, no high school coach was showing their players tape of that very same team’s performance — or lack thereof — on the defensive end. When the Bruins don’t possess the basketball, they barely know what to do with themselves. In the regular season, they ranked 128th in the nation in defensive efficiency, by far the worst among the teams who are still left standing.

UCLA’s backcourt trio of Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford, and Aaron Holiday rank in the bottom 50 in defensive rating among Pac-12 players who have played at least 350 minutes this season. Lonzo Ball registers around the middle of the pack, while Bruins big men Ike Anigbogu and Gyorgy Goloman rank in the top 20. The frontcourt duo has been a defensive beacon for UCLA, but the two also average less than 13 minutes per game each.

Since the beginning of the KenPom era — 2002 — each national champion has resided in the top echelon of efficiency on both offense and defense. The average defensive standing for those title winners is ninth. The only team that won the title with a defensive ranking outside the top 20 was the 2009 North Carolina team, which finished the season 21st. Before that year’s tournament, the Tar Heels had ended the regular season with the 38th-ranked defensive efficiency, but turned it up a notch in the tourney.

Through two games, UCLA has shown signs that it could do something similar. Though the Bruins finished the regular season 128th in defensive efficiency, they’ve jumped to 77th after beating Kent State 97–80 and holding Cincinnati to 67 in their 12-point victory over the Bearcats. And in their last nine games of the regular season, the Bruins held all of their opponents to below 80 points. In the 19 games prior, they had allowed 80 or more points in a game 10 times.

“Defense has been what we’ve really focused on these last couple of months,” senior Bryce Alford said after beating USC 76–74 in the Pac-12 tournament. “It’s constantly been on the rise. We’re not a team that’s going to shut you down all game. That’s just not our personnel, that’s not the style of basketball we play.”

Yet despite UCLA’s slight improvement, the wide-ranging difference between its offensive prowess and its defensive weakness still makes the team extremely imbalanced. Spoiler alert: Imbalanced teams (that is, teams that rank in the top 10 in either defensive or offensive efficiency and outside the top 70 in the other) don’t fare well in the tournament.

The 2012 Louisville Cardinals are one of the lone aberrations to buck this trend — they relied on their no. 1 defense to overcome their 109th-ranked offense on their way to the Final Four before losing to eventual champion Kentucky. Take a look at earlier rounds of the tournament and UCLA most resembles 2015 Notre Dame, which made the Elite Eight with the second-best offense in the nation and the 102nd-worst defense. The Fighting Irish were also eliminated by Kentucky in that round, since it seems the balanced Wildcats are made to knock off teams with a major flaw on one end of the court.

Last season, the Sweet 16 featured four imbalanced teams: Duke, Iowa State, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame. Only the Badgers were better defensively than offensively, but only Duke and Notre Dame made the Elite Eight. Neither made the Final Four, but the upward trend of more imbalanced teams bodes well for this year’s Bruins. In the last three seasons, eight imbalanced teams have made the Sweet 16 (South Carolina and UCLA this year), while in the 13 seasons prior, only 17 combined made it to that stage of the tournament. Likewise, a total of three imbalanced teams made the Elite Eight in 2015 and 2016, while a total of three made it from 2002 to 2014. What may seem like a statistical anomaly could be a trend that provides a glimmer of hope for the imbalanced Bruins.

In January, I watched a very streaky USC team get hot against this UCLA squad. It didn’t go well for the team from Westwood. The Trojans hit 14 3-pointers on their way to downing the cold Bruins, 84–76. USC had the 37th-best offense in the country, per KenPom. Kentucky has the 13th-best. But UCLA already beat the Wildcats once this year, out-shooting them 97–92 in Lexington. That’s the conundrum this Bruins squad presents. It’s the reason they have only four losses — albeit to far more balanced teams like Oregon and Arizona — and it’s the reason they’re a hard team to predict. Their offense can mask their defensive woes, but if the Bruins go cold, they have nothing to fall back on.

“We’ve been critiqued at [the defensive] end probably as hard as anybody,” Steve Alford said following UCLA’s win over Cincinnati. “They forgot about how efficient our offense is. There are other teams around the country that are incredible defensive teams, but I don’t know how they are offensively.”

Almost defiantly, and partly because it has no choice, UCLA seems to be hell-bent on doing what the stats say it can’t: Ride a potent offensive attack to the Final Four and beyond in spite of its defense.

First, Kentucky stands in the Bruins’ way, and potentially after that the fifth- and sixth-ranked offenses in the nation in Carolina and Kansas. On paper, the task is already tough for the Bruins. Add a side of historical evidence that says it’s all but impossible, and UCLA isn’t just fighting to win a title. It’s fighting to become unprecedented.