Will UCLA's defense hold up for a deep NCAA tournament run?

Wednesday March 15th, 2017

UCLA is not the best team in this year’s NCAA tournament. The Bruins’ résumé, which includes one of the best wins any squad had this season (over Kentucky in Rupp Arena on Dec. 3), is undeniably impressive, but it doesn’t stack up to the CVs compiled by the No. 1 seeds in the field of 68. Likewise, UCLA checks out as good but not elite by various advanced metrics, with the Bruins ranked No. 18 by kenpom.com and No. 17​ by KPISports.

Yet as the No. 3 seed Bruins prepare for their first-round game against No. 14 seed Kent State on Friday in Sacramento, they’re trending as a popular national title pick. On Thursday, just over 8% of participants in ESPN's Tournament Challenge had picked UCLA to win it all, the sixth-highest percentage of any team, and the Bruins boasted better odds (12/1) to win it all than all but seven other squads (North Carolina, Kansas, Duke, Arizona, Gonzaga, Villanova and Kentucky), according to VegasInsider.com.

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If that optimism proves prescient and the Bruins go on to cut down the nets, they would be bucking historical precedent. UCLA has allowed an adjusted 99.8 points per possession this season, which ranks 76th in Division I, according to kenpom.com. That ranking would make the Bruins the worst defensive team to win a championship in the analytics era, which Sports Illustrated has previously defined as beginning in 2001-02, and one of the worst to reach a Final Four. 

No title winners during that period entered the NCAAs with an adjusted defensive efficiency ranking worse than 39th (The Tar Heels in 2009). Moreover, of the 60 squads to reach the national semifinals since 2002, only a quarter of them began the tourney with an adjusted defensive efficiency ranking worse than 25th. Lower the threshold even further, and UCLA’s status as an aberration becomes more clear. As SI’s Luke Winn noted in his math-based bracket tips column this week, only three analytics-era Final Four teams started March Madness with an adjusted defensive efficiency ranking worse than 70th (Marquette in 2003, Butler in 2011 and Virginia Commonwealth in 2011).

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These statistics are in line with conventional hoops wisdom: You need to get stops to win six games in a row against the best competition in the country. For much of this season, however, the Bruins' supporters have contended that their team could overcome their defensive shortcomings by simply outscoring the opposition. Why spend so much time worrying about UCLA’s ability to protect its own basket, the thinking went, when the Bruins were capable of putting the ball through their opponent’s basket pretty much whenever they felt like it? 

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Indeed, with a projected top-three NBA draft pick at point guard in Lonzo Ball and multiple other likely pros in their rotation, including big men T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu, UCLA has roasted defenses this season by pushing the pace, limiting turnovers and draining shots at a high rate from both sides of the arc. The Bruins’ firepower has served as a bulwark against defensive lapses. Never was this more clear than in a high-profile game against Oregon at Pauley Pavilion on Feb. 9, when UCLA gave up 1.18 points per possession to the Ducks yet still won 82-79. The problem? Recent history suggests that even with an offense this explosive, the Bruins are not stout enough on the other end of the floor to keep their season alive into April. 

According to Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted points per possession statistic, UCLA’s offense is less efficient than both Oklahoma State’s and Villanova’s this season. Meanwhile, the aforementioned North Carolina squad that won it all in 2009 with a pre-tournament adjusted defensive efficiency ranking of 39 led the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency that year. And while the Duke outfit headed by freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow that claimed the championship in 2015 ranked third nationally pre-tourney in adjusted offensive efficiency, just like the Bruins, the Blue Devils were considerably better on the opposite end, ranking 37th in adjusted defensive efficiency.

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For context, consider that the best pre-tournament offense among Final Four teams in the analytics era belongs to 2015 Wisconsin, whom Duke beat in the title game that year. The Badgers rung up an adjusted 124.8 points per 100 possessions, 22.5% more than the Division I average that year, and they ranked 16th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. This season UCLA scores an adjusted 122.6 points per 100 possessions, 17.7% more than the Division I average, and their adjusted defensive efficiency ranking is 60 spots worse than 2015 Wisconsin’s.

This chart shows the efficiency profiles of the analytics-era Final Four teams with the top pre-tournament offenses, according to adjusted points per possession. It lists every squad to reach the national semifinals that ranked third (2017 UCLA’s ranking) or better in adjusted PPP entering the NCAAs. Only three of the teams possessed a pre-tourney adjusted defensive efficiency ranking worse than 40th and only one worse than 70th, the Marquette group fronted by 12-time NBA All-Star Dwyane Wade.

This analysis is built on a dangerous assumption: UCLA will perform as expected. It’s totally possible that the Bruins could unleash a devastating offensive onslaught over the next few weeks, a fusillade of threes and layups and dunks so overwhelming that it doesn’t matter how many points they give up. One need look no further than last year to see how a team can ride an offensive hot streak to national glory; during their run in the Big Dance, the title-winning Villanova Wildcats shot 50% from three, made 63% of their twos and scored a staggering 1.28 points per possession.

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Still, it’s folly to project a squad to punch above its offensive weight for six consecutive games, even one whose point guard could be the first player selected in a draft many analysts are hailing as one of the best in years. UCLA may be able to pick up a couple of wins by outgunning its opponent in high-scoring contests, but that strategy easily could fall apart against an opponent with a sturdy D. If the Bruins’ shots aren’t falling or Ball has an off night or something else prevents their attack from operating at full speed, UCLA is going to need to hold up defensively to eke out a W.

The chart below shows how the Bruins’ efficiency metrics compare with other championship contenders this year. Teams are listed in descending order according to the title futures odds posted on VegasInsider.com. UCLA will begin tourney play with by far the worst defense and the second-worst adjusted efficiency margin of the top title threats, though its offense is better than every title threat save Villanova.

Fortunately for the Bruins, there’s evidence their defense is perking up at just the right time. Over its last 10 games, UCLA has yielded 0.98 points per possession and allowed opponents to shoot 45.6% inside the three-point line, compared to 1.09 PPP and 47.5 2FG% in the previous 10 games (two-point field goal defense is a stronger indicator of defensive prowess than three-point field goal defense). That 20-game sample size covers UCLA’s run through Pac-12 play and the conference tournament, where it fell to No. 2 seed and co-regular season title winner Arizona in the semifinals.

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It’s worth noting that UCLA benefited in the second half of its Pac-12 slate from two games against Washington, which ranks 116th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and was missing star point guard Markelle Fultz in one of the matchups because of a knee injury; and one game against Oregon State, which ranks 305th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. In the league tournament semifinals, against a Wildcats team with the sort of offensive pop that the Bruins will face if they advance deep into the tourney, they allowed Arizona to make half of its twos and score 1.13 PPP, while UCLA mustered only 0.99 PPP.

Ultimately the Bruins’ shoddy coverage shouldn’t be disqualifying when considering potential Final Four teams for your bracket. Although UCLA would be breaking new ground by getting to Phoenix after starting its run with such a poor adjusted defensive efficiency ranking, the combination of an abundance of NBA-level talent, offensive potency and an A-list superstar running the show makes the Bruins an enticing squad to take a flier on, even if the numbers indicate that wouldn’t be a prudent choice. In a single-elimination tournament known to produce wacky results, you could do much worse than going all in on UCLA.

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