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February 9, 2009
UCLA Is Good
Wildly Underrated, Too

by John Gasaway

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I think what tore it for me was seeing UCLA projected as a five-seed in the NCAA tournament, by Joe Lunardi at ESPN.com.

Mind you, I don't fault the projection, which was an accurate reflection of the thinking on the Bruins as of last Monday. It's just that the thinking on the Bruins, even now, is so wrong it's laughable. Literally: I laughed when I saw that little "5" in the bracket next to "UCLA."

Let's start with what you've heard. You've heard that Ben Howland's team is just not as good as it was last year, when the Bruins had Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love and Luc Mbah a Moute in uniform. All three of those players are already being productive in the NBA, even second-rounder Mbah a Moute, who's getting 25 minutes a game for the Milwaukee Bucks. It stands to reason that a team that lost that much talent would take a step back, maybe even a big one. After all, look at Georgetown. They said goodbye to Roy Hibbert, Jonathan Wallace and Patrick Ewing, and suddenly they're 4-7 in the Big East.

Yes, but in this case east is east and west is west. A year ago at this time UCLA was 21-3 overall and 9-2 in the Pac-10. This year the Bruins are 19-4 and 8-2. I'll grant you that last year's UCLA team probably wouldn't have lost to Michigan in Madison Square Garden, as did this year's team on November 20. A lot has happened since then. Specifically, the Bruins have found their post-Love identity and separated themselves from the rest of the Pac-10 in per-possession terms, marking them clearly as the conference's best team up to now. I already noted this on Friday but it bears repeating: this season UCLA is outscoring Pac-10 opponents by 0.17 points per possession, the exact same margin posted by last year's team.

You've also heard that the Bruins have trouble scoring, though you may not have heard it in so many words. Instead you may have run into euphemisms like "plodding," "stagnant" or "wonder where the points will come from."

I for one don't wonder where UCLA's points will come from.

Every Team Should Be This "Stagnant": Best Pac-10 Offenses, 2006-09

Conference games only, 2009 figures through games of February 8
PPP: points per possession

                          PPP  
1.  UCLA, 2009            1.16        
2.  UCLA, 2008            1.13
3.  Arizona, 2007         1.13
4.  Washington, 2009      1.12
5.  Oregon, 2008          1.11     
6.  Washington, 2006      1.10           
7.  Arizona St., 2009     1.09
8.  Cal,2008              1.09 

This is the best offense the Pac-10 has seen in years. The fact that the precise opposite is being said only reinforces the healthy skepticism we should all reserve for anything that's merely said and not checked, as well as reiterating the value of per-possession stats as opposed to per-game stats.

When it comes to the Bruin offense, why is everyone looking excellence in the eye and proclaiming it mediocre? I think there are at least two contributing factors.

First, UCLA really did look wretched on offense when they lost to Michigan back in November, scoring just 52 points in a 58-possession game. It was just one game, of course, but it was a nationally televised Coaches vs. Cancer Classic semifinal with Dickie V. in attendance. This one game effectively served as the introduction of this new-look team to the nation--and the introduction wasn't pretty. (Not to mention losing to the Wolverines left a lasting dent in the Bruins' RPI, which at 27 is about 20 spots lower than it "should" be for a Pac-10 team this good.)

Second, this is a freakishly balanced offense, one that defies the casual fan's expectation that a great offense means a great scorer. Love was the star last year and he used a star's share of the possessions. This year Love's possessions have been split up and passed around. Darren Collison is having a particularly outstanding season, running the offense and delivering assists while hitting 40 percent of his threes and 60 percent of his twos. Still, you're not going to get Stephen Curry-level ink when you average 14 points a game. Too bad, because Collison and his team deserve more ink.

There's one thing about this freakishly balanced offense that we should get straight at the top, though. You might have seen this article (thanks, Luke Winn at SI.com) about UCLA's seniors going to Howland a couple weeks ago and pleading to play at a faster pace. The Bruins are indeed suddenly playing a lot faster and I don't doubt for an instant that that makes the players happier. What's interesting here, though, is that this was already a highly efficient offense.

Unsafe for Opponents at Any Speed: UCLA Offense, 2009

Through games of February 8, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession

                     Pace    PPP     
First six games      57.5    1.19    
Last four games      72.6    1.13   

That is one dramatic acceleration, no doubt, but note as well that UCLA will likely go slow--or at least slower--when they again play the pokey likes of Oregon State and Washington State.

The Bruins are about to embark on their annual excursion across the border to the east, playing at Arizona State Thursday night and at Arizona Saturday morning. The Sun Devils already won at Pauley Pavilion and the Wildcats have won four in a row. It's quite possible that the Bruins could go 1-1 on this trip, and indeed it's not at all inconceivable that they could go 0-2. That's life in the Pac-10.

My point is not that the Bruins should be handed a one-seed, but merely that right now they're being misjudged. What a loss to all fans of the Madness if the misperception translated into a needlessly low seed next month, pitting UCLA against a Connecticut or a North Carolina a week earlier than might otherwise have occurred. I mean "a shame" not necessarily for the Bruins but also potentially for the Huskies or Heels, who could well lose and find themselves unjustly criticized as a one-seed that "didn't even" make the Final Four. (See Kansas, 2007.)

If I'd been writing about college hoops for a few decades, I could peer over my reading glasses imperiously right now and make some sort of sweeping "In all my years" statement about how strangely incorrect everyone is about the Bruins. Alas, I've only been doing this since 2004-05. So allow me this much: In five seasons of doing this I've never seen the perception about a team be so wrong. Until now, the worst case I'd seen was Louisville a year ago, when the Cardinals were unranked until mid-February despite the fact that they were arguably the best team in the Big East. That was egregious, but even that doesn't come close to the perceptual violence that has somehow befallen UCLA in 2009.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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