The first 20 times the UCLA Bruins stepped onto the court in 2016-17 they didn’t need their defense to win.
Yesterday was a different story.
UCLA fans flooded Pauley Pavilion prior to their team’s matchup with Arizona with hopes of earning a win that would go a long way towards a 1 seed or a Pac-12 title. They left with many doubts about whether their team was as good as all the hype suggested, as Arizona knocked off the Bruins 96-85 to hand them their second loss of the year.
Tough loss, right? Doesn’t say a ton about the team, right? Go and get ’em next weekend, right? Well, sort of. UCLA is still one of the country’s best teams. But yesterday’s loss actually said a lot about the team, and why they might not be the Final Four locks we’ve made them to be.
You see, as I alluded to above, UCLA hasn’t needed top-notch production with their backs to the basket. They haven’t even needed to be remotely solid. Lonzo Ball and the rest of the Bruins’ dazzling and high-flying offense was capable of hanging triple digits on anybody. All they really needed to do was hold a team under 90, and that didn’t require much effort; effort that could be better spent wowing the nation.
We all knew UCLA wasn’t good at defense, and we all knew they didn’t care. Now we know that they have to get better and start caring, or they won’t win a national championship. No longer can they take a play or two off here and there.
Granted, Arizona’s win was as well-coached and well-played of a game as we’ve seen all year. And there are few teams in the country as good, especially now that star G Allonzo Trier has returned from his suspension. Sean Miller had his team extremely well prepared. They excelled on both sides of the ball, not just offensively. But he designed a game plan that could ultimately become the blueprint for defeating the Bruins – something along the line of “attack the offensive glass, control the pace, drive the basket, and create mismatches.” The Wildcats exposed all of UCLA’s flaws, which all add up to a complete and utter inability to guard the basketball. And Arizona’s offense forced UCLA to have to fall back on their defense, for it to be their downfall. And that is why Bruins fans should be concerned.
Coach Steve Alford after the game talked about how his players needed to play with the same intensity and unselfishness on defense that they did on offense. That’s true, but it’s not all on the players. It’s clear that Alford hasn’t preached the importance of a strong defense enough. Watching UCLA, you get the sense the players just want to get the ball back as quickly as possible. Yes, that’s probably an exaggeration, but you get the point: The effort and intensity is lacking. Heavily.
And that lack of effort and intensity results in a lack of composure and focus. And that lack of composure and focus results in the select few teams that can match UCLA’s talent level being able to out-flash them. And the teams that can match UCLA in terms of talent are obviously the ones the Bruins will have to beat if they want to win it all.
It would be absurd to suggest that UCLA with their backs to the basket has the potential of, say, Virginia. But it could be better than it is right now.
Saturday’s loss was a cruel reminder that you have to play defense to win big games. I’ve heard a lot of people say that this is the year offense wins a team a championship. That could very well turn out to be true – there’s a lot of scoring talent in college basketball this year – but only offense won’t win anybody anything. It appears Alford has taken the idea of being “offensive minded” a bit too far.
The loss should provide a wake-up call for UCLA. This team knows they need to play better defense. Nobody tried to shy away from that fact in postgame interviews. This is a legit title contender, but there’s a “but” following that statement now.
We know what they can do on offense.
Now, all eyes are on the defense.