Unfortunately for the UCLA basketball team, some of its harshest critics are the only critics that matter.
The NCAA Tournament committee wasn’t swayed by UCLA’s lofty ranking when it deemed the Bruins 15th in the nation and projected them as a No. 4 seed in their preliminary bracket two weeks ago.
No. 5 UCLA’s best remaining chance to change their minds is Saturday night at No. 4 Arizona.
If the committee subscribes to the theory that the more difficult the circumstances, the more convincing a victory would be for the Bruins, Arizona is holding up its end in that department.
The last 21 opponents to enter the McKale Center have left with a loss. Arizona has the top scoring defense in the Pac-12 Conference. Allonzo Trier, whose first game of the season was a 96-85 win at UCLA Jan. 21, appears to be hitting his stride. The Wildcats top returning scorer served a 19-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use, but scored a season-high 25 points on Thursday in a 90-77 victory over USC.
“Big-time environment, two big-time teams,” UCLA’s leading scorer TJ Leaf said. “It should be a lot of fun, and we’re ready for it.”
No matter the outcome on Saturday, UCLA (25-3, 12-3 Pac-12) may already owe a debt of gratitude to the Wildcats (26-3, 15-1). The 96 points Arizona scored in Pauley Pavilion are largely credited for a season-altering affect on UCLA’s approach to defense. Even the players admit it was difficult to be convinced defense was an issue as the Bruins rode the most efficient offense in the country to wins in 19 of their first 20 games.
Defense is the obvious culprit for the NCAA tournament committee’s lack of respect for UCLA. Each of the Final Four teams from the last five years have ranked in the top 39 of analyst Ken Pomroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings measuring the number of points allowed per 100 possessions, adjusted for the strength of the opponent.
UCLA ranks 104th. Arizona ranks 31st.
The Bruins are adamant about defensive strides made since Arizona began UCLA’s only two-game losing streak of the season. The Bruins have won six straight games since, holding opponents to an average of 71.5 points, a number more significant that it looks considering the way UCLA’s style increases the amount of its opponents’ possessions.
“We’re playing our best defense,” UCLA sophomore Aaron Holiday said. “We’ve got to take care of the defensive end (against Arizona) and we should be all right.”
Lonzo Ball, lauded for his offensive impact as the only player in the country averaging 15 points, seven assists and six rebounds per game, has also been credited with leading the team’s defensive resurgence.
The national player of the year candidate is expected to be 100 percent by Saturday night after landing on a teammate’s foot during Thursday’s win at Arizona State.
Ball’s running mate, Leaf, has been particularly dominant during UCLA’s six-game winning streak with averages of 19.5 points and 9.2 rebounds. Leaf experienced one of his worst games of the year when Arizona visited UCLA. Considering the 6-foot-10 freshman was once committed to Arizona before flipping to UCLA, he is sure to hear about it if he struggles against the Wildcats again.
“I don’t really know what to expect,” Leaf said. “I just know it’s a big-time environment, sold out every game. So they’re probably going to be on all our heads. That’s just what they do there.”
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