UCLA is the Biggest Wild Card in March
Usually by this time I have a solid grasp on what teams look like heading into March. What they’re capable of, what they do and don’t do well and their strengths and weaknesses. There’s one team though that I can’t seem to get a firm grasp on, and gauge whether they are Final Four good or not. That title belongs to Robert Alford’s squad in UCLA.
UCLA is a cool 26–3 (13–3) with obviously all three losses coming in conference play. UCLA plays in a tough Pac-12 conference that should get at least six teams into the big dance, so the conference is no slouch. They are coming off of a gritty victory in Tucson against then number four Arizona. Which was a good sign after Arizona went into Pauley Pavilion and dissected the Bruins in their own house.
Now we all know how good of an offensive team UCLA is with Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and their fantastic bench. The best shooting, assist and scoring team in the country and all with good reason seeing as they have such an offensively gifted roster.
The part I can’t get a handle on is which team is going to show up on any given night. As good as UCLA is offensively they’re just as bad if not worse defensively. They rank 266th in the country in opponent three point percentage at 36 percent, and they give up 75 points per game. Which is still absolutely atrocious, but when you score 90 plus points per game you get away with giving up so many points.
In UCLA’s first loss to Arizona their defense was absolutely awful allowing six players to score double figures led by Kobi Simmons 20 points. As a team Arizona shot 50 percent from the floor and 45 percent from three; all of those things can easily lead to taking a loss on your home court. Four days later UCLA went to USC and turned the ball over 17 times, and shot six of 20 from three. Every time UCLA made a run to try and get back in it they’d have inexplicable defensive lapses and USC would stretch the lead back out.
This has been a recurring theme for the Bruins, and it’s likely to rear its ugly head at some point in March, because that’s just how the game works. Only one of their losses has been by single digits, and that was the Oregon game that they absolutely should have won had Bryce Alford an 82 percent free throw shooter had actually made his free throws. So when UCLA loses they look bad, which is never a good sign.
They’ve only had to actually “close out” games four times this year. If you want to be technical it’s more like three times, because when they played Oregon in Pauley they trailed by as many as 19 points. The vast majority of the time UCLA is putting on a show on the offensive end, and they end up blowing teams out. That’ll work the first weekend of the tournament, but once you hit the second weekend you had better be able to play close games and close teams out.
There is no scenario where UCLA ends up with anything less than a three seed in the tournament, and the preliminary bracket that was released back in early February had them as a four seed which was strange to say the least. The bracket rules prevent teams from the same conference from being in the same region if they’re one of the top four seeds. Meaning the Bruins will get to avoid any top tier conference foe for at least the first weekend.
The Bruins are one of the wild cards heading into March because they are just as likely to make the Final Four as they are to lose in the second weekend due to a lackluster performance. If I figure out which UCLA team will show up I’ll be sure to let everyone know.