Bracketology is smiling on the Bruins.
Steve Alford deserves credit here. His first season in Los Angeles has hit numerous potholes, but as the stakes rise, he’s started squeezing the best performances yet out of UCLA.
His Bruins have faltered numerous times this season after seemingly hitting their stride, so any lingering doubts about their potential for a NCAA run are justified. (Alford may have won three straight Las Vegas conference tournaments in a row, but he never got New Mexico past the round-of-32 despite securing top-five seeds three times.) That said, this feels different.
The team that knocked off No. 4 Arizona on Saturday night looked nothing like the one that lost at Utah, at Oregon State, at Stanford, at Washington State. UCLA proved it could grind out a tough game, edging the Wildcats on the boards and winning despite shooting 25.9 percent in the second half.
In turn, the Bruins looked even more loose on offense when it counted.
The game-clinching play was a microcosm of that freedom. With 54 seconds left on the clock, Alford elected to go for a two-for-one rather than running down the clock. He called a play dubbed ‘money,’ one designed to free up leading scorer Jordan Adams after using him as a screen for point guard Kyle Anderson. When Arizona’s Nick Johnson bit toward Anderson, Adams had plenty of space to set his feet and hit the go-ahead 3-pointer.
Alford mentioned the Bruins’ free-throw edge as a factor in his decision, as well as not wanting to give Arizona the last shot. Mainly, though, he didn’t want to ruin a good thing.
“It came down to trusting them, and we’ve been having fun,” Alford said. “This group has fun. Fifty two seconds going into the timeout and we’re laughing. I come into the huddle and I said, how about ‘money’? And these guys are cheering and jumping around. So when you have a team that excited to run something, you’re crazy as a coach not to at least try it.”
— Adams broke his foot at the end of last year’s Pac-12 semifinal win over Arizona, but that wasn’t the only memory that lingered for him Saturday night.
With 52 seconds left in UCLA’s eventual 79-75 loss to Arizona back in January, the sophomore launched a similar 3-pointer with a chance to tie the game at 73. It bounced in and out, and the Wildcats extended their lead to six by hitting three out of their next four free throws.
When he drilled a go-ahead trey with 45 seconds left at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, a bit of weight floated off his shoulders.
“That shot haunted me,” Adams said. “I always told myself if I got another chance, I would knock it down. And coach trusted me to shoot it, and that’s when I made it.”
— To emphasize just how impressive UCLA’s offense looks right now, all you really have to do is reexamine Arizona’s defensive dominance.
Even after giving up over 70 points to the Bruins for the second time this season, they remain by far the most efficient defensive team in college basketball. According to kenpom.com, Arizona only gives up 86.9 points per 100 possessions.
Next is Virginia Commonwealth, at 89.0. Seventh-best is San Diego State at 90.9 — which means that, at least by one measure, there is more distance between Arizona and everyone else than between the six teams right behind the Wildcats.
Yet on Saturday night, UCLA scored at a rate of 108.7 points per 100 possessions.
“We’ve been rolling pretty much on defense these last few games, and they came out and punched us in the mouth,” said Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Johnson. “Just the variety of which they score, threes, twos, getting fouls, getting to the line and lay-up stuff like that.
“It’s really going to — like Coach (Sean Miller) said, it’s going to catch some people in the tournament by surprise.”
— Arizona likely still gets a No. 1 seed this afternoon, but at some point in the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats’ free throw shooting will cost them.
Not only did their 65.5 percent conversion rate rank last in the Pac-12, it also put them at 313th in the country. The only major conference teams who shoot worse are Wake Forest (65.0), Virginia Tech (64.8), Texas A&M (64.2) and North Carolina (62.5).
Remember Memphis? Well, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Nick Johnson each bricking the front end of back-to-back one-and-one chances in the final 3:38 echoed that — albeit in far less egregious circumstances.
“As we climb the ladder and the teams we play are better and have a lot at stake themselves, it’s tough to win when you go 6 for 16 from the line,” Miller said. “If we would have shot better from the free-throw line, we’d have been in the winner’s circle, there is not a doubt in my mind about that. That is something that we have to learn from and hopefully we can do better.”