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NCAA Tournament Preview: No. 6 Cincinnati vs No. 3 UCLA

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Kansas State vs Cincinnati Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Well, damn.

After watching a couple of UCLA games on Friday, that euphoric feeling from Friday night is already starting to fade away. I had watched the Bruins a few times throughout the year, but hadn’t thought about them in terms of how they match up with the Bearcats until yesterday. This one is going to be tough.

The Bad News

  1. Lonzo Ball is every bit as advertised, and he has the ball in his hands on most possessions. Not only does he knock down 41.4% of his three-pointers, but he dishes out 7.6 assists per game. His shooting stroke is obviously awkward, but college defenders have yet to find a way to stop him.
  2. UCLA has scored 95 points or more on 15 occasions this season. According to KenPom, the best defense they faced all season is Kentucky — a team they dropped 97 on. That’s 97 points on the ninth best defense in the country.
  3. They are so much more than Lonzo Ball. Freshman forward, TJ Leaf shot 61.9% from the field this season, including 46.4% from behind the three-point line. Bryce Alford, who took 90 more three-pointers than Jacob Evans, knocks them down at a rate of 43.6%.
  4. Sophomore guard, Aaron Holiday is Ball’s backup at point guard. In their first round game against Kent State he scored 15 points and added 11 assists. Even if Ball struggles, UCLA has someone capable of distributing to their elite scorers.
  5. Their defense (with one notable exception I’ll detail below) isn’t terrible. They give up a lot of points, but that’s mostly because they play at such a fast pace. The Bruins are sixth in the country in average possession length, taking just 14.4 seconds per possession. That only team the Bearcats faced with a similar style was Marshall (13.9 seconds per possession), who initially rattled the Bearcats with their quick pace and jumped out to a 50-38 halftime lead.

The Good News

  1. UCLA takes a ton of ill-advised shots. I mean, a ton. Lots of 28-foot three-pointers with 15-20 seconds on the shot clock. They also try to force flashy passes whenever they can. This isn’t Butler. This isn’t a fundamentally sound team that’s simply won’t make any mistakes. They are going to turn the ball over, they are going to forget to box out, they are going to go through a self-imposed scoring drought because of poor shot selection.
  2. That reckless style is going to allow easy baskets for Kevin Johnson, Jarron Cumberland, and Jacob Evans. It just takes a couple of easy layups to get a shooter feeling confident, and in rhythm. Cincinnati’s big men carried them over Kansas State, but a Sweet Sixteen birth is going to depend on how well their guards respond.
  3. Leaf and Ball are extremely talented, but they are still freshman. You can see it in Ball’s defense especially. He sometimes isn’t quite sure where he should go. He has plenty of quickness and skill to stop his defender, but he’s not especially good at team defense yet. That’s going to open up mid-range jumpers off of pick and rolls for Clark and Washington.
  4. Bryce Alford is a legit defensive liability. Whoever he guards is going to beat him off the dribble, and lose him on picks all game long. That means the team defense discussed in the previous point will become even more important. Alford more than makes up for his atrocious defense with his sharpshooting, but watch for the Bearcats to try to exploit him as much as possible.
  5. Oregon State is an atrocious team, but they are the best comparison to the Bearcats pace of play in the Pac 12. The Beavers are ranked 330th in average possession length at 19.4 seconds per possessions, and the Bearcats are ranked 295th at 18.5 seconds per possession. Oregon State’s style of play didn’t come close to beating UCLA, but it did limit the Bruins to ‘just’ 77 points per game, far below their season average. Cincinnati can’t win this game if the score is in the 90s, but they have a shot if the score is in the 70s.
  6. The Bruins enter the game a little banged up while the Bearcats appear totally healthy. This piece from the folks over at Bruins Nation sums up the current injuries for UCLA. The most significant injury appears to be the one that kept Ike Anigbogu out of the first round game against Kent State. If he misses the game against Cincinnati it could be a big blow to UCLA’s chances of limiting Gary Clark and Kyle Washington. Important to note that Ball fell awkwardly in the game against Kent State, but he finished that game and will definitely play on Friday night.

Prediction

If, and it’s a big if, but if the Bearcats are able to keep this game competitive throughout then I think their senior leadership will be the difference in a narrow victory. However, if the Bruins shoot like they’re capable of, and take a double-digit lead at some point, then the Bearcats just won’t have the firepower to make a run at them. My gut instincts — and 36 years as a fan of Cincinnati sports teams — tells me the Bruins are going to win this one relatively easily. UCLA 86, Bearcats 72