In falling to Mississippi State on Saturday, the Bearcats not only took their second loss, but their first in more than a month. Such sustained success means they are sporting a still respectable 9-2 mark, UC only has two more games left before American Athletic Conference play begins. One of those games is against South Carolina State, so this matchup with the Bruins represents the last chance to bank a solid non-conference win for the ol’ NCAA Tournament resume.
Who are the UCLA Bruins?
Just how good a win over the Bruins will look in March is yet to be determined. Before this past weekend, the Bruins were creeping back toward the national rankings. Unfortunately for them, they collapsed against Belmont at home this past Saturday. Leading by as many as 12 points in the second half, the Bruins shriveled up and came up short, falling to 7-3 overall in a loss that ended a three-game winning streak.
It was another disappointment for a UCLA team that started the year ranked No. 21 in the country. While the voters in the AP poll saw something in them, and its tough to blame them since Bruins are loaded with talented recruits and fresh off trips to the NCAA Tournament in five of the last six seasons, the metrics have not been as kind. UCLA ranks 48th in the country in adjusted efficiency and is outside the top 50 in adjusted offense and defense. Despite this, head coach Steve Alford has his team playing at a relatively quick pace, especially compared to the Bearcats, and the Bruins fill it up at a rate of just a bit more than 80 points per night.
The reason the Bruins were expected to be a marginal national power is their recruiting. Headlined by freshman enter Moses Brown, the Bruins brought in four players on the RSCI top 100 this season, which was the same number they added last season. Sophomore Kris Wilkes was the highest rated of last year’s crop and he has gotten better in his second season. As UCLA’s top scorer (17.4 PPG), the 6’8” wing has an offensive rating of 118.3 and he’s matched that with improved play defensively. He is taking more threes, which has hurt his efficiency since he isn’t making many, but he has partially mitigated that by finishing better around the basket effectively.
Jaylen Hands runs the point for the Bruins. Another highly-touted recruit for the 2017 class, Hands does a lot of things well. He can make plays (6.8 assists per game), score a bit (12.5 points per game) and hassle opposing guards on defense (1.2 steals per game). The biggest drawback to his game has been an inability to consistently make shots, as he is netting just 35.5 percent from the floor. Brown finishes at a much better rate than that (66.7 percent) and despite his youth, has already developed into a devastating two-way player in the paint, averaging 11.8 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game.
Beyond the “big three” of Wilkes, Hands and Brown, Prince Ali is a pretty good three-point shooter (37.0 percent) and Chris Smith adds 8.9 points per game off the bench.
A Budding Rivalry?
The Bearcats and Bruins have been jousting a lot recently and not just in basketball. The two teams opened the football season against one another this year. A 26-17 road win for the Bearcats catapulted them forward in a resurgent year while serving as a bad omen for UCLA’s first year under Chip Kelly.
On the hardwood, this will mark the third-straight season the Bearcats and Bruins have gone to battle. During the 2016-17 campaign, the Lonzo Ball-led Bruins ended UC’s run in the NCAA Tournament with a 79-67 win in the second round. The Bearcats served up some revenge last season with a 77-63 triumph in Los Angeles. Hands scored 14 points and Wilkes had 12 in that matchup, but both the Bearcats (Gary Clark, Kyle Washington, Jacob Evans) and the Bruins (Aaron Holiday) said goodbye to some important players in the offseason.
It’s Cold Inside and Outside
One of the features of UC’s style of play is a slow tempo. That will be tested against UCLA, which will try to speed things up. That’s not what I want to discuss right now, however. That slower style of play means there are fewer field goal attempts to go around. With fewer attempts, the Bearcats need to make smart shot choices and connect on them. That is proving to be a major difficulty this season.
Despite winning nine of their first 11 games, the Bearcats are not efficient enough on offense. Their effective field goal percentage (.511) is 173rd in the country and they don’t shoot well or often from three-point range. Those factors weighed heavily against Mississippi State, as the Bearcats were outscored 36-9 from beyond the arc while shooting 37.3 percent overall. Some of the least efficient scoring has come from the most prolific gunners, as Cane Broome (.425/.185/.808), Keith Williams (.485/.273/.595) and Jarron Cumberland (.416/.436/.800) all have weak spots in their offensive profiles. Williams and Broome are both doing well enough inside, but not succeeding enough from distance, while Cumberland has been uncharacteristically off from inside the arc.
Sometimes these issues can be made up by UC’s standout defense, but that isn’t a strategy to rely on, especially once conference play begins.
As much as UCLA moves quickly and scores a healthy number of points per game, the Bruins don’t do anything at an elite level. The Bearcats may not be the best offensive team around, but they can defend anybody. The Bearcats will need to assert their will defensively and keep the game at a comfortable pace. Even if they can do that, the Bruins will still find ways to light it up, so it will fall on the Bearcats to respond. In many ways, this will be a game that determines whether the Bearcats are a team propped up by a relatively easy non-league schedule or one that is built to contend for the long-term. Let’s take the optimist’s view on that one. Cincinnati 71 UCLA 68