UCLA Is the National Champion America Needs
By: Jonathan Tjarks
The Bruins play the game the way it was meant to be played, and college basketball could be in for a revolution
After watching UCLA play this season, it’s easier to understand why Bill Walton used to constantly complain about former coach Ben Howland. In his 10 seasons at Westwood, Howland micromanaged his teams within an inch of their lives, trying to control tempo, suffocate the opposing team’s offense, and win games in the half court. He led the Bruins to three consecutive Final Fours from 2006 to 2008, but that was to be expected when there were seven future NBA players across those teams, including Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love. UCLA basketball is like Brazilian soccer: When you have access to such an overwhelming amount of talent, it’s not enough to win. You have to win with style. Howland’s three Final Four teams combined to average 70.3 points per game. UCLA is averaging 90.4 points per game this season.
There are a lot of really good teams in college basketball, and many future NBA stars for fans to fall in love with, but in terms of entertainment value, UCLA is a cut above — not just at the college level, but arguably throughout the entire basketball universe. The Bruins are no. 1 in the country in offensive rating, points per game, field goal percentage, and total assists. They push the pace at every opportunity, they field shooters and scorers at every position, and the ball flies around the court. They play basketball the way it was meant to be played.
Everything starts with Lonzo Ball, the freshman phenom who has transformed the culture of UCLA basketball and will almost certainly be taken in the top three of this year’s draft. Imagine if Ricky Rubio were 6-foot-6, regularly knocked down step-back 3s from Steph Curry range, and was as good at catching alley-oops as he was at throwing them. There has never been a player like Ball. He’s a pass-first point guard who gets to the rim at will and takes only the most efficient shots. According to the numbers at Hoop-Math.com, 35.8 percent of Ball’s shots come at the rim and 56.3 percent of his shots are from behind the 3-point line, which leaves a minuscule 7.9 percent for everything else. He is two or three steps ahead of everyone else on the floor, the rare player who can exert complete control of a game without taking a shot. The guy is a walking highlight reel.
The only players in their rotation who don’t shoot 3s are their centers, Thomas Welsh, Ike Anigbogu, and Gyorgy Goloman. Welsh is one of the best midrange shooters in the country, Anigbogu is an elite rim runner who stretches a defense vertically, and Goloman will likely get only spot minutes in the tourney. UCLA plays four-out or five-out basketball the entire game. All that spacing has helped Ball lead the country in assists per game (7.7), with a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio that is good for 15th in the nation. No one has been able to shut down UCLA this season. Even in their four losses — a home game and a Pac-12 tournament game against Arizona, as well as road dates against USC and Oregon — the Bruins averaged 80.8 points a game on 46.9 percent shooting.
Ball gets most of the credit for their turnaround from their dismal 15–17 season last year. However, just as important has been fellow five-star freshman TJ Leaf, who is averaging 16.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.7 steals, and 1.2 blocks a game, shooting an absurd 61.8 percent from the field. At 6-foot-10 and 225 pounds, Leaf can do a little bit of everything, and he will be a first-round pick in this year’s draft. He stretches the floor out to the 3-point line, and he can put the ball on the ground to create shots for himself and his teammates. He can also score out of the post, play off the ball as a cutter, and clean the boards. Leaf’s versatility unlocks the Bruins’ offensive potential. When UCLA is behind, it often plays Leaf as a small-ball 5, putting the defense in an almost impossible position. He’s not just a stretch 4. He’s a stretch 4 who dunks on people.
The X factor for UCLA is freshman center Ike Anigbogu. Despite averaging only 13.1 minutes per game, Anigbogu is being talked about as a first-round pick. At 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, he’s already strong enough to bang with NBA big men, and he gets off the ground like he’s playing on the moon, operating in lower gravity than everyone else. According to Hoop Lens, Anigbogu has the lowest defensive rating of the top-seven players in the Bruins’ rotation. UCLA gives up 95 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor and 103 points per 100 possessions when he’s off. To win it all, the Bruins will need Anigbogu to be their version of Amida Brimah, a raw 7-foot shot blocker who anchored UConn’s defense as a freshman en route to the Huskies’ national title in 2014. If you prorate Anigbogu’s production over 40 minutes of playing time, he is averaging 3.8 blocks and 13.0 rebounds per game.
UCLA’s supporting cast would be stars at almost any other school. That’s one of the perks of coaching one of the true blue-blood programs. Bryce Alford, the son of coach Steve Alford, is UCLA’s all-time leading 3-point shooter and is fifth on the school’s career scoring list. Isaac Hamilton, the younger brother of former NBA player Jordan Hamilton, is a 6-foot-5 wing with a consummate old-man game; he’ll likely have a long professional career based solely on the fact that he can make shots from almost any angle or release point. Aaron Holiday, the younger brother of NBA players Justin and Jrue Holiday, is a do-it-all sixth man who can shoot 3s, get his own shot off the dribble, create for others, and defend multiple positions. Thomas Welsh is a 7-foot McDonald’s All American who can score out of the high post or the low post.
So how does a team with this much talent ever lose? The Bruins don’t always play defense, and it could end up being their undoing in March. NCAA champions tend to be in the top 25 in offensive and defensive efficiency, and UCLA checks in at no. 128 on defense. In its four losses this season, the team gave up an average of 88.8 points per game. Fans fall in love with high-scoring teams that play an aesthetically pleasing style of basketball, but it doesn’t matter if they can’t buckle down and get stops when it matters. Mike D’Antoni started the NBA’s small-ball revolution in Phoenix, but it wasn’t completed until Golden State proved a smaller team could play elite ball on both ends of the court.
The good news for UCLA fans is that the Bruins have played better on defense since their two-game losing streak to Arizona and USC in late January. Before their loss to Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals, their opponents had not cracked the 80-point barrier in the last 10 games. Considering how much they rely on three freshmen, it’s not unreasonable to think their defense can continue getting better as they move into the NCAA tournament.
For as great as UCLA has been this season, its legacy will be determined by what happens over the next few weeks. A college team with this much talent isn’t built for the long haul, and no one remembers what happens before March, so an early flame-out would turn them into a footnote in sports history. There is no next year for this team. Ball and Leaf will be gone to the NBA, and Anigbogu might join them, while Alford will graduate. There are two more Ball brothers coming to UCLA from the Chino Hills pipeline, but there’s no guarantee either will have the same impact as Lonzo. LiAngelo Ball, who will be in Westwood next season, isn’t considered a top-100 prospect nationally by most of the recruiting services. LaMelo Ball made headlines for scoring 92 points in a game this season, but he’s still a 6-foot-2 high school freshman whose ceiling will be determined by how much he grows.
Once Lonzo gets to the NBA, his coach might not give him the same type of freedom that he has at UCLA. Alford has handed him the reins to the offense, and there are plenty of NBA coaches who would force him to walk the ball up the floor, stand in the corner and play off more gifted scorers. Fit will play a huge role in determining Lonzo’s success at the next level, and if he doesn’t play in space with a bunch of knockdown 3-point shooters and a rim runner like Anigbogu, he won’t be nearly as effective. He won’t have the same type of athletic advantage that he has in the NCAA, and NBA defenders will have an easier time getting into his dribble and taking advantage of the awkward release on his shot.
If Lonzo becomes just a good, but not great, NBA player, these next few weeks could be the best opportunity he will ever have to do something transcendent. If UCLA can win a championship by playing wide-open basketball, it could start a chain reaction; perhaps it would encourage the other blue-blood programs to recruit more shooters, speed up the tempo, and give the most talented players the freedom to play the game in a way that will drive interest in the sport. It’s always fun to pull for Cinderellas, but this year has a higher calling. Basketball fans should be rooting for UCLA to make the Final Four. College teams with the potential to capture the nation’s imagination don’t come around very often. UCLA has a chance to be this generation’s version of Michigan’s Fab Five or Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels teams at UNLV.
If the seeding in the South region holds, UCLA will have to go through Kentucky and North Carolina just to make the Final Four. Those three teams could give us some classic up-and-down games similar to UCLA’s 97–92 victory over Kentucky and Kentucky’s 103–100 victory over UNC in December. Don’t give cynical coaches an excuse to put a leash on their players, throttle back the game, and subject us to more of the rock fights we saw in the last decade. UCLA is fighting for the future, and it needs our support. College basketball needs this. America needs this. It’s time to get on the UCLA bandwagon.