UCLA is 23-3, has one of the best players in America in Lonzo Ball, and boasts the best offense the sport has seen in the past 15 years. Based on everything the Bruins have going for them, they should be a legitimate national title contender.They still might be, but there are two sides of the court. The Bruins rank 129th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, and if history holds up, that will prevent them from winning a national championship.
To be clear: UCLA can still win the title even if it doesn’t improve its defense – though it’s unlikely. The Bruins’ offense is that lethal. But Steve Alford’s squad would increase its margin for error if it merely became decent in stopping foes. As it stands, a cold perimeter shooting night would likely mean an early NCAA tournament exit.
Since 2002, here is every national champion and their final adjusted defensive efficiency ranking. The teams are listed from best to worst:
So, yeah, that table is bad news if you’re a UCLA fan. The good news: the 2016-17 Bruins have a better offense than any of the past 15 national champions; its 124.5 offensive rating edges out 2014-15 Duke, which posted a 122.5 mark. So while the worst defensive team on this list was more than 100 spots better than UCLA is this season, it doesn’t have as much ground to make up as the table may suggest. Still, improvement is likely needed.
2014-15 Duke is the blueprint. The Blue Devils struggled defensively all season long two years ago, but once the tournament started, Duke shifted Justise Winslow to power forward. From there, everything changed – the Blue Devils surrendered 56.3 points per game in the NCAA tournament, well below their season average.
Whether or not UCLA has that kind of adjustment hibernating remains to be seen. It’s popular to suggest that Ike Anigbogu should see more minutes – he’s a better rim-protector than Thomas Welsh, and while Welsh is a better offensive player, the Bruins should sacrifice some scoring for point prevention if at all possible.But the on/off-court splits for Anigbogu and Welsh are virtually identical; foes score .8 more points per 100 possessions with Welsh on the floor as opposed to Anigbogu. Given Welsh’s offensive proficiency, that’s not enough to move the needle. The real issues lie on the perimeter. Bryce Alford, Aaron Holiday and Isaac Hamilton aren’t bad athletes, but they’re not long or disruptive, and opposing guards can get just about whatever they want, whenever they want it against them.
With that said, these guys don’t need to be 2012-13 Louisville in order go to the Final Four. But they need to play like a top-50 or 60 defense the rest of the way, and they’re more than capable of doing so.
UCLA isn’t the only big name that, based on history, needs to up its defensive effort in order to vault into the national title conversation. Some others:
With Kenny Williams’ injury and Theo Pinson in and out of the lineup, the Tar Heels’ depth is becoming a concern. But with the way Justin Jackson and Joel Berry are playing, they have the star power to win a title. UNC ranks 42nd in defense, though, and needs to shore things up on that side of the floor.
We broke down Kansas at length here, but it needs to find one more reliable interior force. Landen Lucas can’t do it all on his own, and the Jayhawks rank 29th in the country in defense.
Duke ranks 25th in defense, but it’s trending upward after a phenomenal win at Virginia on Wednesday night. The Blue Devils struggled to guard ball screens earlier this season, but they seem to have rectified that issue, and Harry Giles is improving with every game for a team that desperately needed a second big man.
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Records were made to be broken. At the end of the day, UCLA is 23-3 – teams that have won almost 90 percent of their games through mid-February are really, really good, and should be treated as such.
But it’s hard to see UCLA defying the odds to this magnitude. The Bruins wouldn’t just be the worst defensive champion in recent memory – they’d be the worst defensive champion in recent memory by a mile. UCLA is one of the most fascinating teams in America, and something will eventually have to give. As March looms, keep an eye on this storyline.