UCLA Basketball: How Bruins Must Improve Before the NCAA Tournament

Robert Pace@Robert_PaceContributor IIIJanuary 22, 2014

UCLA's Jordan Adams, right, is cut off by Utah's Delon Wright during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Salt Lake City, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014. Utah defeated UCLA 74-69. (AP Photo/George Frey)
George Frey/Associated Press

After a loss to Utah on the road over the weekend, UCLA’s conference record stands at 3-2, which slots it fourth in the Pac-12.

Although it’s relatively early in conference play, it’s not quite where the Bruins pictured themselves nearly one-third of the way into their conference schedule.

UCLA still reserves the potential to be a dangerous team heading into March, but not at its current rate.

While the Bruins were able to draw positives from their first conference loss to No. 1 Arizona, the negatives significantly outweighed the positives in their second loss to Utah.

Head coach Steve Alford says his team isn’t dwelling on the loss, but it was an ugly display of basketball from a team that seemed beyond the kinks it worked out in nonconference play.

Although they managed to pull off a win in Colorado, the Bruins also didn’t play their finest in Boulder and likely would have lost the game had the Buffaloes’ star player, Spencer Dinwiddie, not suffered a season-ending injury the prior game.

All of a sudden, UCLA is falling short on the end of the court that it needs to thrive on in order to consistently win games.

GEORGE FREY/Associated Press

Although the Bruins play good defense, as evidenced by their 10.7 steals per game (second in the nation), they live and die by their run-and-gun offensive approach, as they’ve lost three out of four games in which they’ve shot 40 percent or below from the field.

After averaging 86 points through its first 16 games, UCLA put up identical 69-point efforts in its first Pac-12 road trip to the Rocky Mountain schools.

“I thought we just got a little bit complacent,” head coach Steve Alford said of UCLA’s loss to Utah before Tuesday’s practice. “…. You can’t be in a hurry. We want to play quick; we want to play up-tempo, but I thought offensively we got in a hurry and because of that, we took more difficult shots than we had been.”

As teams have had more time to analyze UCLA’s new-look offense and slow it down on tape, the Bruins offense has simultaneously decelerated.

The opposition has discovered methods to slow down UCLA’s offense and force the Bruins to play a half-court offense, which they have little experience running with Alford at the helm.

Jan 18, 2014; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; UCLA Bruins guard Bryce Alford (20) dribbles up the court during the first half against the Utah Utes at Jon M. Huntsman Center. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

As it continues in conference play, UCLA will have the opportunity to develop a half-court offense capable of carrying the team into March.

However, regardless of whether it’s running in transition or searching for shots in the half court, UCLA must achieve balance between the speed and efficiency of its offense.

“We want to run; we want to play up-tempo, but we got to run an offense where we get high-quality shots,” Alford said. “… We just gotta work harder [at] making defenses guard us and get better shots.”

There’s a fine line between a fast and frantic offense, and the Bruins have straddled that line during conference play, particularly when they’ve run a half-court set.

As UCLA has demonstrated this season, quality trumps quantity.

Through 18 games, the Bruins are averaging nearly the same shot attempts per game that they did last season (60.8; 2012-13: 60.9) but have been much more accurate in making the shots they take (50.2%; 2012-13: 45.1%).

Nonetheless, UCLA hasn’t shot nearly on par with its season average in its last four games, as the Bruins have shot a mediocre 41.9 percent from the field against the Arizona and Rocky Mountain schools.

While their shooting slump can be easily dismissed as inconsequential, its source isn’t.

UCLA has struggled to maintain its poise when it’s down in the second half, a shortcoming that appeared to be terminated when the Bruins overcame a double-digit deficit in the second half of their loss to Arizona.

Brennan Linsley/Associated Press/Associated Press

As they displayed in their loss to Utah, the Bruins still frantically scramble to put points on the board when they are down, which causes them to take ill-advised shots instead of finding quality looks for their top scorers.

That’s something that won’t bode well in the NCAA tournament, where upper-echelon teams will present UCLA with its biggest challenges.

And there’s no second chance in the madness of March.

So, as UCLA continues in conference play, it’s imperative that the Bruins achieve a level balance of offensive pace and efficiency and maintain that equilibrium for 40 minutes every game.

Otherwise, they may just run themselves out of contention.

All quotes were obtained firsthand.

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