SACRAMENTO — There is little doubt that, when at their best, no college basketball team in this year’s NCAA tournament is more fun to watch than the UCLA Bruins. With superstar freshman point guard Lonzo Ball at the controls of a high-octane, up-tempo offense with plenty of talent around him, the Bruins were this season’s most dynamic offensive team.
But anyone looking to doubt UCLA’s chances of a deep tournament run — or potentially even cutting the nets down in Phoenix next month — got all of the ammunition they needed in the third-seeded Bruins’ 97-80 win over No. 14 Kent State here Friday night.
Yes, the Bruins wound up winning convincingly behind an overpowering display from their offense, proving why they are ranked second in the country in offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com, after the win. UCLA nearly reached the century mark for the eighth time this season, and the Bruins shot a blistering 62 percent from the field, including going 7 for 14 from three-point range.
But UCLA’s defense allowed Kent State — a middling offensive team — to score 80 points. The Bruins let the Flashes rally from an early 16-2 hole to within four points by shooting 51 percent from the floor in the second half. There was the lack of interior grit and toughness, as T.J. Leaf and Thomas Welch – two terrific offensive players – combined to go 14 for 20 from the floor and score 39 points. But their 14 combined rebounds couldn’t keep pace with Kent State’s burly big man, Jimmy Hall, who grabbed 15 by himself.
And the Bruins, who improved to 30-4 with Friday’s win, aren’t about to change now.
“We’ve got to be true to who we are,” UCLA Coach Steve Alford said during Thursday’s media session. “We have to stay who we are offensively and defensively.”
What the Bruins are is a wildly entertaining team, but one whose style leads to the obvious question: Can offense win a championship? In sports, it is defense that is touted as the winning formula. The Bruins are going to test the limits of the truth behind it. According to KenPom.com, UCLA is ranked 83rd in defensive efficiency – the worst of any top-four seed team in the tournament by more than 30 spots.
If any team is capable of overcoming a poor defense, though, it’s this one. Ball deservedly is being considered a consensus top-two pick in this year’s NBA draft, with remarkable floor vision and a shot that, while unorthodox, goes in more than enough to be effective.
Then there’s the simple fact that the Bruins have gone from being a below .500 team last year to one that has Final Four aspirations this season – a change that, while Leaf has also played a part in, Ball deserves the lion’s share of the credit for.
“I’m proud of him,” Alford said. “For an 18-year-old to play in his first season of college basketball, and with the pressure on him … we’re sitting here 15-17 last year, and now we’re 30-4.
“Obviously there’s a lot of pressure on him. He’s got a huge following, so to perform at a high level all the time, that’s not easy. That’s what he’s built for. He’s built for pressure. He’s built to excel in the toughest environments, and the toughest opportunities, challenges that are out there. He’s done that time and time again.”
If that’s enough to lift UCLA to further heights remains to be seen. Alford has never taken a team past the Sweet 16 in any of his prior 22 seasons as a Division I head coach — and has only gotten that far three times. For the Bruins to get that far this season, they’ll have to get past another bruising, physically imposing Midwestern team Sunday, when they take on No. 6 Cincinnati here for the right to advance to face either Kentucky or Wichita State in Memphis next week.
It will be another chance to prove UCLA can hold up against a physical opponent. But unlike Kent State, which was a .500 team in the Mid-American Conference a month ago before closing the season with wins in 10 of their final 11 games heading into Friday, including winning the MAC tournament championship last weekend, they’ll be facing a Cincinnati team that also won its 30th game Friday when it pounded No. 11 Kansas State into submission in the game prior to UCLA’s victory.
“You’ve got two teams that are used to winning all year long,” Alford said. “So, obviously something has to give on Sunday. It’s got all the makings of a great game, fighting to see who can get to the Sweet 16.”
Only one thing is for certain: If UCLA goes down, it’s going to go down swinging, and swinging in the only way it knows how — with an unrivaled offensive attack trying to run opponents off the floor. Whether it will work, however, remains to be seen.