Steve Alford’s UCLA Bruins hosted Colorado on Thursday with the winner taking a step forward in the quest to not only determine the Pac-12’s second-best team but also keep pace with an Arizona squad that has some tough road games remaining on its schedule. And thanks to some excellent offensive execution the Bruins were the ones who took that step, as they beat the Buffaloes 92-74 with sophomore Kyle Anderson leading the way.
Anderson is one of the nation’s most versatile players, with his ability to not only score but also rebound and distribute the basketball being one reason why UCLA has been the Pac-12’s most efficient offensive team in conference play. Against Colorado, Anderson accounted for 22 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds on a night that saw the Bruins shoot 56.5% from the field and 11-for-22 from beyond the arc.
Why did UCLA shoot so well? Partly because they shared the ball. 25 of the Bruins’ 35 made field goals were assisted, with Jordan Adams (17 points, seven rebounds) and Norman Powell (ten points) accounting for four assists apiece and David Wear finishing with three assists to supplement the 11 credited to Anderson.
However the biggest difference against Colorado was UCLA’s improved defense in the second half, and that area (along with the consistency of their front court) will determine just how many games this team can win in the NCAA tournament. After shooting 55.2% in the first half, with Askia Booker and Josh Scott getting whatever they wanted offensively, Colorado made just 37.5% of its shots in the second half.
The quality looks Colorado found in the first half weren’t as plentiful in the second, and the combination of that and UCLA playing even better offensively resulted in an 18-point victory for the Bruins.
What also bodes well for UCLA moving forward is the fact that Bryce Alford, who shot 3-for-14 in the three games prior, snapped out of his slump and scored 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting. Alford and fellow freshman Zach LaVine have been key pieces for UCLA this season due to their ability to provide scoring off the bench. This can help on nights when the front court struggles offensively, although the Wear twins and Tony Parker still need to be factors defensively and on the boards.
So how good can UCLA be? There’s clearly plenty of talent at Steve Alford’s disposal, with his 6-foot-9 floor general leading the way. But for all that talent, UCLA’s fate in March will be determined by their commitment to defense and the consistency of their big men. With David Wear struggling, Travis Wear tallied 13 points and seven rebounds with Parker adding six points and five rebounds.
The offensive skills of UCLA’s perimeter rotation, led by Anderson, will continue to receive the headlines and rightfully so. But it’s the “little things” that result in postseason success, and in the second half of Thursday’s win the Bruins did a better job of addressing those areas.
This week’s rankings were probably more difficult to put together than any week so far this season.
The top four, frankly, seem pretty obvious. I have Villanova No. 1, but I would have no qualms with ranking any of Kentucky, Kansas or Gonzaga in that No. 1 spot. I expect those to be the four teams that get votes for No. 1 in the AP and Coaches Polls this week.
After that, however, is when it gets difficult. Are you going to rank North Carolina above Florida State? UNC beat the Seminoles when they squared off this season but that was the Seminoles lone loss in a six game run against ranked teams. I went with Carolina over them because, simply, I think UNC is a better team.
Then there’s the question of what to do with the top three teams in the Pac-12. Arizona just won at UCLA and they got Allonzo Trier back. Oregon also owns a win over the Bruins, but there’s came at home on a buzzer-beater from Dillon Brooks, who is dealing with a foot injury again. And while UCLA has consistently proven to be one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the country, they are a nightmare defensively right now.
Where does West Virginia slot in after a pair of losses? What about Creighton without Mo Watson Jr.? Butler’s profile looks great but their performance on the floor has been less than stellar since their win over Villanova. Is Duke actually back?
You can find the rankings below. What did I get wrong?
1. Jeff Capel’s gamble paid off: For the first time in more than a month, Duke looked like Duke again, and it all came from a roll-of-the-dice by interim head coach Jeff Capel.
With the Blue Devils down 36-25 at the half at home against Miami, he benched Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Harry Giles III to open the second half, and it worked. Matt Jones scored all 13 of his points to sparked a 31-4 run that turned what should have been Miami’s first marquee win into a moment in Duke’s season that we have to highlight.
The specific turning point came less than two minutes into the half. Duke was finally playing with energy defensively, but they couldn’t quite get things going on the offensive end of the floor. After another missed shot from the Blue Devils, Jones picked off an outlet pass and rattled home a three that sent Cameron Indoor Stadium into hysterics. The crowd went nuts. The bench went nuts. Capel went to go chest bump Jones at half court after Miami called a timeout and nearly truck-sticked his veteran leader.
And it was more than just Jones hitting shots. Frank Jackson looked the part of an all-american for the first time since his more-heralded freshmen counterparts returned from injury. Marques Bolden played what was by far his best game as a collegian, too. They were brimming with confidence, but perhaps more importantly, it was the first time that Duke looked to be having fun playing basketball since the Jimmy V Classic on Dec. 10th.
I don’t know what the future holds for Duke’s season.
But I do know that if they make a run now, Matt Jones rattling home a three will have been the turning point in their season.
2. Creighton might be OK without Mo Watson Jr.: Creighton got smoked by Marquette at home on Saturday afternoon, losing 102-94 in a game that wasn’t really that close in the second half. That’s not exactly the most reassuring thing to have happen for a team trying to figure out how to survive without their all-american point guard, but there is something important to note about the result: Creighton lost because they decided not to defend.
Marquette has one of the most potent offensive attacks in the country. They currently rank 7th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric. They have loads of guards to spread around Luke Fischer in the post, and head coach Steve Wojciechowski has them running and gunning like some of those old Duke teams he played on. They made 12 threes against Creighton, shot 60 percent from the floor and scored 1.275 points-per-possession.
That’s atrocious defense from the Bluejays.
But they also put up 94 points. Marcus Foster went for 30. They were 11-for-24 from the floor and shot 49.3 percent on the game despite missing 23 of their first 34 field goals. Davion Mintz, playing the point in Watson’s absence, finished with 17 points and eight assists. Their offense, overall, looked fine.
Part of that is because Marquette is a bad defensive team. Part of that was likely because they were chasing the game late, able to get a flurry of points down the stretch against a defense that was trying not to foul. And it’s not like we can ignore the 11-for-34 start to the game.
That said, when you combine this performance with the fact that the Bluejays were able to hold on and win at Xavier after Watson’s first half injury, there is reason to be optimistic that Greg McDermott will figure this thing out. Creighton no longer has the same upside without Watson – he was awesome, let’s not forget that – but this weekend showed us the Bluejays aren’t dead yet.
3. Indiana isn’t dead yet, either: We were all ready to bury the Hoosiers after they lost O.G. Anunoby to a knee injury that will require surgery and end his season, but someone forget to tell Indiana.
Four days after James Blackmon Jr. hit a buzzer-beating three to give Indiana a win at Penn State, the Hoosiers smacked around Michigan State at Assembly Hall on the strength of 33 points from Blackmon. All of a sudden, Tom Crean’s club is sitting at 4-3 in the Big Ten, two games out of first place, having won four of their last five, the only loss coming by three points at league leader Maryland.
That’s impressive, but it doesn’t get any easier for the Hoosiers. This week, they visit both Michigan and Northwestern, who is currently 5-2 in the Big Ten. Winning at home in front of a raucous crowd is one thing. Taking care of teams that they should be able to beat on the road is another.
4. Can we still take UCLA seriously as a title contender?: At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, UCLA’s defense has gotten to the point where it’s difficult to picture them winning six games in a row against quality competition. They rank 125th nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric after giving up 1.315 points-per-possession. Arizona routinely obliterated UCLA off the dribble, getting into the paint at will and exposing Bryce Alford as a defensive liability. Arizona also pounded the offensive glass, getting 34 percent of their own misses, and the cumulative effect was that the Bruins were unable to get their transition game into high gear.
As the saying goes, the easiest way to keep a running team from running is to make them take the ball out of their own net.
The Bruins are still the most dangerous team in the country. When they play their best, when they are banging threes and getting out in transition and Lonzo Ball is doing Lonzo Ball things, they can beat anyone else’s best. Their ceiling is the highest ceiling in the sport.
But we’re just not going to see that ceiling for six straight games.
So while Arizona proved themselves a Pac-12 favorite and a threat in March on Saturday, the more telling issue was that UCLA may not be quite as good as we thought they were.
5. Is West Virginia’s press broken?: One of the knocks we had on Baylor entering Big 12 play was that once they began playing teams that knew how to attack that funky zone they run their defense would take a hit. For the most part, that hasn’t been the case for the Bears.
It has, however, for the Mountaineers.
The blowout win over Baylor aside, West Virginia has not been impressive in Big 12 play. They lost to Texas Tech in overtime. They barely beat Big 12 bottom-feeder Texas. They lost at home to Oklahoma in overtime. They lost at Kansas State by four. In all four of those games, the Mountaineers had more turnovers than they forced. West Virginia leads the nation by forcing turnovers on 31.1 percent of their defensive possessions. In those four games, they forced turnovers on 20.3 percent of their possessions.
How about this for a good week for the Seminoles: They beat No. 15 Notre Dame on a night where the Fighting Irish hit 15-for-21 from three, and then followed that up by jumping out to a 14-0 lead and taking a win off of No. 12 Louisville, who never led in the game.
Not bad, right?
Here’s the kicker: Florida State not only is sitting tied for first place in the ACC, they’ve put themselves in a position where getting a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament isn’t all that far-fetched.
The Seminoles ended a run of six straight games against ranked teams on Saturday. They went 5-1 in that stretch, winning at Virginia and beating Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Duke and Louisville in Tallahassee. The only loss came at North Carolina, who, along with the Irish, are the two teams that also have just one loss in league play.
It’s not going to be easy for Florida State to do. To get the No. 1 seed in the East they’re probably going to have to win the ACC regular season title – maybe the ACC tournament title, too – and hope that résumé looks better than Villanova’s, because I would be willing to bet Kentucky will coast into the No. 1 seed in the South, Kansas will lock up the No. 1 seed in the Midwest and Gonzaga will battle it out with UCLA and Arizona for the No. 1 seed out West.
And winning the ACC won’t be an easy thing to do, not with seven of Florida State’s last 11 games coming on the road.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
For now, we should really just appreciate what the Seminoles have done this season.
Kansas State: The Wildcats had twice been on the wrong end of some poor officiating in crunch time this season, costing them wins at Kansas and at Texas Tech that would have slotted them, for the time being, on the right side of the bubble. Bruce Weber’s club fixed some of those problems this week, winning at Oklahoma State and beating West Virginia at home.
Arizona: I’m not sure it’s possible for Sean Miller to have had a better week. First, Arizona won at USC. Then, the news about why Allonzo Trier stat out the first 19 games of the season broke. A day later, Trier passed a drug test and was cleared to play. And finally, he went for 12 points, seven boards and four assists as the Wildcats won at UCLA to remain undefeated in the Pac-12.
Indiana: Did the Hoosiers save their season this week? They might have, despite the fact that O.G. Anunoby suffered a season-ending knee injury. First, it was James Blackmon Jr. burying a game-winning three to avoid a collapse on the road against Penn State, and then it was Blackmon popping off for 33 points in a win over Michigan State in Assembly Hall.
Northwestern: Northwestern did something on Sunday that they haven’t done in 40 years – win at Ohio State. The Wildcats are now 16-4 on the season and 5-2 in the Big Ten. Is this the year that they finally reach the NCAA tournament? With six of their final 11 games coming against Wisconsin, Purdue, Maryland and Indiana, Northwestern will have the chances to bolster their résumé.