The Showtime UCLA Bruins, the team that has defined the pace-and-space movement in college basketball, the nation’s most lethal offensive attack, landed their second elite road win of the season on Saturday night, going into Tucson and knocking off No. 4 Arizona thanks to their ability to grind out stops defensively, milk the clock and crash the offensive glass.
Who saw that happening?
The fifth-ranked Bruins avenged a beatdown that they took at the hands of Arizona a month ago, going into the McKale Center and handing the Wildcats just their second Pac-12 loss of the season, 77-72. The difference came in the second half, with just under 15 minutes left, when head coach Steve Alford made the change from a man-to-man defense to a 3-2 zone that just had Arizona completely flummoxed. The rhythm that the Wildcats had offensively completely disappeared, but that wasn’t just the work of UCLA’s defense.
Part of it was their offense, too.
Let me digress, for a second: Part of what makes Virginia’s defense so consistently successful is that the Cavaliers make you work on the defensive end of the floor, using up as much of the shot clock as possible. The reason is mostly that Tony Bennett wants his team to control pace and to work the ball around until they have the perfect shot, not just a good shot, but the by-product is that is just takes the air out of the ball for the team that is forced to spend that much time defending. Every. Single. Possession.
This is what UCLA started doing. If they weren’t getting layups in transition, they were running their sets, working the ball into Thomas Welsh and T.J. Leaf, trying to get Lonzo Ball isolated against the smaller Parker Jackson-Cartwright, milking the clock for all that it was worth.
That was before the offensive rebounds.
UCLA grabbed nine of them in the second half — Arizona half just seven defensive rebounds in total, including three straight at the end of the game — and scored 14 second chance points in the second half. These weren’t just tip-ins at the rim. These were hustle plays, UCLA beating out Arizona’s big men to secure a board and work 30 more seconds off of the clock. Those are the back-breakers. Those are the plays that allow a visiting team to keep momentum in their favor and keep the home crowd from getting into the game. Those are the plays that helped prevent Arizona from looking like they had any clue how to attack a zone in the second half.
And that’s just not what we’ve become accustomed to seeing the Bruins do this season.
They run and they chuck threes and they let Lonzo Ball do what he can do and they don’t play much defense. That’s exactly who they were in the first half. They won this game because that’s who they weren’t for the final 15 minutes.
It brings us to a fascinating situation with the Pac-12.
Only one team from the conference is going to get a top four seed in the West Region. Whether it’s a No. 1, 2, 3 or 4 seed, you will only see one of Arizona, UCLA and Oregon — all of whom have essentially locked up a top three seed at this point — in the same bracket as Gonzaga on Selection Sunday. That’s how the bracketing rules work. This is incredibly advantageous because of where their games would be played: In Sacramento (or Salt Lake City) the first weekend, San Jose the second weekend and Phoenix for the Final Four. Not only would all of those games be fairly local — particularly for UCLA and Arizona — but they would be played on West Coast time, an underrated advantage for teams who don’t have to readjust their body-clock to a 10 p.m. ET tip-off time.
The only way that this scenario wouldn’t play out is if a Pac-12 team climbs up to the No. 1 seed line where undefeated Gonzaga also lurks, but as of today — which is a long, long, LONG way from Selection Sunday — it seems like those four No. 1 seeds are pretty set in stone.
UCLA has now won at Kentucky and at Arizona. That’s the best pair of road wins of any team in college basketball. They beat Oregon at home. They’re 26-3 on the season. If they’re going to win the Pac-12 tournament title, they’re probably going to have to go through Arizona and Oregon to do it.
And if they pull that off, the Bruins could very well end up being the top seed coming out of the conference.
They wouldn’t have to leave California until the Final Four in Phoenix.
And had they lost at Arizona on Saturday, I’m not sure it would have been possible.
So while the Bruins were already more-or-less out of the Pac-12 regular season title running, this win had oh-so-much more meaning that simply quieting a rival on their home floor.