The UCLA Bruins Are the Golden State Warriors of College Basketball
If you're like me and have a younger brother (or sister) you grew up shooting hoops with, you probably remember the days when they tried to imitate your every move. They wanted to be like you on and off the court.
The only problem was they usually couldn't do the same things in the same way you were doing them. They were smaller and less developed, so it was naturally difficult for them to, for example, shoot as far as you.
That's the way I think about this year's UCLA Bruins and the Golden State Warriors. Sure, it's much earlier in the college basketball season than in the NBA, but when they went into Rupp Arena and took down a highly-touted Kentucky Wildcats team this past weekend, the Bruins proved their style of play works against some of the best talent in the nation.
In watching the game, the Bruins looked like the little brothers of the California coast -- and the numbers behind their 9-0 record irrefutably agree.
Unlike the Warriors, the Bruins weren't very good a year ago. While they flashed an impressive offensive game, their lack of defensive efficiency led to a 15-17 record -- Coach Steve Alford's worst record to this point in his tenure at UCLA.
Part of this was the fact that Aaron Holiday, a true freshman a year ago, played 31.7 minutes per game and was forced to take on a lot of responsibility. As a result, he averaged just 10.3 points, with 4.0 assists to 2.9 turnovers per game. His turnover percentage of 21.8% was the highest of any Bruin to play at least 500 minutes in 2015-16.
Good news, though -- now Holiday is another year older and another year wiser. The sophomore guard joins junior Thomas Welsh, and seniors Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford among the squad's key returning players this season. But, experience hasn't been the only valuable addition.
This year, UCLA welcomed two of the top 13 freshmen in ESPN's top 100 recruits in Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf -- a la the Warriors addition of Kevin Durant, and they have not disappointed.
Of any UCLA player who has appeared in all nine games, Leaf and Ball rank one and two in player efficiency rating, respectively. They've brought a lot of value and efficiency to a team already equipped with veteran talent.
The two youngsters have seamlessly stepped into Alford's system, which has the entire team clicking on all cylinders.
Warriors Style of Play
Alford's system at UCLA has always been built upon a high-tempo offense. Over his first three seasons in Westwood, the Bruins have averaged 76.9 points per game on an average adjusted tempo of 69.2 possessions per 48 minutes, according to KenPom.com.
They've looked to out-score teams with high efficiency, and for the most part, they've done just that -- ranking no worse than 51st in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency with an average rating of 113.5 over the past three years. They've also made it a point to make use of floor-spacing and the three-ball, but they haven't had much success with that approach until this year.
UCLA is again among the fastest teams in the country, as they rate 11th nationally with 76.1 possessions per 40 minutes. This time around, though, UCLA ranks 57th in the country in three-point attempts, eighth in three-point makes and first with a shooting percentage of 45.4% from beyond the arc.
The reason? They have five really good three-point shooters, plain and simple.
In addition to Isaac Hamilton's team-leading 3.2 threes per game, the Bruins boast two players with at least 2.2 makes and two more with at least one a game. As a matter of fact, all but one player -- seven-footer Thomas Welsh -- has nine or more three-pointers through nine games.
This has caused their offense to thrive, and so much so that they are the fifth-best offensive team in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency.
Their proficient defensive efficiency is what differentiates this team from those of seasons past, and it's what also makes them so similar to the Warriors. While operating at such a high pace and surrendering 75 points per game, the Bruins are actually 58th in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing 96.1 points per 100 possessions.
Ranking 58th of 361 teams translates to roughly fifth amid the NBA's 30 teams. The Warriors are currently ninth, so if you're still not making the connection, I don't know what I can do.
As I alluded to when discussing UCLA's three-point capabilities, with the addition of Ball -- an elite distributor -- as well as Leaf, the Bruins can hit you from all sides with their balanced scoring attack. How many times have the Bruins had less than four players in double-figures?
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The answer is not once. Like the Warriors (who rank first in the NBA in assists per game), the Bruins are more than willing to share the ball. Their 216 assists rank first in the nation and not one player has a usage rate of 25% or more.
This isn't to suggest that Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant have low usage rates, but it is a testament to the level of talent spread throughout the Warriors and Bruins lineups. It also shows that combining players with high basketball IQs can lead to both team success and happiness at either level.
It obviously pays off to be in a Golden State of mind.