UCLA in the Sweet 16: Will They Continue Their Run?
When it was announced on Selection Sunday, one of the major gripes surrounding this year's field of 68 was whether UCLA even deserved to be in the tournament. After all, they did have a record of just 20-13.
Entering the dance, their nERD -- the number of points we'd expect a team to win by against an average opponent on a neutral court -- was the ninth worst among all the at-large teams. Now, however, of the remaining 16 teams, the Bruins have seen the biggest jump in nERD. After winning their first two tournament games, UCLA has a nERD of 9.92 -- a jump of +0.44 points.
That may be the highest jump, but the Bruins still have the lowest nERD of all Sweet 16 teams, and are the only team with a score under 10. That has a lot do with their underachieving regular season, but what have they done to improve in the big dance?
Round of 64
Against 6-seeded SMU, UCLA came out with a surprising 60-59 win. They struggled to score points on the offensive end, understandably so against the 24th-ranked defense in the nation. The Bruins' 60 points fell 12.2 points short of their season average while their Offensive Rating of 93.8 was 12.7 points under their average rating of 106.5.
Why did they struggle? For starters, the Bruins turned the ball over on more than 25% of their possessions for a total of 18 turnovers. Even when they did hold onto the ball, they managed a mere 20 field goals on 42.6% shooting from the floor. The Bruins struggled to attack the paint effectively, shooting 10-27 from two-point range with a free throw rate of just 29.8.
What the Bruins did do to get the win was both shoot the three and defend efficiently. They shot 10 of 20 from the three-point line with an Effective Field Goal Percentage of 53.2% and a True Shooting Percentage of 55.9%. On the defensive end, the Bruins were solid, posting a Defensive Rating of 92.2 and held the Mustangs to an Effective Field Goal Percentage of 42.7% and a field goal percentage of 36.4%.
In the first round, the Bruins won with a "3-and-D" concept. What about the second?
Round of 32
The Bruins went on to face the Blazers of UAB in the round of 32. While UAB pulled the upset over Iowa State in the first round, they didn't make them a better team than they actually were. The Blazers finished their season with a nERD of 1.94, which is 131st in the country.
With that being said, UCLA had a much easier time with UAB in the second round than they did with SMU in the first round. UCLA let up 37 points in the first half, but they scored 46 themselves and then outscored the Blazers 46 to 38 in the second half. Unlike their previous matchup, the Bruins gave up more points than they averaged on the season and had a Defensive Rating 10.1 points worse than their usual 100.2. On the other hand, they put up a lot of points and did so with great efficiency.
To much surprise, the Bruins didn't need the three ball to do it. They were very efficient, shooting 55.6% from behind the arc, but they shot just 9 threes and made 5 of them. Instead, the Bruins dominated down low and in the paint. UCLA shot 61.2% from inside the arc and finished with a True Shooting Percentage of 65.8% and an Effective Field Goal Percentage of 64.7%.
They did all this as a result of some aggressive offensive play. The Bruins finished the game with a free throw rate of 43.1 and went 17 of 25 from the charity stripe. They also finished the game with 40 rebounds (14 of those offensive) to UAB's 25. Kevon Looney and Tony Parker both finished with double digit rebounds and Tony Parker amassed 28 points on 11 of 14 from the field and 6 of 8 from the three throw line.
According to the numberFire Live leaderboard, Parker had the sixth-best performance of the second round, with a nERD of 51.65.
On Friday, the Bruins, the only double-digit seed to make the Sweet 16, will face the Gonzaga Bulldogs. The Zags are by far the best team the Bruins will have met in this year's NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga has a nERD of 17.99, far better than both SMU and UAB.
The two teams have previously met this season in a game at Pauley Pavilion, where the Bulldogs defeated the Bruins 87-74. It might have been a high-scoring affair, but Gonzaga came out on top while shooting 58.5% from the floor. The also managed to out-rebound UCLA by a margin of 34 to 30.
Gonzaga has the size, scoring power and defensive ability to counteract the Bruins' own strengths. That's why, despite UCLA's great start to the tournament, our game simulator gives Gonzaga an 87% chance to defeat the Bruins in the Sweet 16.
With that being said, let's not understate the Bruins' success in what might be a short-lived vengeance tour to prove that they belong in this year's field.