UCLA Basketball: Steps Bruins Must Take to Start Climbing the Rankings
After winning two consecutive games against Stanford and Cal this past week, UCLA was snubbed a spot in the Top 25.
While this sparked debate about the East Coast bias in college basketball, there are a few key things that the Bruins can do on their end to ensure that they not only make the Top 25 but climb the rankings as they continue in Pac-12 conference play.
Because UCLA won’t face another team currently ranked in the Top 25 this season—as No. 1 Arizona is the only Pac-12 team to be slotted in the Top 25—voters in the rankings polls will look for UCLA to achieve a few vital factors in order to deem the Bruins worthy of a spot in the rankings.
Among them are UCLA’s domination of the Pac-12’s lower-tier teams, their ability to win road games and win games by a generous margin, and establishing a significant winning streak.
Here’s how the Bruins can fulfill those goals in order to enter and ascend the national rankings.
More Consistency from Frontcourt
Tony Parker, who followed his career-high performance of 22 points against Stanford with 0 points the following game against Cal, isn’t the only player in UCLA’s frontcourt to be inconsistent this season.
Both of the Wear twins have been extremely inconsistent this season as well.
Although Coach Alford’s run-and-gun system relies heavily upon guard play, the Bruins still need the frontcourt to have a strong inside presence, particularly on the defensive end, to be considered one of the best teams in the nation.
Travis Wear, who appears to be struggling under Coach Alford’s system after thriving in former coach Ben Howland’s half-court system last season (10.9 PPG, 5.2 RPG), is only averaging 5.3 points and 3.0 rebounds per game despite logging 21.4 minutes per game.
UCLA needs its forwards—outside of Kyle Anderson when he slides into the post—to step up and be more consistent contributors to the offense.
More importantly, the Bruins' forwards need to be more effective on the defensive end, particularly so for Parker, who continues to find himself in foul trouble due to poor defensive positioning.
Bench Performs on Road
In order to consistently win key conference games on the road, UCLA needs steady performances from what’s been buoying the team all season: the bench.
Guards Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford have delivered crucial bursts of energy coming off the bench in their freshman seasons and, inconsistent as he’s been, sophomore center Tony Parker has bolstered the Bruins with some tenacious performances.
Although UCLA’s bench has accounted for nearly 30 percent of the team’s scoring on the season, the bench was very inconsistent for the Bruins on their first Pac-12 road trip.
Barring a clutch performance from LaVine in the second half of UCLA’s loss to Utah, the bench was very mediocre, accounting for 20.8 percent of the Bruins’ scoring on the trip.
Alford, who is averaging 7.8 points per game, didn’t score a single point in either game, putting more pressure on LaVine and the starting guards to carry the offense.
Road wins are crucial to climbing the rankings, and UCLA needs to be able to rely on its bench to secure those victories.
Transition Defense Improves
A major point of emphasis for UCLA’s defensive improvement for the duration of the season has been transition defense.
Because of its run-and-gun system, UCLA is particularly susceptible to allowing fast breaks for the opposition.
The Bruins’ transition defense has improved considerably, but they still have lapses when guarding in transition that lead to easy points for the opposition.
Fortifying its transition defense is not only a surefire way for UCLA to improve its margin of victory but will also aid the team in winning close games.
Eliminate Slow Second-Half Starts
UCLA often plays well in the first half but is typically slow to start the second half, which has made the team’s victories much more difficult than they could’ve been.
This was seen in the Bruins’ recent victory over Cal. They eventually won the game by double digits, but they blew a 19-point lead and allowed the Golden Bears to cut the deficit to three because of an offensive stall in the early second half.
Slow second-half starts haven’t just threatened to take victories away from UCLA, they already have on a few occasions.
In the Bruins’ marquee matchups against Duke and Arizona, they let good first-half performances go to waste by coming out slow in the second half. In both games, UCLA never recovered from those slow second-half starts, even with a valiant effort late in the second half against Arizona.
Coming out strong out of the halftime locker room will help UCLA put the pedal to the medal and handily beat the conference’s lower-tier teams. It will also keep the Bruins competing in tougher road matchups as well.