"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Sunday, September 03, 2023

UCLA Preview, 2023-24

UCLA Bruins

November 20, 2023

Head Coach: Mick Cronin (462-206, 99-36 at UCLA)

Three-Year NET Average: 9.7

Three-Year kenpom Average: 9.0

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 28

Projected Starters: PG Dylan Andrews (6'2" So), SG Sebastian Mack (6'4" Fr), SF Lazar Stefanovic (6'7" Jr), PF Kenneth Nwuba (6'10" Sr), C Adem Bona (6'10" So)

Adem Bona pulled out of the NBA Draft for another year at UCLA

Photo from UCLA Athletics

From November 23 through March 10, UCLA went 26-2 and were the #1 team in the country per T-Rank in that stretch. However they lost future NBA draft pick and lockdown defender Jaylen Clark and stud freshman big Adem Bona to injury in the Pac-12 Tournament. A promising season with real National Title potential was cut short in the Sweet 16 as UCLA just didn't quite have enough to get past Gonzaga, falling 79-76 in one of the best games of the Tournament. Clark was joined by Jaime Jaquez and Amari Bailey as NBA draft picks and Tyger Campbell called it a career, leaving Mick Cronin with an exceptionally young roster.

Dylan Andrews will likely get the keys to the offense. He was an adequate backup at both guard positions as a freshman but a lot more will be expected of him next year. Top-75 recruit Sebastian Mack is a combo guard best known for his ferocious defense. Lazar Stefanovic transferred from Utah. He is a capable scorer that can also create for others, but will likely have a bigger offensive load simply due to the lack of experience on this roster. Adem Bona is the only returning player who averaged more than 4 ppg. He considered the NBA but ultimately returned and along with Stefanovic will likely be an offensive focal point. Aday Mara is projected as a lottery pick with immense talent but will be making a major adjustment to the American game. Will McClendon and Kenneth Nwuba will compete for starting jobs and have the most experience in Cronin's system. The Bruins have a talented recruiting class, with Ilane Fibleuil, Sebastian Mack, Brandon Williams, and Devin Williams all being top-100 recruits and any of them might surprise and contribute to this year's team. Even foreign recruits Berke Buyuktuncel and Jan Vide have shown up in early NBA mock drafts, so Cronin has a wealth of options despite the inexperience.

Cronin has continued to play a slower pace at UCLA. His teams prefer to play in the half-court, making their living with ball-control, multiple shooters, and aggression on the offensive boards. Cronin's staff tracks turnovers and it is anathema to their philosophy. What he really wants to do is put five capable scorers on the floor that aren't going to give the ball away. It sounds simple, but it takes elite recruiting and development to keep that up consistently. Defensively, they have similarities to Marquette. UCLA also tracks deflections and awards the Deflections Bone to the team leader (the hungry dog gets the bone). They swarm to everything, trying to contest, steal, or block every shot that goes up. Last year they were truly elite defensively, ranking #2 in kenpom.

In terms of raw talent, UCLA is one of the most gifted teams in the country. Mara, Buyuktuncel, Bona, and Vide show up frequently in mock drafts. Per 247, they had the 13th ranked recruiting class in the country and that wasn't counting Mara and Buyuktuncel, who were late commits coming over from Europe. But in terms of experienced, this is one of the youngest teams in the country as well. Stefanovic and reserve big Nwuba are the only juniors or seniors expected to crack the rotation. For a team that puts so much offensive focus on not turning the ball over, this much youth will likely be a challenge for Cronin. Further, how well will this team fit together defensively when most of the rotation players are in their first year at Westwood? It will also be a challenge to get the most talented roster on the floor, as there is positional overlap between Bona and Mara, Andrews and Mack, and Stefanovic and Buyuktuncel. This feels like a team that will struggle out of the gate due to the youth and lack of familiarity, but if they put it all together could be a tough out come March. Thankfully for Marquette, they will be playing UCLA in November and this is a good chance to get a win over a team that should only get better as the year goes on.

What We've Learned: The good news for the Bruins is they are 3-0. The bad news is how they got there. St. Francis, Lafayette, and LIU are all ranked 329 or worse in kenpom and a combined 0-11. UCLA has played the worst schedule in all of Division I per kenpom. Their kenpom rank has fallen after each win indicating the performances are poor despite the results.

Their top-15 defense is predicated on playing three bottom-twenty offenses in the country. Offensively, the question will be around Dylan Andrews, the starting point guard who sat out their last game due to a coach's decision. This early in the season, it's hard to measure how much advanced rankings mean, but per kenpom, in their 11 games, UCLA is the only top-100 offense those teams have faced. Despite that, UCLA has posted the lowest points per possession on offense each of those teams has faced so far.

On paper, this game looks like it should be competitive, but digging into UCLA's performances against this quality of opponent, Marquette looks like a complete mismatch. When a team sees their advanced metrics steadily moving down this early in the season it typically indicates they are regressing to the mean. UCLA might be #36 in kenpom, but if you sort for this year's results only, they are #131 per T-Rank. UCLA is capable of putting up big runs. In their three wins, they have made five double-digit runs that resulted in a 91-9 scoring difference over 34 total minutes. While that seems good, those three sub-325 teams outscored UCLA 143-130 over the other 86 minutes of play. Another metric T-Rank provides is Game Score, which evaluates performance based on the level of difficulty. There have already been more than 750 games played this season, meaning more than 1,500 performances to evaluate. Marquette's three game scores are a remarkably consistent 94/95/95. Only four teams have hit 94+ every time out (Colorado, Iowa State, and Tennessee are the others). UCLA has posted scores of 77/59/69. Thus far, at their best, they are playing well below Marquette at their worst. If Marquette can limit the UCLA runs and play their game, this could very well be a blowout victory.

Marquette Memory: With Marquette's 2019 win over Purdue and 2020 and 2021 losses to UCLA, there is no team in the country Marquette has played more often without earning a win than the Bruins. In 2020, Marquette came close, holding a 51-47 lead with 10 minutes to play at Pauley Pavilion, but UCLA went on a 14-3 run to take control of the game. Jaime Jaquez led the way for the Bruins with 18 points and 6 rebounds. D.J. Carton countered with 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists but it was not enough to hold the lead. Opening Maui against UCLA will give Marquette a chance to get the bear-shaped monkey off their back.

No comments: