UCLA is irresistible.
The four letters on the jersey connote storied and glorious history, sure, but it has been a long time since a team that wore them had this much fun doing so. Steve Alford has put a very good offense on the Pauley Pavilion floor before (in his first season, in 2013-14).? Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook?proved a fairly effective pairing (believe it or not) at the height of former coach Ben Howland’s success. Baron Davis once did this to a dude back in the Steve Lavin days. But none of those teams made it this deep into a season playing a brand of basketball this simultaneously effective and infectious: Scoring more than anyone, shooting more accurately than anyone, and soaring up and down the court all the while.
As such, the Bruins, and Ball and Leaf specifically, have hoovered up most of the 2016-17 Pac-12’s available oxygen. Only lately, as Dillon Brooks and the preseason favorite Oregon Ducks have reasserted themselves with a strong start to conference play (including an 89-87 win over UCLA in Eugene), has any league foe challenged Alford’s team for sheer mindshare.
Saturday — when No. 3 UCLA hosts No. 14 Arizona — will bring this dynamic into even starker relief, for two reasons.
The first? The 4 p.m. ET tip is arguably the first time in Arizona coach Sean Miller’s eight seasons in Tucson that the league’s two traditional powers and rivals (across various eras, but still) will meet up with the Bruins, and not the Wildcats, looking like the obviously superior team. For pretty much all of Miller’s tenure, the Wildcats have either been marginally better (and there have been some pretty marginal UCLA teams in the past eight years) or — more often in the years since Alford arrived — downright dominant. The 2013-14 Bruins were 28-9, 12-6 in the league, had the conference’s best offense, went to the Sweet 16, and even knocked off Arizona in the Pac-12 title game, and were still never mentioned in the same national-title-contention breath. The 2014-15 Wildcats were a juggernaut. The 2015-16 team was just OK, by Miller’s standards, but still vastly better than the 15-17 Bruins, Jan. 7’s home upset notwithstanding.
The script has been flipped, as the kids might say.
The second? The 2016-17 Wildcats are pretty darn good in their own right, too. More than that, they’re good for similar reasons the Bruins are eyeing a national title: the unexpected excellence of freshmen.
The Wildcats start three freshmen. Two of them,? Rawle Alkins?and Kobi Simmons, have undoubtedly seen their minutes spike thanks to the ongoing recently explained absence of sophomore guard Allonzo Trier, and it is a story unto itself that Miller’s team has remained this effective without its breakout leading scorer of a season ago, who’s still missing after 19 games.
The third freshman, Lauri Markkanen, would have started regardless. Like Ball and Leaf, Markkanen has not only met but exceeded the already-high expectations for his first (only?) collegiate season. He leads the Wildcats in points (17) and rebounds (7.4) per game. He takes 25 percent of his team’s available shots while on the floor. His shooting splits — around 55 percent from 2 and 83 percent from the stripe — have combined with a super-low turnover rate to make him one of the nation’s 15-or-so most efficient all-around offensive weapons.
Also, he shoots 49 percent from 3. He has attempted 23 more 3s than the next-highest Wildcat (Alkins). And he’s 7 feet.
Markkanen is one of the main reasons Arizona — even without Trier — can arrive in Westwood on Saturday with a legitimate chance of taking down one of the nation’s best teams, bar none. Defense is the other reason, and UCLA has a habit of making good defenses look silly. In any other season, a European 7-foot freshman going all? Dirk Nowitzki?with a Tucson twist would be, well, a big deal. Or at least a bigger deal than it has been thus far. Instead, Miller and Markkanen have been chugging along in relative anonymity while basketball nerds cut gifs of UCLA’s latest crazy fast break.
Such is the irresistibility of these 2016-17 Bruins, and how drastically Ball and Leaf and their teammates have changed the Pac-12’s perceived pecking order. Arizona and its own band of impact freshmen might yet have something to say about it.
*Gif source: Luke Winn*
No. 24 South Carolina at No. 5 Kentucky, Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN
Did someone say “hypertalented freshmen playing super-fast, super-efficient offensive basketball”? Most of the superlatives that apply to UCLA are equally as worthy of Kentucky; the Wildcats don’t record as many assists per field goal as UCLA, so things can feel less aesthetically fluid. Still, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk have presided over an almost unthinkable leap in pace from John Calipari’s previous teams. These Wildcats are averaging 75.1 possessions per game, 11th-highest nationally, up seven per game?over last season (68.2), when they ranked 220th. The latter is far more in line with Calipari’s typical style at UK; the former has unlocked a truly frightening offensive machine that generates points at a pace most teams simply can’t match. South Carolina, though? The Gamecocks — who boast the nation’s most efficient defense in their own right, and usually force opponents to grind out lengthy, hard-fought half-court possessions — might have a chance.
No. 12 Louisville at No. 10 Florida State, Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN
Our Sisyphean quest to figure out the 2016-17 ACC continues apace! Good luck making sense of things out there, everyone. You will probably need it.
No. 7 West Virginia at Kansas State, Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN2
That said, as crazy as the ACC is — and it’s crazy because it’s so deep, with so many good-to-very-good teams and very few obviously bad ones; it might send 11 teams to the NCAA tournament — the Big 12 has thus far retained its title of the nation’s best pound-for-pound conference. Why? Saturday offers at least two excellent examples. The Big 12’s brutality isn’t just owed to Baylor and West Virginia going from unranked and unhyped, respectively, to top-10 teams with bona fide league and national title shots. That helps, of course, but the real story here is that basically none of the Big 12’s teams are bad. Sure, Oklahoma and Texas are both under .500, but they’re still both top-75ish teams in the KenPom.com adjusted efficiency margin rankings. (Neither is great, of course, but neither is as ugly their records convey.) Meanwhile, the rest of the league — Iowa State, Texas Tech, Kansas State, TCU, even Oklahoma State, which started league play 0-5 — ranks no lower than 40.
Kansas State desperately needs a quality win or two before people — up to and including the NCAA tournament selection committee — start believing. Saturday would be a pretty good place to start. Meanwhile, no team is a better indicator of just how strong this league is than TCU, which spent its first four years as a Big 12 member as the closest thing the league had to a reliable doormat. Coach Jamie Dixon’s first season is already tied for the best start in school history, and the Horned Frogs are young enough that their ceiling might still be miles off.
The Big 12 is nuts. We really can’t stress this enough.