The mental game is back and the offense is flowing again for No. 6 UCLA (23-3, 10-3 Pac-12).
The Bruins ended the first half of conference play with their first losing streak of the season, averaging 80.5 points, 18 assists and 11 turnovers in losses to then-No. 14 Arizona and USC.
Since then, they’ve turned back to their signature fast-paced offense, with those figures rising to 90.5 points and 19 assists per game in their last four outings.
But the defense, the weakest part of their game, is still coming along.
“We’re not there yet (in terms of defense),” said sophomore guard Aaron Holiday. “There’s a long way we can go. If we can guard, we can win every game we play. That’s just the key – and keep them at least under 70, 65 points.”
UCLA held Washington and Oregon State to under that 70-point threshold while giving up 79 points to Oregon and Washington State.
The Bruins did force nearly 13 turnovers a game and limited their opponents to 45 percent shooting from the field, a defensive turnaround that started after their fourth straight loss to the Trojans.
Heading into Saturday night’s game against USC, UCLA is looking to bring the same attention and focus it does on offense to its defensive effort.
Every national champion since the 2001-2002 season has finished in the top 25 in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.
The Bruins don’t even crack the top 100, sitting at 128th in defensive efficiency despite coming in first in offensive efficiency.
“We hashed it out and said if we want to do what we want to do and reach the goals that we want to reach, then we’ve got to play defense,” said senior guard Bryce Alford after the win against Oregon State. “We know we can play offense and that’s the fun part of the game, but it’s even more fun when you can shut somebody down and make a team frustrated that way.”
There’s no single change that’s responsible for the renewed defense.
Coach Steve Alford cited improvement in the zone after moving freshman point guard Lonzo Ball to the top to exploit his length while also pointing out the team’s better rebounding as key to limiting second-chance points and possessions.
“There are a lot of things that the guys have adjusted and done a good job doing. We are in the right spots more, more active, getting in a stance more,” Steve Alford said. “If we can get teams to around 75, that’s going to be more efficient for our guys. I think that our guys are focusing a lot more in February and we have made a lot more strides defensively.”
Even with the progress the team’s made on defense and will continue to make as the postseason rolls closer, Steve Alford says he doesn’t want the team to lose its identity in the process.
Reaching their championship aspirations hinges on keeping what got them to a 23-3 record while tinkering and perfecting their liabilities.
“Our team is a very efficient offensive team. Yes, we want to continue to improve defensively,” Steve Alford said. “But we aren’t going to all of a sudden start playing a 50 possession game to hold people in the 50s. That’s just not what we are going to do.”