When the brackets were revealed on Selection Sunday, there was a large amount of chaos about the selection of the UCLA Bruins to the 68-team field. Doug Gottlieb, who is quite a bit biased against UCLA, was extremely vocal in his belief that the Bruins had no business being in the field. It turns out, after the NCAA released the seed list, that UCLA was pretty safely in the field which was evident as they avoided the "First Four" matchups in Dayton.
When CBS interviewed the chairman of the selection committee, Scott Barnes, he noted that UCLA had gained a significant amount of steam down the stretch and was playing much better basketball as of late than earlier in the year. That, along with its strength of schedule, pushed the Bruins in with an at-large bid. The key question to ask now that the Gonzaga Bulldogs find themselves matched up with the Bruins is "how have they gained steam as of late?" Taking a quite look at some advanced stats helps clarify things a bit more.
I selected a handful of games to look at from late November through the Bruins game with Gonzaga as the "old UCLA" data and a handful of games from late February through their most recent game against UAB as the "new UCLA". There are a lot of statistical categories nowadays when you include advanced stats and what not but there are a couple I wanted to focus on as it relates to their efficiency:
From this data, it is pretty clear that UCLA has become a considerably more efficient ball club. The first thing that jumps out is their pace. The "old UCLA" team was averaging about 73 possessions per 40 minutes and the Bruins of late are averaging 68.5 per 40 minutes.
While their possessions have decreased, their effective field goal percentage has skyrocketed to nearly 58% vs. 49%. Thus, their offensive rating, a measure of how many points a team scores per 100 possessions has drastically increased, as well. Pretty simple formula - UCLA is scoring the basketball better than they did when they were running at a quicker tempo.
So what - or better question - who is driving this change? From some quick looking at numbers and the old fashioned 'eye test', the leading candidate is Tony Parker and UCLA's utilization of Tony Parker. During the "Old UCLA" sample period, Tony Parker averaged just under 10 points per game. He was putting up about 7 shots per game and shooting 58% on his 2-point attempts. As of late, Parker has been averaging just shy of 11 attempts per game and has been hitting 6.5 of those attempts for a 62.2% 2P%. To sum up, Parker is getting more attempts in an offense that is getting fewer possessions as of late and he is cashing in on those chances by shooting 4% higher from the floor.
Oh yeah, and Parker has averaged nearly 17 points per game in the "new UCLA" offense vs. the previously stated 9.5ppg.
While a chunk of the improvement has been Tony Parker, some credit must go to the coaches kid. Bryce Alford, who shot 9-11 from three against SMU in the second round matchup, has done a really nice job of late maximizing his efficiency and it has paid off for UCLA. Long story short, Alford's play recently has seen his shot attempts drop from 12 to 10 but he's only making 0.5 fewer shots per game. His effective field goal percentage, which weights 3-points properly as 50% better than a 2 point shot, has been 62% over the past several games vs. 52% in the "Old UCLA" data.
In Alford and Parker, UCLA has a couple super talented players that are really playing at the top of their game right now. Parker was absolutely unstoppable against UAB in the round of 32 and Alford has the ability to go off from beyond the arc at any point in time. That said, UCLA's slower pace of late isn't the worst news in the world for Gonzaga. With the Zags post game at an all time high, as well, there will be little anxiety from Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis, and Kyle Wiltjer about this matchup. The X-factor in this one will be Alford and how freely he is able to get shots up against Gary Bell, Kyle Dranginis, and Eric McClellan. Those three have been dynamic defensively this season and will be relied on early and often to hound the guard on Friday night.