After an 86-75 loss to Arizona in the semifinals of the PAC-12 Tournament, UCLA finds itself the 3rd seed in the Southern Region of the NCAA Tournament. This placement theoretically affords the Bruins an easy route to the Sweet 16, where they will most likely face Kentucky. As has been demonstrated in years past, however, an upset is possible at any stage.
March Madness has seen the 14th seed take down the 3rd seeded team 21 times — numbers that favor UCLA by a large margin, but still leave room for caution. Another factor that should give the Bruins and their fans a pause is they have never faced the opponent they are set to square off against in Sacramento, the Kent State Golden Flashes.
By virtue of winning the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Tournament with a 70-65 victory over the Akron Zips, Kent State earned an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. Going head-to-head with a UCLA team that leads the nation in scoring (90.4 points per game) will be the toughest test the Golden Flashes have had to this point, but those expecting a Bruins blowout should temper their expectations.
Kent State’s defense holds its opponents to 72.3 points per game on 43 percent shooting and 35 percent from the three-point range. UCLA, which leads the nation in field goal percentage at 52 percent, struggled shooting the ball in the PAC-12 tournament, making just 41 percent of their shots and 26 percent from three.
If the Bruins are to avoid falling in the first round, Bryce Alford must fix his recent three-point shooting slump. In the PAC-12 Tournament Alford went 3-17 from deep in both games, including a 1-10 performance in the loss to Arizona. The 20 percent three-point percentage he posted in this stretch seems to be an outlier, as UCLA’s all-time leader in threes made shot 44 percent for the season from that range.
Aside from shooting the ball, UCLA struggled to score, averaging just 75.5 points per game. The Bruins’ poor shooting percentage, paired with an average of 13.5 turnovers per game, explains their inadequate play in the PAC-12 Tournament, and gives them a blueprint of what to focus on in preparation for their upcoming matchup against a Golden Flashes team that forces its opponents to turn the ball over 14 times a game.
UCLA was much maligned during the season for playing down to its opponents, reflected by the fact that it allowed teams not ranked in the top 25 to score 92 points per game. If this trend is to continue against Kent State and their star senior, Jimmy Hall, the Bruins could easily receive an early exit from the NCAA Tournament.
Hall, like UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, does a little bit of everything for the Golden Flashes. Hall leads the team in scoring, with 18.9 points per game and an eFG% of 52, rebounding, with 10.5 per game (12th in the nation); assisting, at 2.8 per game; and blocking, with 1.4 per game. When he’s on the court, Hall helps the offense score 116.5 points per 100 possessions, while allowing opponents only 96.7 points per 100 possessions.
What makes Hall a nightmare matchup for the Bruins is that he stands at 6 feet, 8 inches and 235 pounds. Although UCLA holds the height advantage, Hall’s speed at the forward position will make it difficult for the Bruins’ forwards to defend him one-on-one.
The zone the Bruins have implemented since losing to USC has allowed them to hold opponents to 72 points per game, and would be the best way to defend against Kent State. Although the Golden Flashes don’t shoot the three-pointer particularly well, UCLA’s zone allowed USC and Arizona to shoot a combined average of 43 percent from deep in the PAC-12 tournament.
If Kent State’s shots start to fall in a similar way, it would behoove the Bruins to put Ball on Hall, as Ball stands at 6 feet, 6 inches and 190 pounds. He averages 1.9 steals per game and 0.8 blocks, and allows opponents just 98.4 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court. His knack for reading plays and hounding the players he defends could cause Hall to be thrown off his game.
Another area of concern for UCLA is the amount of offensive rebounds they allow. For the season, their opponents have grabbed 10.5 offensive rebounds per game, doing this against a Bruins lineup that boasts five players that stand 6 feet, 10 inches or taller.
If any team was built to exploit this weakness, it’s Kent State, which is second in the nation in offensive rebounds, with 15 per game, and Hall coming in fifth in the nation individually, with 4.1 per game. This affords the Golden Flashes multiple opportunities to score in rapid succession, putting more pressure on the Bruins’ defense.
When it comes to sharing the ball, saying UCLA takes the advantage is an understatement. The Bruins lead the country in assists, with 21.9 per game, while Kent State comes in 240th, with 12.5 per game. To make matters worse for the Golden Flashes, they turn the ball over 13 times per game for an assist-to-turnover ratio of 0.96. On the other hand, UCLA has 11.5 turnovers per game, good for an NCAA leading assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.86 per game.
UCLA’s height gives them an edge over Kent State in shot blocking, with the Golden Flashes carrying only one player over 6 feet, 10 inches on their roster. Because of their length, the Bruins have tallied 5.4 blocks per game, which is 13th best in the nation. They have been able to accomplish this feat while only committing 542 fouls during the season, giving them a .33 block-to-foul ratio, making them 7th in the nation in this category.
Ike Anigbogu, UCLA’s 6-foot, 10-inch freshman accounts for an astounding 9 percent of the team’s total blocks when he’s on the court en route to 1.3 blocks per game. However, his inexperience has led to an average of 2.6 fouls per game. This problem should be negated by the fact that Kent State won’t have many post players, giving Anigbogu less opportunities to foul.
There is just a 16 percent chance that UCLA is ousted by Kent State in the first round, and by all accounts, the Bruins should be moving on to the second round. But March Madness isn’t just a nickname for the NCAA Tournament. It conveys the idea that no opponent should be taken lightly, and upsets are always around the corner. After an incredibly successful regular season, UCLA hopes it doesn’t find itself as one of March Madness’ first victims.