Kansas City Bracket Preview: How Far Can UCLA Go?

Forward Jasmine Dixon had an impressive season for UCLA, but Stanford's "three-headed monster" proved too much for her to overcome. (Photo by Craig Bennett)

There seems to be universal acknowledgment from ESPN, blogs, and bulletin boards that UCLA was under-seeded.

Call it funny math, but if there are four regions, and UCLA was ranked in the top 25 for the last few weeks with a RPI of 21, then it would seem like they should get no lower than a 6 or 7 seed.

But to be honest, at first I simply wasn't particularly surprised with their seeding:

  1. The Pac-10 was simply not that good this year and for most of the season, it would have been considered reasonable for the conference to get more than two bids.
  2. Losing to Stanford by progressively larger margins could not have helped their credibility, nor could a few other odd losses and close games with not-so-great teams.
  3. Appreciating how good they are requires looking at their performance pre- and post-Jasmine Dixon when they became a much stronger team overall.
  4. The close games in a bad conference does nothing to highlight the team's strength: defense.

It's the last point that I find most interesting though in thinking about UCLA's chances and why they almost definitely should have been harder -- although I've heard some people dismiss their defense as merely "throwing the kitchen sink at opponents', at the same time it's extremely effective. And taking account for one of the best defenses in the nation simply doesn't show up in the RPI, SOS, or any other statistics.

Making matters worse, UCLA got an eight seed next to #1 seed Nebraska, a team that is not just good, but pretty much has similar statistical strengths as UCLA...but does everything better...and has that Kelsey Griffin individual you may have heard of. So their chances of getting to the Sweet 16 certainly appear slim.

However, UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell didn't win the Pac-10 Coach of the Year for nothing and for that reason, I'm picking the Bruins as a potential dark horse candidate in the Kansas City bracket in the most blatant act of West Coast bias I've exhibited to date. This would of course require a few things to break their way, but my Pac-10 homerism stops short of finding ways to "disappear" Griffin.

The Darkhorse: UCLA Bruins

When I think about UCLA's defense, what springs to mind is a play in Seattle against the University of Washington this season where UCLA guard Doreena Campbell was floored by a screen from Washington center Laura McLellan. For most teams, this would instantly cause a 4 on 5 situation leaving the defense almost helpless. Instead, Campbell not only snapped up off the ground almost as quickly as she hit the ground and popped right back into a perfect defensive stance against Washington point guard Sarah Morton with the same intense expression as though nothing had even happened.

It's that discipline and focus that defines this team. People can dismiss it as a team needing to be disciplined and focused because they don't have the talent to win otherwise. However, that's somewhat irrelevant given that they performed well enough to ascend to the Top 25 at the end of the season. It's not just that they shut down teams, it's how they do it.

Down double digits against the University of Oregon in Eugene, they systematically shut down every single thing the Ducks wanted to do. It wasn't just an increase in intensity -- they identified what Oregon was trying to do and just took everything away by overplaying passing lanes, adjusting to stop all guard penetration, and crashing the boards hard. The way Dixon turned it on and just punished Oregon on the boards pretty much ended all hope of Oregon getting a win in their final game at Mac Court. It was about as artful as a defensive performance could possibly be.

Obviously, beating Oregon and Washington -- who tied for 6th place in the conference with Washington losing in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament to Oregon State -- is not reason to establish UCLA as a candidate to beat Nebraska. The point is that this team is extremely well coached, more than capable of making adjustments, and predicated on strong defensive play. Those things never hurt and the addition of a blue collar player like Dixon means that they have the ability to create opportunities for themselves where none seem to exist.

So what does this mean for their tournament chances?

Against NC State, while SOS swings in NC State's favor, RPI favors UCLA though perhaps that could be considered a bit of a wash. The key is in strengths and weaknesses -- NC State's biggest weakness is their turnover differential (worst in the bracket) whereas UCLA's complex defensive schemes make turnover differential a relative strength for them, forcing opponents into a turnover percentage of 22.70%. So despite the fact that NC State has a considerable edge in offensive rebounding, that's rendered irrelevant if they cannot hold onto the ball. Adding to that UCLA tends to outshoot their opponents by an effective field goal percentage of just over 5%, doing the majority of it by getting high percentage shots.This might be something of an ugly battle, but UCLA can pull it out.

Assuming Nebraska defeats the University of Northern Iowa, it would be a different story in the second round.

Nebraska has a very similar statistical strengths with shooting and turnovers chief among them (eFg% of 51.49% and tov% differential of about 5%). The difference is taht they tend to do every single thing better, especially in their rebounding differential. A large part of the shooting and rebounding strength is Kelsey Griffin and in their lone loss to Texas A&M, that's exactly what happened.

Griffin is responsible for the vast majority of their offensive rebounding and their strong shooting percentage, with a true shooting percentage of 67.04% on the season. With Griffin in foul trouble, they only managed to shoot 37.3% from the field with a 2 point percentage of 38.36%, meaning TAMU took their ability to score high percentage shots. Compounding the problem, TAMU had an offensive rebounding percentage of 41% without Griffin's 25% defensive rebounding percentage in the post to hold them off. 

So there you have it -- the way to beat Nebraska is to eliminate Griffin. If UCLA keeps the tempo high trapping the guards -- point guard Moore had a turnover percentage of nearly 20% this season -- and they can find away to establish themselves in the paint and on the glass, they have a legitimate shot of pulling off the upset of Nebraska. Their defense is just that good even if their offense sputters occasionally.

Sleeper: Vermont

Is a 10 beating a 7 seed really an upset? That's debatable, but if so, Vermont could be that team. Wisconsin and Vermont are relatively close in RPI and statistically, they do a good job on the offensive boards while Wisconsin typically doesn't. If they can shoot well and get the kind of turnover differential that they typically have gotten, they could pull off the "upset".

The Victor: Notre Dame

I'm biased in favor of point guards and agree with what Rebecca Lobo said of Skylar Diggins -- if it comes down to a match between Notre Dame and Nebraska, the better freshman point guard is Diggins. Despite being deep, Nebraska relies heavily on Griffin (over 30% of overall production) and if she encounters foul trouble again, it could spell the end of their run. As Mechelle Voepel has said, this is also their first time in this #1 situation whereas the teams around them have experience in the tournament. Add to that Notre Dame's overall tournament experience and their relative strength of forcing a high turnover differential while out shooting opponents and they have as good a chance as any to make it out of the bracket.

This is not disrespect to Oklahoma, who I enjoy watching quite a bit. The issue here is that Nebraska and Notre Dame play very good basketball.

Transition Points:

  • For the record, more than anything I want a good showing for the Pac-10. Will UCLA win? The odds are against them... but there's a reason they play the games..
  • More on the Bruins vs. NC State from Bruins Nation:

    UCLA vs NC State Game Breakdown - Bruins Nation

    That is about where NC State's advantages end. UCLA is a much better team away from home, with NC State winning only 3 games on the road. We feature the much stronger rebounding team, out rebounding our opponents by 6.5 per game, against just 1.1 for the Wolfpack, and UCLA has a better turnover margin and dish out more assists per game. UCLA shoots 44% from the field while NC State shoots 38%. The biggest difference may come from coaching and halftime adjustments. NC State has done worse in the second half than in the first, outscoring opponents by 2.5 points in the first but being outscored by .1 in the second per game, while UCLA outscores opponents by 4.5 in the first half, and by 6.3 in the second, so UCLA improves as the game goes on while NC State loses steam. In the tournament, you definitely don't want to be a team that fades as the game goes on, and that is not something that describes UCLA.
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