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Since falling in back-to-back games at Arizona and at USC in late January, the Bruins executed a perfect February and are well on their way to a high seed and preferential treatment in the tournament. Their roster still holds some of the same names who took the program to the Final Four in 2021, though UCLA will enter this March as one of the favorites to reach the final weekend and win the national championship.
Mick Cronin has his team playing some of the best defense in the nation and has already comfortably locked up the Pac-12 regular season crown. The only trophies that remain are the Pac-12 Tournament title and the natty, which would be the program’s first in nearly 30 years.
Last National Championship: 1995
Last Final Four: 2021
2023 Title Odds: +1000 (as of March 4, 2023)
Why UCLA Will Make a Run
UCLA is second in adjusted defensive efficiency in KenPom and T-Rank, and the Bruins are sixth in the nation in opponent points per game (59.7). Six of the team’s players have defensive win share ratings of 1.4 or better. This is one of the best defensive teams in the country – good luck to UCLA’s opponents finding mismatches with the ridiculous talent Cronin has to work with on that end.
The Bruins also take really good care of the basketball. As a team, they average the fewest turnovers per game in the Pac-12, and you won’t find many steadier hands in college basketball than Tyger Campbell’s. UCLA’s prowess defensively and excellent ball management offensively means it generally gets to control the pace of the game – the Bruins are well-equipped to outlast opponents slowly and methodically.
Why UCLA Will Exit Early
The Bruins heavily focus their offense inside the arc. They’ve attempted the 12th-most two-point shots in the country and taken the 330th-most three-pointers, too. This makes plenty of sense considering the team’s roster and preferred style, but it could become a problem in a single-elimination tournament. It’s common for teams that go on long runs in March Madness to shoot well from deep. The Bruins connect at an average rate from three, but if an opponent is able to neutralize or mitigate what they do inside, can UCLA make enough triples to survive and advance?
For as sure-handed as Campbell is, he also isn’t the most efficient offensive player. He averages the second-most field goal attempts per game on the team but only shoots 38.7 percent from the field, a steep decline compared to nearly all of his teammates. If the ball sticks in his hands too much and he isn’t on fire, the Bruins could struggle to score. But if he is on fire like he has been lately, then it’ll be the opposite of a problem.
What It’ll Take to Win
First, UCLA will have to do its thing on defense. That is this team’s biggest strength, and it needs to play to it (and it surely will, this is Mick Cronin we’re talking about). But that won’t be enough. The Bruins will need similar performances from Campbell and Jaime Jaquez as they got from them during the shock Final Four run two seasons ago. Those two players, among others, hit big shot after big shot through contests and from tough spots on the floor game in and game out. More than most teams, UCLA loves the mid-range jumper – it’s a very difficult shot to defend, but it’s also one of the least efficient ones available. Those will have to fall at a consistent clip for the Bruins to celebrate with confetti in April.