UCLA can score. But can Bru­ins get enough stops to win it all?

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY TIM BON­TEMPS tim.bon­temps@wash­post.com

sacramento — There is lit­tle doubt that, when at their best, no col­lege bas­ket­ball team in this year’s NCAA tour­na­ment is more fun to watch than the UCLA Bru­ins. With su­per­star fresh­man point guard Lonzo Ball at the con­trols of a high-oc­tane, up-tempo of­fense with plenty of tal­ent around him, the Bru­ins were this sea­son’s most dy­namic of­fen­sive team.

But any­one look­ing to doubt UCLA’s chances of a deep tour­na­ment run — or po­ten­tially even cut­ting the nets down in Phoenix next month — got all of the am­mu­ni­tion they needed in the third­seeded Bru­ins’ 97-80 win over No. 14 Kent State here Fri­day night.

Yes, the Bru­ins wound up win­ning con­vinc­ingly be­hind an over­pow­er­ing dis­play from their of­fense, prov­ing why they are ranked sec­ond in the coun­try in of­fen­sive ef­fi­ciency, per KenPom.com. UCLA nearly reached the cen­tury mark for the 10th time this sea­son, and the Bru­ins shot a blis­ter­ing 62 per­cent from the field, in­clud­ing 7 for 14 from three-point range.

But UCLA’s de­fense al­lowed Kent State — a mid­dling of­fen­sive team — to score 80 points. The Bru­ins let the Flashes rally from an early 16-2 hole to within four points by shoot­ing 51 per­cent from the field in the sec­ond half. There was the lack of in­te­rior grit and tough­ness, as T.J. Leaf and Thomas Welch — two ter­rific of­fen­sive play­ers — com­bined to go 14 for 20 from the field and score 39 points. But their 14 com­bined re­bounds couldn’t keep pace with Kent State’s burly big man, Jimmy Hall, who grabbed 15.

And the Bru­ins, who im­proved to 30-4 with Fri­day’s win, aren’t about to change now.

“We’ve got to be true to who we are,” UCLA Coach Steve Al­ford said dur­ing Thurs­day’s me­dia ses­sion. “We have to stay who we are of­fen­sively and de­fen­sively.”

What the Bru­ins are is a wildly en­ter­tain­ing team, but one whose style leads to the ob­vi­ous ques­tion: Can of­fense win a cham­pi­onship? In sports, it is de­fense that is touted as the win­ning for­mula. The Bru­ins are go­ing to test the lim­its of the truth be­hind it. Ac­cord­ing to KenPom.com, UCLA is ranked 83rd in de­fen­sive ef­fi­ciency — the worst of any top-four seed team in the tour­na­ment by more than 30 spots.

If any team is ca­pa­ble of over­com­ing a poor de­fense, though, it’s this one. Ball de­servedly is be­ing con­sid­ered a con­sen­sus toptwo pick in this year’s NBA draft, with re­mark­able floor vi­sion and a shot that, while un­ortho­dox, goes in more than enough to be ef­fec­tive.

Then there’s the sim­ple fact that the Bru­ins have gone from be­ing a below .500 team last year to one that has Fi­nal Four as­pi­ra­tions this sea­son — a change that, while Leaf has also played a part in, Ball de­serves the lion’s share of the credit for.

“I’m proud of him,” Al­ford said. “For an 18-year-old to play in his first sea­son of col­lege bas­ket­ball, and with the pres­sure on him . . . we’re sit­ting here 15-17 last year, and now we’re 30-4.

“Ob­vi­ously there’s a lot of pres­sure on him. He’s got a huge fol­low­ing, so to per­form at a high level all the time, that’s not easy. That’s what he’s built for. He’s built for pres­sure. He’s built to ex­cel in the tough­est en­vi­ron­ments, and the tough­est op­por­tu­ni­ties, chal­lenges that are out there. He’s done that time and time again.”

If that’s enough to lift UCLA to fur­ther heights re­mains to be seen. Al­ford has never taken a team past the Sweet 16 in any of his prior 22 sea­sons as a Di­vi­sion I head coach — and has only got­ten that far three times. For the Bru­ins to get that far this sea­son, they’ll have to get past an­other bruis­ing, phys­i­cally im­pos­ing Mid­west­ern team Sun­day, when they take on No. 6 Cincin­nati here for the right to ad­vance to face ei­ther Ken­tucky or Wi­chita State in Mem­phis next week.

It will be an­other chance to prove UCLA can hold up against a phys­i­cal op­po­nent. But un­like Kent State, which was a .500 team in the Mid-Amer­i­can Con­fer­ence a month ago be­fore clos­ing the sea­son with wins in nine of its fi­nal 10 games head­ing into Fri­day, in­clud­ing win­ning the MAC tour­na­ment cham­pi­onship last week­end, the Bru­ins will be fac­ing a Cincin­nati team that also won its 30th game Fri­day when it pounded No. 11 seed Kansas State into submission in the game prior to UCLA’s vic­tory.

“You’ve got two teams that are used to win­ning all year long,” Al­ford said. “So, ob­vi­ously some­thing has to give on Sun­day. It’s got all the mak­ings of a great game, fight­ing to see who can get to the Sweet 16.”

Only one thing is for cer­tain: If UCLA goes down, it’s go­ing to go down swing­ing, and swing­ing in the only way it knows how — with an un­ri­valed of­fen­sive at­tack try­ing to run op­po­nents off the floor. Whether it will work, how­ever, re­mains to be seen.

THEARON W. HEN­DER­SON/GETTY IM­AGES

T.J. Leaf and his UCLA mates have scored 100 or more points nine times, but their de­fense is sus­pect.

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