Only one Bruin team has won the national championship since Wooden. What does the data say about Lonzo and Bryce carrying UCLA to Banner 12?
By Chris Umpierre
I’ve been a UCLA fan since diapers, but it wasn’t until the 1994-95 season when I fell in love with the Bruins.
I can close my eyes and see them now. Tyus Edney running the break. Ed O’Bannon throwing it down. J.R. Henderson knocking down clutch free throws. Toby Bailey jumping out of the gym.
The 1995 Bruins won the national championship behind a high-powered offense and the perfect blend of veteran leaders and energetic freshmen.
It’s been 23 years since America’s most storied basketball program won it all. It’s a streak that pains all Bruins fans. Sure, UCLA’s been to the Final Four three times since 1995 — I went to two of them as a fan — but no rings. UCLA hoops’ expectations are unlike any other program in the country. Final Four or conference championship banners aren’t hanging in Pauley Pavilion.
Now, out of nowhere (UCLA finished 10th out of 12 teams in the Pac-12 and missed the tournament last year) the 2016-17 UCLA Bruins have emerged as a national title contender. Led by a once-in-a-generation floor leader, the Bruins are 29-4 and seeded third in the South Regional of the NCAA Tournament, which starts today.
UCLA’s selfless, dominant and athletic style got me thinking. How does this team compare to every UCLA Final Four team post Wooden? And what does it say about UCLA’s chances to win Banner No. 12?
The Bruins have had six Final Four teams since Wooden’s last game in 1975. I analyzed each team’s points per game, assists, margin of victory, rebounds, turnovers and top players and compared them to the 2016-17 squad. You can view the data UCLA Basketball FF Database 1-17-17.
How does this team compare to UCLA’s recent Final Four teams? How do the 2016-17 Bruins stack up with the fabled 1995 title team?
The 1975-76 Bruins
This Richard Washington and Marques Johnson-led squad compares favorably to the 2016-17 Bruins.
The 1975-76 Bruins had a score-first, worry-about-defense-later strategy. The club averaged 82.7 points per game, which ranks third among the teams studied behind the 1995 Bruins (87.5 points per game) and the 2017 Bruins (90.4).
The 1976 Bruins weren’t stalwarts on the defensive side, allowing 72.7 points per game (75th out of 234 teams). The 1995 Bruins allowed 73.9 points per game. The 2017 Bruins are allowing 75.3 points per game.
A year after UCLA won the championship in Wooden’s final game, the Bruins went 28-4 and reached the 1976 Final Four. UCLA beat Arizona to win the 1976 West region, a match up which could happen again in this year’s tournament.
The Bruins ended up losing to Indiana 65-51 in the national semifinals. Indiana would beat Michigan to win the 1976 championship.
Washington and Johnson, however, were masterful. Washington averaged 20.6 points per game; Johnson averaged 17.3.
While they could definitely score the ball, this team however should be remembered for its work on the glass. The Bruins averaged 43.25 rebounds per game, the second highest average among teams studied. Only the 2007-08 Bruins (39.2 rebounds per game) had more.
This team is proof the 2017 UCLA Bruins can make the Final Four despite their defensive shortcomings. Like the 1976 Bruins, the 2017 Bruins can outgun their opponents to get to Phoenix.
The 1979-80 Bruins
Oh, the ever-so-short Larry Brown era.
These Bruins had a standout senior (Kiki Vandeweghe) and a stud freshman (Rod Foster). Sounds a lot like the 2017 Bruins, who are led by freshman point guard Lonzo Ball and senior sharpshooter Bryce Alford.
The 1979-80 Bruins weren’t as dominant as this year’s club. The 1979-80 Bruins finished the year with a 22-10 record, but they still made the Final Four.
This was a very selfless team. The 1979-80 Bruins averaged 20.6 assists per game, which is second among all teams studied. The 2017 Bruins are averaging 21.5 assists per game.
The 1979-80 Bruins were also young, another common theme I’m seeing. The freshmen class consisted of Foster, Michael Holton, Darren Daye and Cliff Pruitt.
The Bruins finished fourth in the Pac-10 at 12-6, but advanced to the tournament because the NCAA field was expanded from 40 to 48 teams. The NCAA had just passed a rule allowing more than one at-large team per conference. The Bruins made the tournament as a No. 8 seed in the West.
The 1979-80 Bruins ended up advancing in the tournament and beating Purdue in the national semifinals.
UCLA lost to Louisville 59-54 in the national title game. I watched the game (YouTube link is below) and wow, these Bruins were close to winning. UCLA was up 54-50 with four minutes left in the game. Vandeweghe missed an easy layup around the four-minute mark that would have given UCLA a six-point lead.
Darrell Griffith played huge for Louisville. This unlikely Bruin team ended up becoming the closest to winning a national title among the teams studied outside of the 1995 Bruins.
The 2005-06 Bruins
This team and the two that followed it were the antithesis of the 2017 team. The 2005-06 Bruins won with defense and grind-it-out offense.
Coach Ben Howland, who signed two freshmen Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar that would change UCLA’s trajectory, used the style in Pittsburgh.
The 2005-06 Bruins was Howland’s best defensive team. The squad allowed just 58.7 points per game (good for 10th in the nation out of 326 teams). What about the 2017 team, you ask? The current Bruins allow 75.3 points per game.
Sophomores Afflalo and Farmar provided most of the offense. Cameroon natives Alfred Aboya and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and centers Ryan Hollins and Lorenzo Mata-Real provided the grit on defense.
The team produced many longtime NBA players (Afflalo, Farmar, Mbah a Moute, Hollins and point guard Darren Collison).
The 2005-06 Bruins were similar to the 2017 team in that no one expected a Final Four run at the start of the season. But the Bruins gained confidence in their slow-it-down, win-with-defense style that they pushed it to a 32-7 record and a spot in the national championship game.
Before we get to the national championship game, let’s first talk about The Crying Game.
UCLA made one of the biggest NCAA Tournament comebacks in school history when they beat heavily-favored Gonzaga in the tournament. UCLA overcame a 17-point deficit. The game will forever be known as The Crying Game as Gonzaga star Adam Morrison fell to the ground and wept even before the game was over.
Hearing Gus Johnson’s call on Farmar’s steal and assist in the waning moments still gives me chills!
“Are you kidding me!” Johnson crooned. “After being down by 17, heart break city!”
I remember watching this team beat LSU 59-45 (can you imagine the current UCLA team playing a game like that?) on TV in the national semifinals. I thought they had a good chance against Florida. It wasn’t meant to be. This would be the first of several stakes in the heart the Gators delivered to the Bruins in this era.
The 2006-07 Bruins
This was Russell Westbrook’s freshman year.
Westbrook is one of the game’s best players, a Hall of Fame lock. But he didn’t start on the 2006-07 Bruins.
Collison started over him. Afflalo was once again the team’s heart and soul, pushing the team to the brink.
This team started 9-0, a feat the 2017 team equaled earlier this season.
I attended this Final Four in Atlanta. I truly thought this would be the year the Bruins would win it all.
Once again, Florida was the foil. UCLA lost to Florida 76-66 in the national semifinals.
I took a look at the box score from the game. Did you know: Westbrook played just eight minutes in this game. He had two points on one-of-two shooting. Collison, the starter, finished just 3-for-14 with 9 points and five assists.
Would Westbrook have been the difference if he played more?
The 2007-08 Bruins
You need more than a quality team to cut down the nets. You need to get the right bounces, stay healthy, get a good draw and match up well with opponents.
I thought this team had it all. Westbrook, now a sophomore, was joined by UCLA’s most heralded freshman in years: Kevin Love.
Add the continued development of point guard Collison (who turned out to have a solid NBA career); everything seemed to be breaking right for UCLA.
Playing a little faster than last year’s team, these Bruins could still defend. The Bruins averaged 73.5 points per game while allowing 59 per game.
After becoming the Pacific-10 regular season champions and winning the Pacific-10 tournament, the Bruins were seeded No. 1 in the West Regional bracket of the 2008 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament.
When UCLA made the Final Four, I jumped on purchasing tickets. Los Angeles Times sportswriter Bill Plaschke predicted UCLA would win the title in a column on the day of the game.
It wasn’t meant to be. The Bruins ran into Derrick Rose and the Memphis Tigers in the national semifinals. UCLA lost 78-63.
I remember watching Love after the game. He was the last one on the court as if he knew it was his last time in a Bruin uniform. Love and Westbrook went high in the 2008 NBA Draft.
The 1994-95 Bruins
The 1995 Bruins had size, speed, unselfishness, 3-point shooting and chemistry.
Their players, offense and stats are almost identical to the 2017 team except for one caveat (which we will get to later).
Let’s start at point guard. The 6-foot-6 Lonzo Ball is taller than the 5-foot-10 Edney but they are both pass-first players. The 1995 team had stellar freshmen (J.R. Henderson, Toby Bailey) as does the 2017 team.
The 1995 team has a unique senior leader (Ed O’Bannon) who led by example. Bryce Alford, who has now scored the fifth-most points in UCLA history, hopes to deliver a similar performance.
The 1995 Bruins were a high-octane offense that learned how to play defense. The 1995 Bruins averaged 87.5 points per game; 2017 Bruins 90.4. The 1995 Bruins allowed 73.9 points per game; 2017 Bruins 75.3.
Defense and rebounding are two Achilles heels for the current Bruins squad. Defense was also an issue, if you can say that, for the 1995 team. The 1995 team, after all, only ended up losing two games all year.
The 1995 team ended up using a zone defense late in the season. O’Bannon, the team’s leader, spearheaded the defense.
O’Bannon willed this team to victory. O’Bannon scored 30 points with 17 rebounds in the 1995 title game, but it was his voice and energy that pushed the team all year.
He was hard on everybody on the team, particularly his brother Charles.
O’Bannon saw Danny Manning prop up Kansas and win the ’88 NCAA title.
“That’s when I fell in love with the tournament,” he says in Rob Miech’s great book, “Eleventh Heaven.” “I gotta be part of this! If I can put a team on my back. …”
Not only did the 1995 Bruins have a leader that pushed them to the brink, they had great players step up in great moments.
Edney’s 94-foot, 4.8-second dash and layup to beat Missouri in the 1995 NCAA tournament’s West Regional is the most memorable play in UCLA history (Sorry to all of Wooden’s 10 national championship teams).
What’s not remembered in that play is Jim Harrick’s coaching. Moments before Edney saved UCLA’s season, Harrick demonstrably told him to keep the ball and win the game.
If the 2017 Bruins are to win it all, they will need senior leadership, a never-say-die attitude, memorable performances and coaching. They’ll need someone to step up when the team stumbles, which they will. They’ll need to learn how to defend. They’ll need to rebound.
No one said it would be easy.