The UCLA Bruins can do no wrong this year - at least not on the basketball court. They are on a meteoric rise, starting the season ranked 16th in the AP poll but now all the way up to No. 2 in the most recent edition of the rankings. They got to that lofty height by opening 9-0 and, most significantly, by beating the Kentucky team that occupied that second spot in the preseason - at Rupp Arena, no less. It has been a heck of a start for the team.
So, is this team capable of maintaining this sizzling start and threatening for the Final Four? Or are they going to burn out and fade away? And are they friends or foes of bettors? Here are five factors to consider when pondering those questions:
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Pace: This team likes to fly. They completely overwhelm opponents by playing at a frenetic pace, and as of yet an opponent hasn't found a way to get them off their game. I don't like to overwhelm with statistics, but a few are relevant here for context. This team is averaging 97 points per game and a stunning 117.7 points per 100 possessions. That's incredible efficiency. They do that while, or because of, playing at a ridiculously fast tempo. They are averaging more than 76 possessions per game - almost two per minute. To understand what that means, compare them to Michigan, their next opponent. When the Wolverines made their two deep tournament runs they outran and outgunned opponents. Just twice since 2007, though, has Michigan had more than 76 possessions in a game. And UCLA is averaging that. It's incredible, and it is working. It should keep working, too, as long as a couple of things happen - they can stay healthy, and the core of the team keeps playing at the level they are at.
Young talent: Steve Alford took the gamble you have to take to play with the big boys - he went young this year. That meant taking leading scorer, and his son, Bryce Alford and turning him into more of a role player. Stud freshmen don't always contribute as hoped right away, but Alford hit the jackpot twice this year. Point guard Lonzo Ball is an all-World talent who can do pretty much everything and is all but a lock to be a Top 5 pick in the draft. He is playing incredible ball and will be even better if he can ease up on the turnovers slightly. T.J. Leaf is scoring nicely, too, and he is versatile and could be a lottery pick as well. And then they have Ike Anigbogu, who was injured to start the season but is finally playing and starting to contribute. He has first-round talent, too. The challenge with young guys is you never quite know how the season is going to play out for them. On one hand, they can get even better as they get more experience and build more chemistry with teammates and coaches. On the other hand, though, they can start to slow down as teams target them and they react to the strain of a long, hard season. I'm optimistic about all three - especially Ball, who is a freak - but we will definitely have to watch for signs of wear as the season progresses.
There's no depth here: You would expect a team that runs like this one does to go deep on the bench to keep legs and lungs fresh. UCLA really doesn't, though - starters play more than three-quarters of the minutes. That lack of trusted depth is a big concern - especially if one of the stars is hurt at some point. Aaron Holiday, a starter last year, is the only guard who plays significant minutes off the bench, and it looks like Anigbogu is the big man who will get the play off the bench - until he gets into the starting lineup himself. The lack of depth is a serious gamble for Alford, and there is a chance it is a gamble that won't pay off.
Schedule: The Bruins have a couple of potentially challenging Big Ten matchups coming up - Michigan on Saturday and Ohio State next Saturday. Both are at home, though, and neither team should be able to run to the finish line with UCLA. They stand a reasonably good chance of getting to conference play 13-0. Things get tough right out of the gate, though, as they open right after Christmas at Oregon, arguably the top rival in the conference this year. They play both the Ducks and Arizona twice and also host Cal as the first game of the new year. The Pac-12 is manageable for this team if they can stay healthy and focused, but there are plenty of opportunities to trip up - and follow down some seed lines in March - if they aren't sharp. By the time they have played eight conference games - Jan. 21 - we will know if this team is for real or if they got lucky to start the season.
Betting performance: So far betting on the Bruins has been a pleasure. They are 7-2 ATS, which ties them with Kentucky and others as the fourth-best betting team in the country. In both the games they didn't cover they still won by at least 15, so they have been consistent. It's not surprising given their pace and efficiency that they are also good at going "over" totals - they have done it six times in nine games. They have gone under in three of the last four, though, so oddsmakers and bettors are obviously compensating for their offense.
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