The UCLA Bruins are off to their best start in 13 years and, if all goes according to plan, will be the #1 team the rest of the way heading into the NCAA Tournament. This week alone, the Bruins outlasted a very tough and physical Washington St team and completely dominated the talent-laden Washington Huskies.
Here are the main reasons why UCLA won’t relinquish their number one ranking:
Much Improved PAC-10
The PAC-10 is easily the deepest conference in the nation right now and #1 in RPI. Conceivably, 6 of the 10 teams will earn berths in the NCAA tournament. And the Bruins have shown thus far to be the best team in the PAC-10, with Arizona a close second. Washington and Oregon are both ranked in the top 20, while Washington St. and USC could both sneak into the Top 25 sometime during the season.
The Bruins are fortunate to have stayed undefeated through their early non-conference schedule. Combine that with losses suffered by consensus top teams Florida, UNC, and Ohio State and the Bruins can remain #1 even if they lose a game or two. How did we get here?? Well, Florida lost twice, UNC lost to Gonzaga, Ohio State didn’t have Oden to start (and got rocked by Florida), and Arizona and Wisconsin lost early on. The Bruins didn’t blow anyone away with their wins early on but nobody else stepped up to take number one away.
Strength in the RPI
The Bruins could quite possibly run the table with both games against Arizona being their toughest left. Still, even if they finish with two or three losses, their RPI will be higher than anyone else in the nation. Winning percentage, strength of schedule (#2 behind Arizona), and opponent winning percentage all favor the Bruins.
Coach Ben Howland has always preached a defense-first philosophy and the Bruins have the most aggressive defensive ball pressure in the country. Darren Collison is a one-man press, and the Bruins superior defense on the perimeter forces turnovers and creates easy transition baskets. This is especially important when the Bruins are trailing or struggling offensively because they have the capability to come back on anyone.
Depth in Scoring
Most would agree that Luc Richard Mbah A Moute has not lived up to expectations offensively. However Josh Shipp (returning from hip problems), Lorenzo Mata, and Michael Roll have more than made up the difference. Shipp is a terrific combo guard who can attack the rim with the best of them. Mata is as aggressive as they come, won’t back down to anyone. Roll is a terrific spark off the bench.
Big Game Experience
Lets not forget that for the most part, this is the same team that went to the finals last year, winning big games over Gonzaga and LSU. In the close wins so far this season against Texas A&M and Washington St. it was been that big game experience that has allowed the Bruins to escape with wins.
Will UCLA win the seven straight games it takes to be crowned champions in March? Maybe, maybe not. Could the likes of Florida, UNC, Alabama, Ohio State among others beat the Bruins? Most probably. But the fact that the Bruins are currently number one, and with no compelling reason why they should drop, I predict UCLA will be #1 at the start of the NCAA Tournament.