Final Four Preview: (1) Gonzaga vs. (11) UCLA

When UCLA has the ball

When I wrote a gigantic article on Tennessee basketball’s obsession with the mid-range jumper about a month ago, the last thing I anticipated was to be sitting here on April 1 writing about a Final Four participant also obsessed with it. But weird things happen, because March is March and things don’t always have to make sense. Anyway, let it be known that the Big Six team second in the rankings to actual mid-range jump shot attempts this season was…the UCLA Bruins. And boy, do they take a billion of ‘em.

Per Synergy, UCLA has taken 483 mid-range jumpers this season, which probably places them #1 in the nation at this point, now that every other team that was in the top ten this year either didn’t make the NCAA Tournament or didn’t make it to the second weekend. This kinda blows up my whole “the mid-range jumper shouldn’t be a massive part of your offense” point I made for a week straight, but whatever. Anyway, it’s definitely a big help that UCLA hit 43.1% of their two-point jumpers and 40.7% of all Other Twos, of course. If you can hit them at that rate, it’s okay to take a decent chunk of your shots in that realm of the court.

The two mid-range killers on the team, as in the ones who’ve made more than 28 on the season, are Johnny Juzang (57-for-117, 48.7%) and Tyger Campbell (47-for-98, 48%). It’s important to highlight these two, as the pair find mid-range success in fairly different ways. Juzang has an almost equal amount of shot attempts out of the pick-and-roll, off-ball screens (as shown above), and spot-ups; more than half (54 of 98) of Campbell’s come as the pick-and-roll ball-handler and an additional large chunk in isolation. He’s at his most potent off of a ball screen and is oddly tough to defend:

Campbell simply offers a variety of shot attempts: the dribble jumpers, sure, but he also took 45 runners/floaters this year (he’s hitting 53% of these) and shows a willingness to take it all the way to the basket. (He’s not efficient there, for what it’s worth.) 

It’s strange because the current trend in basketball is to force as many mid-range jumpers as you can, or at least to force you to shoot over the top if it isn’t easy to score at the rim. With Gonzaga, there isn’t really a dominant rim protector to be had, though their actual FG% allowed at the rim is good enough (55.7%, 78th-best). They’ve forced opponents to take 31.4% of their shots from Other Twos land because the backcourt is pretty hard to penetrate and the frontcourt, as mentioned, is generally good enough to scare away lesser opponents. 

The weird thing here is that UCLA actually wants these shots and will actively seek them out. For what it’s worth, Gonzaga just got done playing a USC team that takes a little over 11 mid-range jumpers a game. USC went 6-for-13 on their mid-range attempts, which is a fine hit rate, but they started out 2-for-9 and were almost entirely shut down any time they tried to isolate a Bulldog defender. In particular, it was highly impressive that Gonzaga entirely shut down anything and everything Evan Mobley (the upcoming #2 pick in the draft) wanted to do, whether it was in isolation or as part of a pick-and-roll.

It’s a strange sensation. Gonzaga would normally want teams to take that shot, but UCLA’s two best scorers are both fantastic mid-range shooters. (As a whole, the team is generally very good from deep, which helps this make sense.) However, look at that 48-49% hit rate listed above, and look at the 43% hit rate as a team. That’s still below a point per possession no matter how you slice it, and considering Gonzaga’s strengths in defensive rebounding and not fouling, it becomes a little hard to envision all these mid-range jumpers being the same benefit it’s typically been for UCLA.

Beyond Juzang/Campbell is the electrifying Jaime Jaquez, Jr., my favorite player in the entire Tournament. Jaquez is an excellent shooter from pretty much everywhere, but he only takes about 18.6% of UCLA’s shots while he’s on the court. Jaquez does a ton of damage inside the arc, but he doesn’t come close to Juzang/Campbell’s impact from the mid-range. Instead, this is a guy Gonzaga has to cover from downtown, along with Jules Bernard. Both are shooting 39% this season from deep.

It certainly helps Gonzaga’s fate here that UCLA takes a low amount of threes (31.7% of all shots, 300th-most) despite being really good at making them (36.9%, 44th-best). Gonzaga generally keeps three-point attempts low, and in the Tournament, they’ve actually dialed this up even further. In four NCAA Tournament games, only 29.9% of opponent attempts have been from deep, and the only team to knock down more than five threes on Gonzaga was…16 seed Norfolk State in a 43-point loss. The Bulldogs don’t have an extraordinary Guarded/Unguarded rate to explain this away (51/49), but they force lots of off-the-dribble jumpers and generally work to just erase catch-and-shoot attempts in the first place.

Lastly – and potentially of serious importance – is Cody Riley. Riley is UCLA’s true center, a player that’s taken two three-point attempts all year and only 48 jumpers out of 209 field goal attempts. Thanks to fouls and a general less-than-ideal matchup with Hunter Dickinson, Riley got played off the court by Michigan, but he remains a skilled post scorer and an oddly effective jump shooter for a 6’9” guy that can’t take threes. His game isn’t the prettiest, but it works well against less physical opponents.

This is the lone area of weakness I think I can actively see on Gonzaga’s defense. It’s a top five unit that does lots of things right, crushes ball screens, forces a lot of tough shots, and does it all without a true rim protector. Unfortunately, that hasn’t carried over on the post-up defense front. Gonzaga ranks in the 23rd-percentile in defending possessions resulting in/from a post-up, which is, you know, less than excellent. Riley has only topped seven shot attempts once in the Tournament (versus Alabama), but it seems like it would be a bad idea to not at least try that out here.

Essentially, this is an offense predicated on lots of two-point jumpers taking on a defense that defends two-point jumpers very well, doesn’t allow many offensive rebounds, and doesn’t foul. Barring a surprise UCLA run from three similar to the Alabama game, points feel like they may be hard to come by. If Riley can’t get going in the post or if only one of Juzang/Campbell/Jaquez is hitting shots, it’s going to be hard to score with Gonzaga, especially when UCLA’s half-court defense is kind of bad.

NEXT PAGE: When Gonzaga has the ball

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