Is UCLA due to regress? On first glance that is a trite question: Of course they are. They started the season ranked around 20th in the human polls and are now a clear #2. Knowing nothing but those two facts one would project that UCLA is more likely to drop from #2 than rise to #1 over the next three months.
But is there something unique about UCLA that makes them more likely to regress? This tweet below is a view that I have seen a few people suggest:
Scribes around me are debating their defense. Overheard: "Top-25 good, but not Final Four good." https://t.co/T3yQx7aGg6— Adam Jardy (@AdamJardy) December 17, 2016
Of course, teams great on only one side of the ball have had success, too. Two seasons ago, the Jerian Grant-led Notre Dame team finished 2nd in Pomeroy offense and 102nd in defense while going 14-4 in the ACC, winning the ACC tournament, earning a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and nearly toppling 37-0 Kentucky in the Elite 8. The year before that, the Doug McDermott-led Creighton team finished 2nd in Pomeroy offense and 125th in defense while going 14-4 in the Big East and earning a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
At this time, UCLA's offensive/defensive gap isn't even as extreme as those aforementioned teams. They currently sit 2nd in Pomeroy offense and 68th in defense. But what is concerning is how they have gotten this far, which is on shooting. They came into Saturday's Ohio State game the #1 ranked team in the nation in 2P%, 3P% and eFG% shooting. They have now declined to 3rd in 3P% shooting but still lead the nation in eFG% at 64.0%.
Is UCLA a good shooting team? Yep. And they will continue to stay ranked high, but that eFG% will almost certainly not stay at 64% all season long. I wrote about this last season with regards to Saint Mary's, another team that got off to a surprisingly hot start thanks to hot shooting and in spite of bad defense, which then faded as their shooting regressed.
I hear the criticism to that last paragraph: Saint Mary's regressed hardest on 3P% shooting, yet UCLA leads the nation in 2P% shooting. And that's true, but UCLA leads the nation in 2P% shooting largely because the lead the nation in two-point jump shooting (49.0%). UCLA is only 282nd in the nation in the percentage of shots attempted at the rim (31.4%).
Right now, UCLA has a 64.0 eFG%. How does that compare with the best shooting Division I team the past five seasons (you'll notice that our friends Notre Dame and Creighton are on there)?
2015-16: 58.7% (Indiana)
2014-15: 58.3% (Notre Dame)
2013-14: 58.9% (Creighton)
2012-13: 58.2% (Creighton)
2011-12: 58.0% (Missouri)
In other words, over the course of a season, statistics with a luck component will regress somewhat. Even if UCLA ends up the best shooting team in the nation, they're going to end up in the 58% range, not 64%. And that 6% can mean a lot when you are allowing 0.97 PPP. In fact, if you just take out UCLA's five games against Pomeroy Top 100 opponents (Nebraska, Texas A&M, Kentucky, Michigan State, and Ohio State), UCLA is allowing 1.06 PPP. The fact is that UCLA is a jump shooting team that doesn't get a lot of rebounds and doesn't get to the line, so when those shots don't fall they are going to lose.
UCLA is a good team, and they're certainly a contender in the Pac-12, but if you're going to pick a team that is likely to regress, you want to pick a team that relies on hot jump shooting and does not rebound or play defense well. In other words, you choose UCLA.
UCLA currently sits 9th overall in the Pomeroy ratings, well ahead of the second best Pac-12 team (Arizona - 20th). Arizona also sits 16 spots down from UCLA in both the AP and Coaches Poll right now. But if Arizona can get back Allonzo Trier then they will improve. And so if we do believe that UCLA is likely to regress, then one can make a very strong argument that it is Arizona - not UCLA - that should be considered the Pac-12 favorite right now.