The key to UCLA's success or failure in the NCAA tournament, says guard Toby Bailey, is whether the Bruins continue to play with the team chemistry on defense that was lacking until only recently.
"You've got to trust each other not only on offense but on defense," Bailey said. "And right now, this team is really starting to trust each other, to know if they switch out on somebody else, somebody will take their man."
With center Jelani McCoy out, then in, then out of the lineup, and with two freshman guards, this season's team gave up far easier points--including a school record 120 to Duke on Feb. 22--than the Bruin teams of the recent past.
"We have just as quick and athletic people as those other teams," Bailey said. "It's just a matter of learning how to play defense together."
After several seasons of being held to about 42% shooting from the field, UCLA opponents this season made 46.3% of their shots and scored an average of 80.5 points.
Though the Bruins gave up an average of 93.3 points in their last three games, all three opponents played at a rapid pace, and the intensity on defense was much higher than earlier in the season, when Bailey said he was deeply concerned about the team.
"I was worried just by the fact that teams would score on us kind of at will," Bailey said. "Even if we knew we had to get a stop, teams would just score on us. And that's never been the case here.
"Although we might not have played 40 minutes consistently in the past, we knew when we had to get a stop, we got a stop. I think the last couple games have been the only time I've really felt confident we could just stop teams when we really needed to.
"It's just playing with more intensity, switching on more picks. . . . We just had to get to know each other and how we play."
Said Kris Johnson: "We have to really treasure each possession--on offense and defense. There's no more, 'OK, let them score, we'll get it back.' No more giving up layups. Every little play is a big deal now."
The identity of this team, Bailey said, is finally clear: a pressing, pressure team that loves to score quickly and make chaos on defense.
"Yeah, that's definitely where we are," Bailey said. "As long as we stay out of foul trouble and keep rotating guys so we stay fresh, we'll be able to have a chance to win some games."