This game has now taken on the qualities of a must-win game for the Bruins if they want to be playing past the Pac-10 Tournament in March. The Bruins are looking for a little bit of mojo while OSU and Coach Craig Robinson will be looking for further growth. This game isn't a "gimme" by any means for the Bruins and they will need to play better than they did in their past two games, both losses, if they expect to be successful on Thursday.
UCLA currently stands at 1-2 in the Pac-10 Conference and is coming off consecutive disheartening losses to Washington and USC. UCLA's lack of fire, focus and defensive intensity have been issues for the Bruins all season, but in big games (Kansas and BYU) the Bruins have performed with more swagger, which makes the UDub and USC defeats troubling. Thankfully for Coach Ben Howland and the Bruins they now enter an easier portion of their schedule. However, it is imperative that the Bruins take advantage of that schedule. The next four games are not only winnable but should be won by the Bruins based on sheer talent and where the games are being played. The Bruins being who they are, though, means they could lose a game they can't afford to lose.
Oregon State has been the perfect example of a "Jekyll and Hyde" team this season. They have some nice wins, namely against Arizona and Charlotte, while also suffering some embarrassing losses, such as at the hands of Seattle, Utah Valley, Texas Southern, Montana (yes, the same Grizzlies who beat the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion) and George Washington. All of these games, both wins and losses, except for the Seattle game, were in Corvallis. It's not as if Gill is a particularly tough place to play. The key for the teams that beat OSU was their ability to break down Oregon State's gimmicky defense and the Bruins will be faced with that same task on Thursday.
OSU employs a 1-3-1 halfcourt defense that is a combination of passive and attacking principles normally associated with both John Cheney's Temple teams and a fully trapping halfcourt defense. The Beavers tend to trap in the corners, and this year they have been taking more chances out of those traps because of their ability to cover and create turnovers along the baseline. But the Beavers also have the ability to play a more Temple-inspired match-up zone where the players have man principles when the ball is in their zone area.
The Bruins have had a great deal of success against Robinson and this 1-3-1 style of defense the past several years. The Bruins have won 11 straight against the Beavers, last losing when Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar were freshmen. The Bruins have been successful because they had the right personnel to attack the 1-3-1. To attack this type of defense the Bruins should operate a variation of a 2-1-2 offense. The idea is to have someone in the middle at the free throw line that can pass, is strong and can turn and either drive and/or shoot. The Bruins theoretically have several players that can do that in Tyler Honeycutt, Reeves Nelson and Brendan Lane. Lane won't start and Honeycutt will probably be more necessary on the wing or along the baseline because of his slashing ability. That leaves Nelson, although he might be better suited to come in along the weakside baseline as one of the bottom two. Josh Smith will take one of the other bottom spots, although he won't spread the defense like a shooter on the baseline can do, thus forcing the baseline defender to overextend and exert himself. The two players on the top need to be better passers and have the ability to hit the outside shot, thus making the defense pay when the offense gets a quick wing pass or a skip pass. That would invariably be Lazeric Jones and Malcom Lee, with Honeycutt and Jerime Anderson spelling them. Herein lies the danger; the Bruins were able to pick apart the Beavers last year because they had a very good outside shooter in Mike Roll and that forced OSU's defensive hand. There is no Roll on this year's squad, so even though the Bruins may be more talented than last year they may be a poorer match-up against the Beavers.
Defensively the Bruins probably are playing against a team that will match-up with them very well, and that is a scary thought. The Bruins have played exclusively man defense this year but have been very poor in their defensive rotation on both the initial help and on the weakside help. OSU runs that pesky Princeton-based, slow-the-clock spread offense with many back screens and backdoor cuts. This kind of offense could potentially be a nightmare for the Bruins because of their inability to consistently be focused on defense and their help responsibilities. When the Bruins swept OSU last season they were playing primarily the 2-3 zone and OSU has traditionally struggled with zone defenses over the past several years. They haven't had great outside shooters and this year is no different. Yet Arizona's Sean Miller insisted on playing man defense virtually all game in their loss in Corvallis almost as if it were a pride issue because he has better athletes, and it cost the Wildcats. Howland may very well do the same thing even if it costs his team the win because he seems to be equally as stubborn about not playing zone.
Unlike the past decade, Oregon State actually has a relatively athletic squad. Over the past few season, especially, if the Oregon State system couldn't beat a team then the Beavers just couldn't win. This is the first year that they have some shooters, some bangers and some kids who can get to the rack. Much of their early season woes can be attributable to the fact several new faces were added to the mix and the offensive and defensive systems that Robinson runs require precision and experience.
The key player for the Beavers is sophomore guard/wing Jared Cunningham (6'4" 182 lbs.). Cunningham is the Beavers' do-everything player, leading OSU in most statistical categories. He is the team's leading scorer, deep shooter and defender. He is an excellent three-point shooter and free throw shooter and gets to the foul line often. He was a thorn in the side of the Bruins in both of last season's games and has the capability of single-handedly beating the Bruins. Defending him will more than likely be Honeycutt as OSU goes with a 3-guard line-up. Tyler Lamb can also math-up well with Cunningham and the combination of the two Bruins could cause Cunningham to have a poor game. He does have a bit of a reputation of letting frustration get to him on offense. The area where Cunningham is solid is on the defensive end, and he is without a doubt the key to OSU's defensive fortunes. He runs the baseline on the bottom of the 1-3-1 and is very good at cutting off driving angles and intercepting passes into the post. He has 46 steals on the season, which is an outstanding number. If the Bruins can get him into foul trouble then they should win going away. If Cunningham is able to stay on the floor virtually the entire game then it's anyone's guess as to the outcome. Cunningham is that important to the fortunes of the Beavers.
The starting point guard is freshman Ahmad Starks (5'8" 153 lbs.), a quick and energetic player who is in the mold of a young Isaiah Thomas of Washington but without the scoring. Starks is liable to make freshman mistakes, most in the area of forcing things on offense when Robinson is preaching patience. Starks isn't as quick as one might think and he doesn't get into the paint and subsequently to the foul line as much as one might think either. He is more of a pass-first guard and is one of only three players on the roster who has more assists than turnovers.
The shooting guard is senior Calvin Haynes (6'3" 183 lbs.), who is the most experienced Beaver and has led the team in scoring the past two seasons until this one. If Cunningham isn't the best player on Robinson's squad then that honor would fall to Haynes. He is the second-leading scorer on the team at 11 PPG but his shooting this year has been abysmal. Malcolm Lee will have to keep Haynes in check for the Bruins to win, and that seems more plausible this year because of Haynes' shooting funk.
There are two other backcourt players for the Bruins to worry about. The first is senior Lathen Wallace (6'3" 199 lbs.), who was supposed to be a solid outside shooter when he came to the Beavers but he has never developed the consistency from the outside that Robinson and his offense needed. He is shooting worse than Haynes this season, especially from beyond the arc where he sits at 23%. He knows the offense and how to get open looks in the flow of the offense but he hasn't been able to deliver as of yet this year.
The other player is redshirt freshman Roberto Nelson (6'3" 188), who is, according to reports, talented. But just because he has talent doesn't mean he is a great player. He does have the potential to be, though. He is averaging over 8 PPG in less than 16 MPG, which, translated out to 40 minutes, means over 20 PPG. That's better than Cunningham would average. Nelson missed all of last year and the first quarter of this season so he is still rounding into form. If he gets hot then Lee and Lamb will have their hands full.
The frontcourt for the Beavers is thin. They start sophomore Angus Brandt (6'10" 237 lbs.) in the post but he has been overmatched all year by players less talented than Josh Smith. In fact, an argument can be made that if Lane were on this Beaver team he'd start and be a focal point of the post game. Brandt is dangerous because he can hit that outside shot that the Princeton offense needs in order to open up things. He is, however, pretty skinny and he's been thrown around physically many times this season because of his slight frame and high center of gravity.
Senior Omari Johnson (6'9" 220 lbs.) will be at the four spot. He is taller and quicker than UCLA's Nelson, but Nelson did tear him up last year both in Los Angeles and at Gill. Johnson is the team's leading rebounder at 6.5 RPG and he has become a bit of an outside threat, but his game is still predicated on cleaning up after misses, hustle and desire. If Nelson plays a decent game he should be able to shut down Johnson, who is roughly the fourth or fifth option on offense when he is on the court.
The bench depth is provided by arguably OSU's best post player, sophomore Joe Burton (6'7" 280 lbs.). Burton has the low center of gravity and the girth to hang with Josh Smith and if Robinson needs to go man-to-man it wouldn't be surprising to see Burton on the UCLA big man. Burton is a difficult match-up when he has the ball because he is more athletic than his size would indicate and he is very strong. He kept OSU in the game against the Bruins in Los Angeles last year simply because the Bruins had no one strong enough physically or mentally to slow him down. He averages 8.5 PPG and 5.4 RPG. His scoring average would be much higher except for the fact that he is an abysmal 44% from the charity stripe for the year. It will be interesting to see Smith and Burton locked up in a head-to-head match-up.
The final player in Robinson's rotation is freshman Devon Collier (6'7" 207 lbs.), who basically spells Cunningham. His shooting percentages, though, probably warrant more than the 13 MPG he is currently getting.
The key for the Bruins will be being patient yet attacking the 1-3-1 defense of OSU. That defense is designed to create turnovers and frustrate. It is also designed to keep the opposition outside of the paint. The Bruins tore that defense apart twice last year but the Bruins had perimeter scoring. This year UCLA has little true outside shooting so they'll have to get the ball into the big guy in the paint.
Defensively the Bruins may get burned in this one. The Beavers are playing with confidence and there are visions of Princeton 1996 dancing in OSU's head with regard to the back-door plays. If UCLA doesn't find some defensive intensity this is the kind of team that can exploit that and win a game they have no business winning.
UCLA's athleticism should prevail, but it won't be pretty. In fact, if the Bruin funk at the beginning of games crops up again then the Bruins will lose. OSU had a 9-point lead at Washington last weekend and UCLA doesn't have the capability of running up things like Washington does, at least not yet. The Bruins simply wouldn't be able to make that kind of comeback. Hopefully that won't be necessary and the USC loss was the same kind of motivator for this team as was a USC loss in 2006.
Oregon State 58