Last week, the Bruins played two of their better games of the season as they defeated both USC and St. John's. The games were critical for the Bruins as they attempt to solidify themselves as NCAA Tournament participants. The key for the Bruins now is to avoid any major let-downs. The Bruins really haven't been in this position yet this season, but after the big wins over the Trojans (decisively) and the Red Storm (would have been decisive if the Bruins hit their free throws), the Bruins find themselves in exactly that spot, that of taking care of business against teams that are perceived to be inferior to UCLA.
Let's get one thing out of the way: in the Pac-10 there is really no such thing as a ‘gimme' this season. The Bruins proved that when they almost lost against ASU, which is 1-10 in the conference. It more than likely means that the Ducks, who come to Pauley Pavilion on Thursday night, and the Oregon State Beavers, who visit UCLA on Saturday, won't be pushovers. Remember that the Ducks clearly outplayed the Bruins in Eugene in January in the first half. The Beavers outplayed the Bruins in the second half of their game. True, the Bruins clearly dismantled the Ducks in the first game for virtually the entire second half, but that required a concerted effort by the Bruins to focus and play with intensity on defense. It was the first time this season the Bruins did that for even a half. Since the Bruins find themselves in unfamiliar territory, that of simply needing to hold serve, the question is, once again, will the Bruins play in an inspired way or will their newfound success lead them to play lazy and complacent basketball?
Oregon is very well coached by their first-year coach Dana Altman, and they're coming off a home sweep of the Washington schools. If there is a Pac-10 team that is getting the most out of its talent it's Oregon. Picked to finish last in the conference, the Ducks sit at 5-6 in the conference and 12-11 overall. They certainly will be sky high for the rematch with the Bruins. However, while Oregon has been playing well, they have been playing at home and that makes for an enormous difference with this young team. Oregon won against Wazzu last Thursday by 26 at Matt Court but lost by 14 in Pullman. The Ducks beat UDub by 5 after losing to them by 18 (and it wasn't that close) in Seattle. That's a 40-point swing and a 23-point swing, respectively. Oregon is 2-4 in true road games this year, plus 0-1 on a neutral court, with the two wins coming against Stanford and Oregon State. Both of them very close games, and hree of their four road losses were absolute blowouts, including one to a very bad Virginia team. The point is that the Ducks simply aren't as good on the road as they are in Eugene and it isn't even close.
In terms of personnel, the Ducks match-up with very few teams in the Pac-10 -- maybe Arizona State and Oregon State, but that's about it. Certainly the Bruins enjoy a talent advantage with Oregon at each position and on the bench, at least on paper. That's where Altman's coaching comes in, but more on that later.
The backcourt for the Ducks is inexperienced but can be dangerous. The point guard is freshman John Loyd (5'8" 160 lbs.) and, as one might expect, he's had a very up and down season. He is averaging only 5 PPG and his shooting has been miserable (less than 30% from the field and from behind the arc). Still, he has some nice numbers in his passing game, averaging exactly 2 assists for every turnover. He's also solid from the free throw line, hitting 78% of his attempts. Loyd is quick but not spectacularly so and as such can be a liability on the defensive end as most teams simply post him up or power by and through him. He did have a good weekend versus the Washington schools and against UDub's Isaiah Thomas (when the Ducks weren't in a zone), but Thomas is Loyd's size. UCLA's Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson are far bigger and stronger than Loyd and should have a decided advantage against the Duck freshman.
Junior Garrett Sim (6'1" 181 lbs.) is the two guard and possesses a nice shot. He's averaging 8.1 PPG and is one of Oregon's primary outside threats. He is second on the team in three-point attempts (by just one attempt) and is hitting 35% of those shots. Sim plays hard but isn't very athletic and is a liability on defense if the Ducks have to go man-to man.
The Duck bench is essentially all guards with senior Jay-R Strowbridge (5'11" 180 lbs.) and juniors Malcolm Armstead (6' 195 lbs.) and Teondre Williams (6'4" 218 lbs.). Strowbridge should probably be starting as he's averaging 8.9 PPG and is a three-point threat. He's solid on defense and has the experience to off-set the size advantage that most opponents will have. He hit some big shots in the first half of the first meeting between these two teams. Strowbridge, however, is the one constant offensive threat that Altman has coming off the bench and that's why he's the sixth man. If Altman did bring him in for large stretches, presumably for Loyd, look for Sim to move to the point.
Armstead and Williams have very similar roles, which is to come in and not try to be spectacular but be solid on both ends of the court. Armstead may be the team's best defender with 48 steals and Williams statistically is the team's best three-point shooter at 42%. But they have their roles and both play less than 20 MPG.
The Duck frontcourt isn't big and isn't deep. That frontcourt depth took a considerable hit when junior post Jeremy Jacob (6'8" 226 lbs.) sat out last weekend's win over Washington with a knee injury. Jacob is questionable for the game with the Bruins but the injury is to the same knee that underwent surgery back in October. If Jacob plays he will be limited.
That's a big loss for the Ducks when facing a team like the Bruins because that means the advantage that UCLA already had in the frontcourt now becomes bigger. The Ducks are down to two post players, senior Joevan Catron (6'6" 245 lbs.), who missed the first meeting against UCLA, and junior Tyrone Nared (6'8" 210 lbs.). Catron is the name player of the two and, when he's healthy, he's a load to deal with, literally. He isn't a typical low-post player because he can move out to the three-point line, but when he's only 7-of-25 from distance this year, compared to what he's capable of doing in the paint, the idea of him shooting three-pointers, for UCLA, would be preferable. He leads the team in scoring at 16 PPG and rebounding at 6.7 RPG. Typically, Catron is able to use his strength and girth to simply overpower much taller defenders. In this game, expect UCLA's Coach Ben Howland to employ waves of post defenders to have a go at Catron. Josh Smith certainly will show Catron that he can't just bull the Bruin frosh out of the way. Anthony Stover is longer and more athletic and likes playing defense and Reeves Nelson is becoming a serviceable on-ball defender in the low post.
Nared is very athletic and produced some very good results in the first meeting between the Ducks and the Bruins. He is specifically a threat on the offensive boards where his jumping ability and elusiveness allows him to work the glass. He is second on the team in blocks with 16 but he isn't very strong and could still put on a bit of muscle. He will be at a decided disadvantage against UCLA's bigs in the low post.
Oregon's most complete basketball player is probably sophomore forward E.J. Singler (6'6" 210 lbs.), who is the younger brother of Duke's Kyle Singler. The younger Singler has a game very similar to his brother except he's obviously not quite as polished and he's lacking his brother's size and length. Singler, however, knows how to play the game. He's second on the team in both scoring and rebounding at 11.2 PPG and 5.7 RPG. He averages roughly 30MPG, most on the team, and is probably the one player Altman can't do without. He's an excellent free throw shooter (83%), leads the team in blocks and, when the Ducks play man defense, Singler is the one who most understands rotations and help defense. Singler had a great first half against the Bruins in January when he had Tyler Honeycutt guarding him. When Singler's shot stopped falling in the second half and he saw a bit of Malcolm Lee, Singler became a non-factor. The match-up against Singler may be the most important of the game because, as Singler goes, so goes Oregon.
The Ducks will probably play a pretty similar defense to what they did in January against the Bruins, almost certainly using a zone defense and looking to trap out of that zone in the halfcourt. That means they will look to get the Bruins to turn the ball over and score quickly while getting back on defense. The Ducks had 13 offensive boards in the first meeting but many of those occurred after halftime as the Ducks fell behind and looked to crash the glass. If Altman elects to go man-to-man for any length of time then look for the Bruins to roll offensively. The best bet that Oregon has is to mix up their zone defenses and hope the Bruins get lazy and settle for outside shots.
The first Oregon game was the one where UCLA and Howland finally went to a smaller line-up for an extended period of time. It was for the entirety of the second half and UCLA showed the first signs of defending like it was circa 2007-2008. Granted, Howland's hand was forced because of Nelson's foul issues, but still, it was s sign of things to come in certain games. Look for the Bruins to try and exploit their size advantage early and even get the Oregon forwards in foul trouble. However, if the Bruins come out lazy and/or take too many outside shots against the Duck zone, then look for Howland to go with Honeycutt at the four and Nelson and Smith at the five with Anthony Stover playing both. That means seeing a lot of Anderson, Lee and Jones in the backcourt. That's a solid defensive backcourt and one which could give the Ducks fits.
Catron didn't play in the first game between these two teams but, before that is looked at as a factor, consider that Nelson really didn't play either, getting just 15 minutes, fouling out and not scoring. In fact, the Bruins probably were at a disadvantage when he did play in that game. At worst, a focused Nelson and Catron are a wash. At best, getting Nelson to play as he did against both St. John's and USC probably means he outplays Catron.
A great deal will depend on whether or not the Bruins simply show up expecting to win or if they truly turned a corner in terms of focus last week. They are a young team and could be reading their press clippings about how good they looked. Or, they could be maturing and could come out with fire and bury Oregon before the game reaches halftime.
Obviously, with these Bruins it's a complete guess as to which team will show up. Based on the Bruins' recent pattern, look for UCLA to come out a bit slow, at least until Smith enters the game. The Bruins, much as they did against the Johnnies last Saturday, will probably show their focus and pull away to win comfortably but not in a blowout.
Some things to consider: against St. John's, from when the score was 13-4 in favor of the Johnnies, the Bruins outscored them by 16. At one point it was pushing 20 and the game would have been closer to a 15-20 point victory for the Bruins if they hit their free throws down the stretch. The fact that late free throws still are a problem will probably come back to bite the Bruins in the rear before the season is out, but that game will not be against the Ducks.