The story of the week for the Bruins has been the injury to Malcolm Lee's left knee. While he has been cleared to play and should be relatively fine for this opening round game, there is a chance that Lee's game will be limited, especially on the defensive end and that may prove critical. Although Oregon's leading scorer is senior post Joevan Catron (6'6" 245 lbs.), he can be neutralized by UCLA's deep frontcourt. Catron didn't play in the first meeting against UCLA at Oregon but he did score 15 in the Bruins' win at Pauley Pavilion. Still, he shot poorly in that game (5-13) and although he made two of his five three-point attempts he should have his hands full with the Bruins' inside players. Catron didn't rebound well in the game at UCLA (only 4 boards) and that should continue if the Bruin bigs show up to play with intensity and focus (heard that before?). Last night Arizona State's zone defense essentially neutralized Catron as he had only 9 points and 4 rebounds. That's where Lee's injury enters into the equation. Oregon shot 58% from behind the arc last night, going 11-19. Arizona State's defense isn't predicated on necessarily stopping the outside shot but rather forcing teams to beat the Sun Devils from distance, which Oregon was able to accomplish in spades. While UCLA won't zone Oregon they will need to close out shooters quickly or the Bruins could be in for a tough night. Lee's injury could be releveant in terms of his losing half a step on quick cuts that he may need to do in order to get out to a shooter.
Lee's injury could be magnified further by looking at Oregon's line-up and the fact that the Bruins may have to go small against the Ducks in order to find success on the defensive end. That means Howland will be leaning on his guards and wings for more minutes. If that's the case then Lee's injury obviously becomes more significant. His injury is a slightly torn meniscus (cartilage), which typically means he should be fine in the first physical use of the leg. However, after the game the knee will probably swell a bit so if the Bruins win then it may be in trouble for tomorrow's game when the injury really has an effect on Lee.
Oregon is not a big team and the Ducks will probably be smaller than usual with junior Jeremy Jacob (6'8" 226 lbs.) likely out for the game. That means the post defense duties will fall almost exclusively on Catron and junior Tyrone Nared (6'8" 210 lbs.). Nared is a good shot blocker and is athletic but he will struggle to deal with UCLA's Josh Smith. Sophomore E.J. Singler (6'6" 210 lbs.) will be forced to play the ‘4' from time to time if and when Oregon plays man defense. He is the Ducks' second-leading scorer and he had 22 points last night against the Sun Devils, but he struggled badly in the second half of both games against the Bruins. Still, the smaller line-up, while not being able to board with the Bruins, could get out and run and force Howland's hand in terms of going with a small line-up.
Oregon's guards, and there are a lot of them, can all shoot the three, just not consistently well. However, as last night proved, they can get hot at just the right time. The one exception is junior Teondre Williams (6'4" 218 lbs.), who is hitting 45% of his long-distance shots. In terms of making shots, however, the Ducks have not only Singler who can hit from beyond the arc in bunches, but also senior Jay-R Strowbridge (5'11" 180 lbs.) and junior Garrett Sim (6'1" 181 lbs.), both of whom are high volume shooters and thus will hit their outside shots if the Bruins give them enough open looks.
The final concern is Duck coach Dana Altman. Altman is a master of game-planning for an opponent and showing them something totally different than what they've seen before, whether it be an entirely new scheme or simply a wrinkle or two to existing schemes. The Ducks will almost assuredly play zone for much of the game, especially if Jacob is out. They did that in the two previous games against the Bruins and it worked in both cases, at least for a half. However, the Ducks put very little full or even ¾-court pressure on the Bruins in either contest. That may be something that changes in this game as Altman was sure to see the Bruins struggle against Washington's ball pressure. If the Bruins face full-court pressure or even ¾-court and half-court traps then they have to move the ball more quickly and aggressively than they have in the past. The Bruins should also have the advantage of being able to throw the ball over the top of the Ducks. Still, the Bruins will see something different tonight and the Bruins have struggled mightily (last Saturday at Wazzu) when faced with something they really didn't prepare for.
Another worrisome factor is UCLA's penchant for starting slowly this season against virtually every team that the Bruins have collectively taken for granted. The Bruins did that the first two times these teams met and they found themselves down big in both contests early and behind the Ducks at the half of each game. That can be dangerous as the Bruins could very easily interpret the second half runs they made against the Ducks in those two games and think they can turn the "focus and intensity" on whenever they like. That could spell defeat in a game like this.
The Bruins certainly have some big advantages in this contest, not the least of which is their relatively deep and talented front line. If the Bruins focus offensively on getting the ball inside then they should simply dominate the game. It will be a shock if the Bruins don't dominate the boards and if they also take care of the ball while on offense then they should cruise. The Bruins outrebounded the Ducks 78-58 combined in the two regular season games. The Bruins have to take advantage of the lack of depth the Ducks have down low.
Expect the Bruins to struggle at least at the beginning of this game. The injury to Lee should have little impact on this game; in fact, the injury to Jacob should impact the Ducks more than Lee's impacts the Bruins. If UCLA advances, however, then Lee's injury looms large because of the aforementioned swelling. This game will be closer than it should be simply because of the unexpected that Oregon will bring (as well as Altman coaching acumen in general) and the UCLA expected malaise at the beginning of the game. Perhaps a Bruin-dominated crowd and the tournament atmosphere will help the Bruins start off sharp.
If the Bruins pound the ball inside early and often then this could turn into a rout.