The Bruins have two games left on their non-conference ledger and that makes this game a big one. UCLA's non-conference schedule now looks like wins against a bunch of middling teams with one bad loss (Cal Poly) offset by one decent win (the victory over Texas now looks better on the proverbial NCAA Tourney resume after the Longhorns beat North Carolina on Wednesday night). The Bruins have the chance at one more very good non-conference win next Friday when they host Missouri, but they also have the chance at another bad out-of-conference loss when they play Fresno on Saturday.
The final two non-conference games, while important, have taken on a little less significance because of the play of the Pac 12 so far this season. As of Thursday, the Pac 12 sits as the 3rd-ranked conference in conference RPI and has the 2nd most difficult strength of schedule. That means the Bruins can make up some lost ground when they get into conference play. However, it would be prudent for Coach Ben Howland's charges to build up a bit of wiggle room, and the Bruins can do that by first taking care of business against a pesky Bulldog squad.
Coach Rodney Terry's Fresno State squad isn't having a great start to the season (the Bulldogs are 5-6) but on closer inspection they should give UCLA cause for some concern. If there is a team on UCLA's schedule that the Bulldogs look like, both in style and roster make-up, it's Cal Poly. While UCLA lost to Cal Poly, Fresno defeated the Mustangs on Cal Poly's home floor. Further, Fresno has yet to suffer an "embarrassing" loss this season, i.e. Fresno State's six losses have all come by single-digits.
The key reason why the Bruins may struggle against the Bulldogs is because Fresno likes to be deliberate on offense and slow the pace of the game. While they only average a little more than 58 PPG, their hard-nosed defense is only allowing 55 PPG. Fresno State is not a good shooting team, averaging only 38% from the field as a team and 30% from behind the arc. They make up for this by being opportunistic and by playing good defense. They only allow opponents to shoot 40% from the floor and 28% from behind the arc. The Bulldogs haven't done this against non-D I competition, either (although they did play San Diego Christian). These numbers have come in close losses to Pac-12 members Washington State and Colorado as well as the aforementioned Longhorns.
The Bulldogs are not a big team nor are they adept rebounders. However, they are good at turning over their opponents and have a +47 points off of turnover margin compared to their opponents. They've forced 40 more turnovers and have 43 more steals than their opponents. Style-wise, the Fresno defense will be much like UCLA's from several years ago; it puts a great deal of pressure on the point guard to make it difficult to initiate the offense, really closes down the passing lanes and is very physical on the interior by jamming and bumping cutters. The only thing that Fresno doesn't do well in this formula is rebound, with the Bulldogs being outrebounded by about 3 RPG.
UCLA's defense, meanwhile, hasn't been very good. However, it is getting incrementally better. One of the things that UCLA fans need to understand is that it appears the defensive focal point for this Bruin team is to force turnovers by taking chances and going after steals. While this worked against Long Beach State on Tuesday, it also allowed the Bruins to give up more than one or two easy lay-ups and dunks. This type of defense, whether intentional on Howland's part or not, is a departure for what Howland has taught with regard to man defense. It may just work, though. If UCLA keeps its own turnover totals down and can force over 15 turnovers per game (and convert most of those into points) then Howland's traditional barometer for good defense, field goal percentage, is rendered moot. However, the Bruins haven't been forcing an inordinate amount of turnovers. Take the Long Beach State game; the Bruins only had 7 turnovers but forced a measly 12. That's not enough to offset allowing a team to shoot almost 50% from the floor.
Fresno takes care of the ball and they milk the clock…very much like Cal Poly does. That means the Bruins had better dig in aggressively on defense because they won't get the open looks that LBSU gave them. That means it is doubtful the Bruins shoot over 50% for the game as they did against the 49ers on Tuesday.
Terry starts a three-guard lineup and they are three players who are virtually mirror images of each other, juniors Allen Huddleston (6'2" 185) Tyler Johnson and Kevin Olekaibe (both 6'2" 180 lbs.). They are the only three players to start all 11 games for the Bulldogs and they are the three top scorers for Fresno…which isn't saying much as Huddleston's 11.7 PPG tops the team. None of the three are prolific shooters, with only Johnson at over 40% from the field. They are even worse from behind the arc. However, they are the three top offensive threats for the Bulldogs. UCLA's Larry Drew II and Norman Powell are more athletic than the three Bulldog guards, Shabazz Muhammad should be able to match up, but all three are at least a half step quicker than Jordan Adams.
The forwards have been a crapshoot all season for Terry. He may decide to go with experience, in which case he plays Kevin Foster (6'8" 230 lbs.), a senior, or redshirt junior Jerry Brown (6'7" 210 lbs.). They are the two leading rebounders on the squad with Foster at 6. 9 RPG and Brown at 5.1.
Terry could decide to go with size and youth, in which case he'll play freshmen Robert Upshaw (6'10" 250 lbs.) and/or Tanner Giddings (6'10" 225 lbs.). Both have more upside than either of the two returners, but they aren't used to playing at this level yet. Keep an eye on Upshaw; if the light goes on for him this game he could look like Cameron Ridley of Texas did against the Bruins two weeks ago.
The final piece of all this is the fact that UCLA's Howland is now publically having his job security questioned. That kind of information can impact one of two ways. The players and/or the coach can simply ignore it and play through it as if it wasn't even an issue, or the players and/or coach can have an emotional reaction to it. Steve Lavin went through the same sort of thing back when then-AD Peter Dalis admitting he was publicly courting Rick Pitino. Lavin's team rallied around him and he stuck around past the end of that season. The current Bruins could react in the same manner, in which case they could be the first team to roll Fresno State off the floor this season. However, players tend to do that for coaches they "like" and respect, and the current Bruins seem to be missing at least one of those emotions with regard to Howland. The Bruins just as easily could turn turtle in this or any other game and have the outcome be the opposite of a Lavinesque upset of then-#1 Stanford at Maples.
The Bruins lost to Cal Poly because of a perfect storm of factors -- the taking the foot off the proverbial offensive pedal; the lack of defensive effort; the fact that Cal Poly started hitting virtually everything that was thrown up – and that kind of perfect storm is unlikely to happen again.
If we're talking about common opponents, Fresno State actually beat Cal Poly shortly after the Mustangs beat the Bruins, but then lost to Cal Irvine in their last game.
The Bruins seem as if they are a bit of a different team right now than the one that blew that game to Cal Poly. However, it will be critical that UCLA cause turnovers and play at least marginal defense in order to make sure that Fresno isn't around at the end to steal the game. That probably means the Bruins don't need to double the post (at least not when Upshaw isn't in the game) and that they can go for steals.
Even though it's a completely different match-up, the developing Bruins that we saw against Long Beach State should have enough offense to score against Fresno State's tougher defense. But since the Bulldogs play good D, and slow down the game, it will probably feel completely different than the win over LBSU. It's a good test to see if the maturing Bruins can, in fact, nowwin against this type of match-up.
Fresno State 57