This game represents a real danger for the Bruins. Coach Larry Krystkowiak's Utes, while not the most talented bunch, do some things well that could really hurt UCLA. Further, UCLA is a young team, and for the four freshmen on the squad, this is their first real road trip.
This should be a relatively easy win for the Bruins…on paper. UCLA owns a significant talent edge over Utah. There isn't a single player on the Utes roster that would even sniff a starting spot on this year's UCLA team. In fact, there is a chance that there isn't a Ute player that would even be in Howland's rotation. However, as the old adage goes, games aren't played on paper.
Utah certainly hit bottom just before Krystkowiak's arrival and it's taken a few seasons to get the Utes up to the level of competitiveness. They have been in every game this season and are certainly improved from the team that UCLA blew off Pauley Pavilion's floor last year. That's because Krystkowiak has finally assembled a roster that can somewhat carry out his vision for on-floor success.
It starts with Loyola Marymount transfer, senior Jarred DuBois (6'3" 172 lbs.). He averages a team-leading 13.2 PPG and also leads the team with 50 assists on the season. Interestingly, he averages only 42% from the floor but 43% from behind the arc. He actually leads the team in all major statistical categories except for rebounding. He's an 83% free throw shooter and gets to the line more than any of his teammates. The reality is that if the combination of Larry Drew II and Norman Powell can slow down or even stop DuBois from being a real factor then UCLA wins.
The revelation of the season so far for the Utes has been the play of freshman forward Jordan Loveridge (6'6" 230 lbs.). He is just behind DuBois in scoring at 13 PPG, but he's been a force on the boards, averaging 7.6 RPG. He has the ability to play in the low post and facing the basket out to the three-point line. His one weakness is his shooting percentages; he isn't the greatest shooter, averaging 43% from the floor, which is low for someone on the low block, and 31% from behind the arc. The biggest thing he has going for him, though, is he has a motor that simply runs very hot and never seems to quit. He was difficult for Arizona's athletic front line to handle and will probably be difficult to defend for UCLA's front line.
The real low post presence for the Utes is senior Jason Washburn (6'10" 242 lbs.). He is the third of the double-digit scorers for the Utes (which is remarkable considering the Utes don't score much as it is) at 10.4 PPG. He is also solid on the boards, averaging over 6 RPG. He isn't an outside threat (although he's made the one attempt he has this year) but his muscle inside could also be a problem for the Bruins. Remember how Long Beach State and Missouri dominated inside against the Bruins? Washburn is just as capable of causing that kind of damage. He's also a pretty significant shot blocker averaging almost 2 BPG.
The other two starters for the Utes are both guards, juniors Glen Dean (5'10" 170 lbs.) and Aaron Dotson (6'4" 202 lbs.). Dean has the body of a jitterbug but doesn't seemingly use it. In fact, in terms of volume he's Utah's most prolific three-point threat. As it is, he hits 42% of his three-pointers. He will be difficult to guard because he is adept at setting up outside in open spots and in knowing when to curl and when to flair coming off of screens.
Dotson is more of the glue guy. He is also the team's defensive "stopper" (if he can be called that). However, he may be the most important player on Krsytkowiak's roster to UCLA as he'll more than likely be asked to guard UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad.
The only other players that get any real time are sophomore post Dallin Bachynski (7'0" 248 lbs.), who was a starter at one time, and senior wing Cedric Martin (6'4" 203 lbs.), who is a carbon copy of Dotson. He isn't the defender that Dotson is, but he is a better shooter, being another Ute who shoots better than 40% from behind the arc.
While UCLA is clearly a more talented team, Utah does some things that give the Utes a real chance to win the game. Primarily, Utah runs an offensive system that will require the Bruins and Howland to have a completely different game plan than the one the Bruins employed against Stanford. In short, Utah can shoot, so sagging weak side players into the land to help against Utah's bigs is going to leave wide-open shooters around the arc. Unlike Stanford, Utah will make UCLA pay for not challenging outside shooters. If the Bruins extend their defense, as they probably will, then Utah will start running high-post ball screens with slips and pops by the screener. UCLA was very susceptible to the slip against Missouri. If the ball does make it into the lane, especially on dribble drives, then Utah does a very nice job of kicking the ball out to open shooters who, as written, will hit those shots.
The key for the Bruins is to simply stay in front of their player and hold Utah to one shot. The former has been difficult at times for the Bruins, especially Larry Drew II, but as Tracy Pierson has written, Drew certainly has it in him to be able to play solid man defense.
The rebounding factor is something that should work in UCLA's favor, if the Bruins, particularly Kyle Anderson, play as they have been. While Utah has out-rebounded its opponents over the course of the season, the reality is that the low level of competition that Utah has generally played skews the statistics. When facing better teams, the Utes are getting out-rebounded. Arizona out-rebounded the Utes by 11 on Saturday and that very well could've been the difference in the three-point loss that Utah suffered at the hands of the Wildcats.
Utah has been very good on the defensive end of the floor. They are forcing the opposition into shooting 35% from the floor for the season, and before you talk about Utah's poor schedule, they held Arizona to below 40% from the floor when the Utes barely lost to the Wildcats on Saturday.
Part of the reason for Utah's holding its opponents to such a low shooting percentage is that the Utes dominate the pace of play. Utah's opponents are only averaging 57 PPG, while the Utes only average 67 PPG. They scored 54 and 57 points respectively this past weekend at the Arizona schools.
Then there's the altitude; the Bruins have yet to deal with the kind of altitude difference that they are going to face this weekend (although it'll be worse in Boulder). The altitude typically takes three days to truly get used to, so presumably the Bruins will be more acclimated to the altitude by the time of the Colorado game.
. The ability of Utah to shoot; Utah's hard-nosed defense; the altitude; UCLA's first time on the road…all of these things add up to a very difficult game for the Bruins. Add to that fact that Utah should be very motivated, with this being Utah's first conference home game of the year and coming off two games against the Arizonas last weekend that they came close to winning, and you have a recipe for a very close game.
The Bruins will certainly see a defensive game plan much like what they saw against Stanford, namely multiple Utes making sure they get back on defense in order to prevent UCLA from getting quickly up the floor.
The Bruins need to be on upset alert in the worst way. In fact, don't be surprised if the Colorado game is an easier one than this one is in Utah. The one thing that UCLA has going for it is that it simply hasn't faced a team that has enough weapons to keep pace offensively with the Bruins. However, if you thought that the Wears have tired legs in the second half of games at sea level, just wait until you see what they look like in the second half on Thursday. Unless he's hurt, Tony Parker simply has to get more minutes or one of the Wears might end up in the hospital.
This is a very, very dangerous game…
UCLA's offense will more than likely have to carry it through. However, I do not have a great deal of confidence in this pick. Don't be surprised by either team winning.