The marquee game of the weekend is clearly Saturday afternoon's CBS televised tilt against Oregon, but before the Bruins worry about the Ducks, there's the matter of the Oregon State Beavers to attend to on Thursday night. Because of the nature of Coach Craig Robinson's defensive schemes coupled with this game completely fitting the definition of a trap game, the Beavers present a real threat to the Bruins' nine-game winning streak.
Oregon State is sitting at 10-6 on the year but has started 0-3 in the Pac 12 Conference. Troubling for Beaver fans is the fact that all three conference losses have come in Corvallis. There's been a great deal of speculation over the futures of several Pac 12 coaches, notably UCLA's Ben Howland and Arizona State's Herb Sendek, and USC's Kevin O'Neill was fired on Monday morning. However, few people are talking about the hot seat that Robinson is sitting on and it has to be getting quite warm. This was the year that several years worth of Robinson's recruits were supposed to put enough consistency together to warrant an upper division finish in the Pac 12. The terrible conference start has squarely put pressure on Robinson's shoulders. Unfortunately for Robinson, things are going to get more difficult as he and the Beavers come to Los Angeles with a shorthanded roster, at least for Thursday.
OSU is coming to Pauley missing three key players for the game. Senior post Angus Brandt (6'10" 242 lbs.) tore his ACL earlier this season and is out for the year. While his 11.3 PPG will be missed, it's his 8.5 RPG that are really going to be hard to replace. That's not all, however, as junior post Eric Moreland (6'10" 215 lbs.) is going to be serving the final game of his suspension for violation of team rules. That's another 10.3 PPG off the board and, more significantly, another 11.1 RPG gone. That's almost 20 RPG that Robinson and the Beavers need to replace. It's doubtful that OSU would have lost to both the Arizona schools if one or both of these big men were available.
Freshman swingman Victor Robbins (6'6" 195 lbs.) will also be serving the final game of his suspension for rules violations (His suspension isn't related to Moreland's). Robbins hasn't played a great deal this season but his minutes were increasing at the time of his suspension. If nothing else, it helps shorten Robinson's already short bench.
The suspensions don't mean that OSU isn't dangerous. The Beavers have players that can bother the Bruins, and because of the nature of their individual games they have the ability to shock UCLA.
It all starts in OSU's backcourt, where Robinson has two solid junior starters in Ahmed Starks (5'9" 165 lbs.) and Roberto Nelson (6'3" 195 lbs.). Both of them rely greatly on their outside shots, where Nelson hits 44% of his three-point shots and Starks connects at a shade under 43%. Nelson, in particular, has changed his game a bit since he was a redshirt freshman. He is driving to the hoop more, getting to the free throw line 96 times, and he has developed a mid-range game. Starks, on the other hand, has taken more than 50% of his shots from beyond the arc. Starks is one of those players that can get very hot and lead his team to a victory, but he is just as apt, perhaps moreso, to shoot his team out of a game. His shot selection seems to be about where it was when he started as a freshman. Interestingly, while Starks has more of the jitterbug quality about him, he doesn't really leave the perimeter. That takes away something of a possible weapon for him and makes him easier to guard. Nelson, while playing more within himself and just playing better in general, is an average athlete. If Larry Drew II, Norman Powell and the rest of UCLA's wing players don't get caught looking ahead to Saturday, there's no reason their individual defensive abilities should look as good if not better than it has the past two weeks.
Robinson has some size and skill in the low post in junior Devon Collier (6'8" 215 lbs.) and senior Joe Burton (6'7" 295 lbs.). Collier has arguably been OSU's most complete player this season. This back-to-the-basket player (he has yet to attempt a three-point shot this season) has been hitting at a 54% clip and rebounding at 6.8 RPG. He plays solid defense and his 17 blocks make him the best on the team in that category with Moreland out. He will be difficult for the UCLA posts to guard, as he is quicker than Travis Wear and stronger than Kyle Anderson. However, UCLA's Tony Parker could probably hang with him, but Parker is still seeing limited minutes.
Burton is interesting because he, physically, looks like more of the traditional low-post player, but will shoot the mid-range jumper. He is shooting about as well as Collier but has a bit more variety and touch to his game than does Collier. He will clearly be stronger than any post on the Bruin roster, so UCLA's bigs will have to use their advantage in length to offset Burton when he gets the ball down low. Burton is limited athletically and the Bruins should be able to take advantage of this when OSU is defending, assuming Robinson plays man defense.
With Brandt's injury and the suspensions, Robinson has been reduced to playing freshmen Jarmal Reid (6'7" 225 lbs.), Olaf Schaftenaar (6'9" 219 lbs.) and Langston Morris-Walker (6'5" 215 lbs.). Between them they take up the bulk of the minutes left after the first four get theirs, but generally Robinson, in the last couple of games, has used only the one he thought was playing the best. All three of them have been horrible shooters on the year, all below 30% overall, so when they're on the floor they aren't exactly one of the first offensive options for the Beavers.
Certainly the Beavers have less of a bench than the Bruins do, and they should suffer more fatigue as a result. However, Robinson has some tricks up his sleeve, not the least of which is his choice of defense. He has certainly seen UCLA's ability to dissect a man defense and he knows that UCLA has struggled a bit against zones. More than that, though, he has taught his players to run a somewhat effective 1-3-1 half court trap. It was that defense that directly led to UCLA losing in Corvallis last season. If the Bruins aren't sharp then they cold find themselves turning the ball over for easy baskets. That is a game plan that could win the game for the Beavers as it would slow down the Bruins and keep up the Beavers energy level by getting those easy baskets.
The key to the game, then, is the attention and focus that the Bruins bring to it. The Bruins are young and haven't been in this situation before in terms of trap games. If the Bruins get caught looking ahead to Saturday's Oregon game then this could turn into a very close game, one that forces the Bruins to expend entirely too much energy, thus hurting them for Saturday.
If this game were to take place in a vacuum then UCLA is clearly better. But Pauley isn't a basketball vacuum-styled arena, so mental preparation will be just as important as the physical one.
This Bruin squad is growing before the eyes of the college hoops world. They've recently shown more consistent focus, and it would be surprising if they come out totally unfocused on Thursday night. Further, Travis Wear's offense presents a very tough match-up for the Beavers; they simply don't have the kind of players to properly defend Wear, so don't be surprised if he has another solid game.
Saturday may be a different story.
Oregon State 68