This game represents a dramatic change in UCLA's non-conference competition as the Tide definitely does not fit the definition of a "cupcake." Truth be told, although ‘Bama is 5-6 on the season, they are probably one of the three best teams on UCLA's non-conference schedule. In fact, don't be surprised if the Tide defeats Missouri in the SEC at least once. Coach Anthony Grant has the Tide playing aggressively and confidently, in spite of the current losing record, and Alabama has the kind of athleticism that could derail the Bruins on Saturday night. However, there are certain factors that clearly point in UCLA's favor.
Alabama has played a non-conference schedule that is clearly the polar opposite of UCLA's. While the Tide did suffer a bad loss at South Florida (bad as in quality of opponent, not in terms of the final score), the other five losses were against solid to good teams. Alabama lost to Duke, Drexel, Oklahoma, Xavier and Wichita State. Those teams have a combined record of 48-9 on the season. That's a wee bit different than the combined totals of any five schools UCLA has played. Bama isn't getting blown out, either; the Tide lost to Duke by 10, Drexel in triple overtime, Oklahoma by 9, Wichita State by 5 and Xavier by 3. Heck, the loss at South Florida was a 2-pointer.
However, Alabama did lose those games and really doesn't have a marquee win to its name. The Tide's best win was probably over Texas Tech, a team that is already 0-2 against the Pac-12. As a result, the Tide sit with a losing record and, because of it, Grant's name is starting to come up in conversations regarding coaches on the proverbial hot seat.
Alabama does have two things going for it entering Saturday's contest. First, the Tide play good defense. The Bruins have struggled for at least a half of both games in which the opposition (Missouri and Duke) has amped up the defensive pressure. The Tide is only allowing its opponents to shoot 41% from the field and 27% from behind the arc. They also force turnovers, having nabbed 151 TOs on the season. That means that Bama is forcing almost 14 TPG. Redshirt sophomore combo guard Retin Obasohan (6'1" 205 lbs.) is averaging about 3 steals per game and is closely followed by senior combo guard Trevor Releford (6' 190 lbs.). The Bruins will have to work to score the ball and it remains to be seen if the Bruins can sustain the patience and calmness necessary to be consistently successful against the Alabama defense.
Obasohan, who is Belgian, and Releford represent a potent one-two offensive punch for Grant. Releford is averaging 17 PPG, good for first on the squad, while Obasohan is averaging 13. 9 PPG, second-best on the team.
Bruin fans might remember Releford; he was the guy that former UCLA head coach Ben Howland followed around in the summer of 2009 to try to compel to come to UCLA. He is definitely the best player on Alabama. He is a perimeter player who can get to the rack. He is averaging just under 50% from the field, which is quite good for a non-post player, and a respectable 39% from behind the arc. However, the danger he poses becomes is his shooting when he drives or shoots inside the arc. Under those conditions, Releford is shooting 36 of 66 on the season, or 55%. To top it all off, he gets to the line, where he is averaging about 89% on the season.
Obasohan is definitely more of a slasher than shooter. He is averaging on 40% from the field and 21% from beyond the arc. Whomever among UCLA's guards is on Obasohan would be wise to play off him and invite him to shoot from distance. Once Obasohan gets in the lane he becomes a much better scorer. Further, he is getting to the free throw line far more than any of his teammates, having been there 87 times on the season. He is shooting 77% from the charity stripe, so putting him on the line is no help to the defensive cause.
However, both Releford and Obasohan have a serious deficiency in their respective games and it happens to be the same deficiency: neither is a natural point guard and nor takes care of the ball particularly well. They are both averaging more turnovers per game than assists. For a UCLA team that thrives on turnovers, the Alabama backcourt could be just what the Bruins need to jump on the Tide.
Junior Levi Randolph (6'5" 205 lbs.) is the starter on the wing and is a solid double-digit scorer (10.1 PPG) as well as being a superior leaper. His game is very similar to Releford's, other than he shoots at a slightly worse percentage from the field and from behind the arc. Randolph is one of those players whose leaping ability is mistaken for athleticism. He actually is a pretty good athlete, but nowhere near what people think in terms of lateral athleticism. He can be lazy on defense as he tends to be too straight up and down and he tends to ball watch. Considering he'll more than likely be matched-up on UCLA's Jordan Adams he could be the kind of defender that Adams can exploit.
The backcourt depth is provided by juniors Algie Key (6'4" 195 lbs.) and Rodney Cooper (6'6" 215 lbs.). Key is actually the closest thing Grant has to a true point guard. He tries to get his teammates set up in good scoring situations. However, he won't hesitate to take the ball into the lane and is shooting 53% from the field. He also gets to the free throw line quite a bit where he is shooting 74%. His game is much like Obasohan's in that UCLA will more than likely be better sagging off Key and daring him to shoot from distance. Key has only attempted 6 three-point shots this season.
If Releford isn't Alabama's best player, then Cooper is. In many ways he has a more complete game than his more heralded teammate. Cooper came into the season being the Tide's second-leading returning scorer, but Grant has him coming off the bench. Make no mistake, though, Cooper is a starter and is averaging almost 30 MPG. He hasn't shot the ball well yet this season, but he is the team's leading rebounder at 5.2 RPG and plays good defense on the wing. However, until Cooper proves otherwise, the Bruins should allow him to shoot from distance and not allow him to get into the lane.
The frontcourt is athletic but raw and a little on the smallish side. Grant starts two post players, junior Nick Jacobs (6'8" 245 lbs.) and freshman Jimmie Taylor (6'10" 240 lbs.). Taylor hasn't averaged too many minutes, with Grant not displaying the trust in him that he has for his older players, and he will find himself sitting quickly, usually in favor of Cooper. Jacobs, on the other hand, is the one true low-post threat on the Bama roster. He averages 10.5 PPG and 4.6 RPG and will be assigned the opposition's best low-post scorer on defense. He is more athletic than the Wear brothers or Tony Parker, but he is more raw than any of those three. His defense has been excellent, though, so if the Bruin posts, particularly Parker, can at least match Jacobs' offensive production then it will be a good sign for the Bruins.
Junior Carl Engstrom (7'1" 265 lbs.) and freshman Shannon Hale (6'8" 220 lbs.) provide frontcourt depth. Engstrom is the one member of the Tide's rotation that clearly lacks athleticism. Because Grant likes to press and run, Engstrom often has found himself rooted to the bench.
Hale is someone to watch out for. He has gotten continually better as the season has progressed and it wouldn't be a shock to see him replace Taylor in the starting line-up. Hale is coming off his best game of the year, a 14-point performance against Xavier. He is bouncy and, as a face-up four with a good shot, presents a different look to opponents. If the Bruins play a lot of zone defense then expect to see a great deal of Hale as he is one of Alabama's best shooters.
Based on many factors, Alabama would appear to be a difficult opponent for the Bruins. However, there is a reason why Alabama has lost many of those close games. Offensively, Bama turns the ball over almost as much as they force the opposition to do the same. In short, Alabama is undisciplined in its half-court offense and the Tide tends to lack patience. They are, in many ways, a carbon-copy of the Bruins when the Bruins have lost their offensive composure. When the cupcakes on Alabama's schedule are removed from the equation, then the Tides averages more turnovers than their opposition.
The other reason for Alabama's struggles in tougher games is because the Tide is not a good rebounding team. They average about the same number of rebounds per game as the opposition, but like the turnover totals, they are inflated by the lesser-named schools on the schedule. Alabama has clearly struggled on the glass against high-major teams.
UCLA has been porous on defense this season. There were finally signs of life in terms of defensive effort in UCLA's last win against Weber State. However, until that effort is shown against better competition then the proverbial jury will be out. The Bruins, though, may be facing the type of team in Alabama in which they can be successful on the defensive end. UCLA has struggled with physicality, which they will see from Bama, but that struggle has come particularly on the glass and Alabama has similar struggles. UCLA has also struggled with teams that are calm and precise on the offensive end, and those terms definitely don't apply to the Crimson Tide's offense.
Although Alabama lost to Duke by only 10 points, the reality is that Alabama was playing catch-up most of the game, being down by 11 at the half. The game wasn't as close as the score indicated. Bama also had more trouble with Drexel than did the Bruins, although that could be because of the fact that Bama played Duke only 36 hours before.
Grant will mix defenses and probably even show some presses, but the reality is that the Tide is going to struggle with UCLA's offense, if this season's previous history is any indication. Because both teams struggle with certain aspects of ther defensive game, the key is finding which team is the better team on offense, and that is clearly UCLA.