After a solid sweep over the Bay Area schools last week, the UCLA men's basketball team returns to the court on Thursday night for a critical Pac 12 Conference game at Oregon (6 PM, ESPN2).
Both teams come into the game with something to prove. The Bruins, who solidified their second place spot in the conference standings, have yet to really prove they can be consistent on the road. There will be few, if any, better opportunities to prove themselves as more than a good home team than by winning in Eugene. It will also be another win against a team in the top 50 of the RPI, which will certainly help UCLA's seeding come NCAA Tournament selection time.
Coach Dana Altman's Ducks certainly have more to prove, at least in the short term. After an undefeated run through their non-conference schedule, the Ducks have seen their season at least temporarily derailed at the start of the conference schedule. The Ducks sit at 2-5 in the Pac 12, with two of those losses coming at home to the same Bay Area schools that the Bruins just swept with relative ease. One of those wins, their most recent game from this past weekend, was against a depleted Washington State squad that has been significantly hurt by injuries and was short on talent to begin with. Wazzu is so poor, in fact, that it is difficult to discern anything about the Ducks from the victory. Oregon, which seemed like a shoo-in for a high NCAA Tournament seed just three weeks ago, and seemed like a contender to stop Arizona at the top of the Pac 12, now finds itself in real jeopardy of playing itself out of the NCAAs entirely. This game is huge for the Ducks in terms of their postseason aspirations and the Bruins should expect to play a desperate opponent on Thursday.
The confounding thing about this Duck squad is that it is a roster that has talent and has clearly played at a much lower collective level than its individual parts. However, there are some individual players on the Duck roster that make this game a bad match-up for UCLA. Specifically, the Ducks possess the single player who could take away UCLA's perceived offensive advantage in senior and former Bruin Mike Moser (6'8" 211 lbs.). Moser is the one Duck who brings a physical presence to the floor, especially on the defensive end. Add to that fact that he is a good athlete for his size and you have the kind of player the Bruins have struggled to defend. He averages 13.9 PPG and 7.7 RPG. He can shoot the ball outside, at a 37% clip from the three-point line, and inside, where he is almost 50% from the floor. He also has 18 blocks on the season. However, the reason he is such a match-up issue is that he can guard UCLA's Kyle Anderson with enough athleticism and length to throw off the Bruin point guard. As Coach Steve Alford and the Bruins have seen, if Anderson is off his game, the Bruins are nowhere near the offensive juggernaut that the national media makes them out to be. This match-up alone could change the course of the game in Oregon's favor. It should be noted that Moser's number in conference play are much different than his overall numbers. He is averaging more rebounds (8.3 RPG) in conference play, but his numbers everywhere else have taken a tumble. His scoring average is down to 13.8 PPG, but more importantly his field goal percentage, particularly from inside the paint, is way down, at 39%.
Many national and local pundits have postulated as to why Oregon has stumbled so badly in the first half of conference play, and the majority of them come back to Oregon's suspending two probable starters in sophomore point guard Dominic Artis (6'1" 186 lbs.) and sophomore forward Ben Carter (6'8" 220 lbs.). As the two returned from their 9-game suspension earlier in the season there seemed to be few issues getting them acclimated with an undefeated team. But there have clearly been on-court chemistry issues throughout conference play as Altman has tried to weave both into the fabric of the rotation. It is clearly an issue of the players not looking like they are used to playing with each other, particularly on defense. Both Artis and Carter started their first game of this season this past weekend.
Of the two players, Artis is clearly the more important. His statistics at this point are virtually meaningless because of the nature of his season to this point. He is clearly a very good athlete and better than average point guard. He has the capability of exploding as a game-changer and, with a crowd that will probably be bristling with energy, he will give Norman Powell and, to a lesser extent, Zach LaVine all they can handle.
Another reason Artis is key is because his primary back-up, senior Johnathan Loyd (5'8" 163 lbs.) was playing over his head for the majority of the non-conference schedule and has come back to Earth. Loyd has certainly been a thorn in UCLA's side (think last year's Pac 12 Tournament title game), but overall is not nearly the talent that Artis is and can be. Loyd has a very good assist-to-turnover ratio, but it has been falling in recent games, as has his shooting. Teams have learned to play off of Loyd because of his suspect jumper. Loyd is a very solid and capable back up, but he shouldn't be getting starter's minutes on a team with the aspirations of the Ducks. What's more, there's a chance that Loyd misses the game after suffering a broken nose in practice on Tuesday.
Junior Joseph Young (6'2 185 lbs.) has actually been the leading scorer this season for the Ducks, averaging 18 PPG, but his production has dropped considerably in conference play. Against Pac 12 competition he is averaging only 13.7 PPG. His field goal percentage has gone from over 50% in non-conference play to 35% in the Pac 12. His three-point shooting percentage has gone from above 40% to 27%. Still, Young is also a very good athlete, certainly a better athlete than UCLA's Jordan Adams and will present a match-up challenge depending on UCLA's personnel on the court.
The Ducks still have sophomore Damyean Dotson (6'5" 209 lbs.) who has become a bit of an afterthought after coming into the season as Oregon's leading returning scorer. As is the case with his teammates, Dotson has seen his production drop with the coming of conference play. He was averaging over 11 PPG out of conference but has seen his production drop to 10.3 PPG in conference. The main reason for this, as it is for his teammates, is Dotson's lack of accuracy from behind the arc. A 36+% shooter out of conference from the three-point line, Dotson is hitting at less than 27% in conference play. He hasn't rebounded well all year and is actually pulling down just a bit over 2 RPG. Oregon's opponents have made Dotson more of a jump shooter and he has lost the part of his game where he slashes to the hoop and either gets a good shot or gets fouled. His confidence has to have taken a hit with his being the returning leading scorer and now being the fourth option on offense on many possessions.
The aforementioned Carter is more of a defensive presence than a scorer, but he too has suffered from a lack of production since his return from suspension. Specifically, he is only averaging 2.2 RPG in conference play and has looked overwhelmed on the defensive end at times. He will certainly be asked to guard the Bruin posts, Travis and David Wear and Tony Parker. Carter is at a size disadvantage against each and even though the Wears are spot-up shooters rather than low post players, they should be able to get their shots off more easily against Carter than against some of the defenders they've seen so far this year.
Besides Loyd, Altman has used three other players in what has consistently been a 9-man rotation (since the return of the suspended players). Seniors Richard Amardi (6'8" 224 lbs.) and Jason Calliste (6'2" 171 lbs.) as well as sophomore Elgin Cook (6'6" 205 lbs.) have provided depth. Calliste has provided scoring while Cook has been the most dependable and intense man defender on the squad. Calliste's scoring has dropped by more than 2 PPG since conference play started and Cook seems to be getting less and less minutes, although he did play more against the Washington schools. Amardi is one of the few Ducks who has seen his production increase in conference play. He is scoring more than a point more in Pac 12 play than outside of it and has had a slight uptick in his rebounding numbers.
As I wrote above, the problem isn't that Oregon doesn't have talent, but rather that the talent hasn't come close to living up to expectations in conference play. Looking at the team as a whole, they've had some real issues in certain areas. The Duck defense has been less effective than UCLA's, which is saying something. They are allowing Pac 12 opponents to shoot 50% from the field and 42% from behind the arc. They are being outrebounded by almost 3 RPG and, perhaps most importantly when playing the Bruins, Oregon turns the ball over at about the same rate as Stanford and Arizona State. They have the exact same number of turnovers (75) as assists and that isn't good. However, much of that can be attributed to the one glaring statistic that is dogging Oregon: they've become a poor shooting team in conference play, specifically from behind the arc. After hitting over 40% of their shots from behind the arc in the non-conference season, the Ducks are sitting at under 34% in the Pac 12. Further, they are only shooting 42% from the field after hitting for over 48% before conference play started. Oregon's lack of defense has been exacerbated by the fact that the Ducks' supposed high-octane offense has gone by the wayside, in spite of the blowout win at Wazzu.
However, because UCLA's offense is almost entirely dependant on the play of Kyle Anderson, the Ducks have the great potential equalizer in Moser. Altman has been a master of the tactical, in-game adjustment. Last year, both at Pauley Pavilion and in the Pac 12 title game, Altman put the Ducks in a zone defense when it appeared the Bruins didn't expect it and the Ducks won both games. Expect Altman to have something up his sleeve for this game. It would not be surprising for Moser to be put on Anderson, with Artis on Powell and then hope that by taking Anderson out of his rhythm that the size disadvantage that the other Ducks will face will be mitigated. If Altman decides to let Young or Artis guard Anderson then UCLA's chances for the road victory will improve dramatically.
Bench play is going to be significant. Tony Parker simply cannot have an indifferent game as he did against Cal. He, LaVine and Bryce Powell have to at least play Loyd, Calliste, Amardi and Cook to a statistical standstill, if not win the battle of the benches.
The final piece to this game's puzzle is the crowd and Oregon's intensity. Oregon is going to be desperate for a victory. A split isn't good enough for the Ducks and the Bruins have to expect a supreme effort on the part of the Ducks. Knight Arena is a very difficult place to play, with the funky artistry on the court and the noise provided by the fans. Honestly, UCLA has not faced this kind of environment yet.
The Ducks are clearly due for at least a decent offensive performance and it very well may come in this game. They will be pumped. The Ducks possess the ability to knock UCLA's Anderson off his game. Altman's tactical acumen is good for a couple of points. Package all of this together and add the crowd to the mix and it will be very difficult for UCLA to make it out of Eugene with the win. If the Bruins can pull out the victory, then that will be a fine feather in their cap, both in terms of quality wins and growth. It will be perhaps the most difficult road game the Bruins will face this season.
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