UCLA's path to a high seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, not to mention solidifying its place in the Pac 12 Conference standings, could get rocky this weekend as the Bruins host the mountain schools, Colorado and Utah. Although UCLA is expected to win both games, the Bruins have not been consistent lately, and therein lies the challenge. There are some factors, though, that point to this weekend being a bit easier than it might look on the surface for UCLA.
The home stand starts with a visit from Colorado on Thursday night (6 PM, ESPN2). After seeing star player Spencer Dinwiddie suffer a season-ending knee injury last month, one that could easily have derailed the Buffs' season, Coach Tad Boyle and Colorado have stabilized things and are sitting in a tie for third place in the Pac 12. What most people don't know is that Colorado has been beset by injuries beyond the much publicized one to Dinwiddie. Freshman guard Tre-Shaun Fletcher (6'7" 200 lbs.), who was getting increasing minutes and responsibility, is out until mid-March with a knee injury that required surgery in January. Redshirt freshman forward Wesley Gordon (6'9" 225 lbs.) missed the blow-out win against Washington last weekend with an ankle sprain he suffered slipping on ice after the Washington State game. It remains to be seen if Gordon will be available. If he can't play against UCLA, it's a huge loss because he is second on the team in rebounding (6.6 RPG) and leads the team with 35 blocks on the season. Gordon only scored 2 points in UCLA's 13-point win in Boulder last month, but he was a presence on the glass (6 boards) and in the paint defensively.
In the win over the Huskies, Boyle was able to ride his starters' hot shooting and Washington's complete disinterest on the defensive end to a resounding victory. But that was in Boulder and Colorado isn't the same team on the road that it is at home. The Buffs have only one home loss this season, the aforementioned one to the Bruins, but they are 3-5 away from Boulder, including just 1-3 in the Pac 12.
UCLA seems to be similar to Colorado in that the Bruins have tended to look much better at home than on the road. UCLA is 13-1 at Pauley Pavilion, including 4-1 in the Pac 12. Anyone who has watched the Bruins extensively this season knows that UCLA looks far different at home than on the road. So the combination of the Buffaloes' road issues and UCLA's dominance at home would seemingly point to a pretty substantial advantage for the Bruins.
Colorado still has three players, though, who would play for the Bruins and any one of the three could single-handedly beat UCLA.
The first of these three is junior lead guard Askia Booker (6'2" 170 lbs.). Since Dinwiddie's injury, Booker has become the first offensive option for the Buffs. He is a player that can be incredibly hot from the perimeter or ice cold; cold enough to cost his team a game. Even though he is averaging 14.2 PPG on the year, he is averaging over 21 PPG over his last three contests. He played very well against UCLA in the first meeting, hitting for 21 points on 7-11 shooting. If he is cold, or if the Bruins can harass him into a poor performance, then UCLA wins. Period.
The second player is sophomore post Josh Scott (6'10" 245 lbs.). Quite simply, UCLA and Coach Steve Alford have no individual answer for Scott. He went for 19 and 9 in the first meeting. His athleticism and length in the paint are tough to handle. His numbers are key and he has been consistent this season, averaging 14.1 PPG and 8.8 RPG, but unless he plays very poorly or has an exceptional game, his output hasn't been the key for deciding whether Colorado wins or loses.
The third player is sophomore Xavier Johnson (6'7" 220 lbs.) who had a very poor shooting game against the Bruins in the first match-up. He scored 2 points that night in Boulder, on 1-6 shooting. Boyle said after the game that he wanted Johnson to be more aggressive in looking for his shot. He is the best three-point shooter on the team at 37% and is averaging 11.6 PPG as well as 6.1 RPG and the Buffs do much better when he becomes assertive on offense. When he's on it means that Colorado is much more difficult to guard.
Beyond those three, though, there is a chasm-like drop off in terms of production, particularly if Gordon can't play. The one bright spot is the recent play of sophomore point guard Xavier Talton (6'2" 180 lbs.). Talton hasn't been great and in some games he's been barely serviceable, but he's managed to give Boyle minutes at the point, which has allowed Booker to play his more natural shooting guard role. Talton can shoot well enough to keep the Bruins honest. Where he can hurt the Buffs is in turning the ball over and on the defensive end. No one has really talked about it, but losing Dinwiddie on defense has been a bigger issue than on the offensive end.
Freshman forward Dustin Thomas (6'7" 220 lbs.) has been starting the past few games when Gordon's been out, but will move back to the bench when/if Gordon returns for Thursday. He is simply someone to add depth and hasn't been much of an offensive threat. The same is true for sophomore guard Eli Stalzer (6'3" 190 lbs.). Finally, there is freshman guard Jaron Hopkins (6'5" 190 lbs.) who has the makings of a very good player. He started in place of Dinwiddie the first time these two teams played. However, his minutes have been decreasing steadily since that weekend. He's had a real problem with turnovers.
This game should actually be pretty easy to break down. UCLA won relatively easily in Boulder because of three factors: one of Colorado's top three players had a poor game (Johnson); the Bruins, who were struggling on the boards going into that game, outrebounded the Buffs 41-37; and UCLA had only 11 turnovers to Colorado's 17. If the Bruins can force the same sort of statistical marks, then they will win the game.
Lack of size could again be an issue for Colorado. The Buffs now start (if Gordon doesn't play) a line-up that is 6'2", 6'2", 6'7", 6'7" and 6'10". The Bruins will have a length advantage. The usual Bruin line-up goes 6'4", 6'5", 6'9", 6'10" and 6'10". If those are the lineups on Thursday, then UCLA's rebounding will be dictated strictly by effort and desire.
With rebounding probably not going the Buffaloes' way, it will be interesting to see of Colorado can keep its turnover levels down as they did the past two games when the Buffs turned the ball over a combined 23 times in the 2 games last week, for an average of 11.5 TPG.
One aspect of the game that hasn't really been discussed, but has been a bit of the elephant in the room, is the play of both teams' respective benches. Even if Gordon played, Zach Lavine, Tony Parker and Bryce Alford are far more productive than their Colorado counterparts. If Gordon can't go or is limited, then UCLA has a decisive advantage in this category.
Even if all three of Colorado's stalwarts play well on offense, the reality is that they struggled defending the Bruins in Boulder, specifically with respect to Kyle Anderson in crunch time. Perhaps Boyle will have Scott take Anderson and then take his chances that the Wear brothers won't be able to exploit their size advantage with Scott on the perimeter. Don't be surprised to see Colorado utilize a variety of zone defenses to try and confuse the Bruins, who operate much more efficiently against man defenses.
Colorado tends to turn the ball over more on the road, and that can't happen if they're going to have a chane. Couple that with the fact that UCLA plays so much better and consistently at home than it does on the road and the easy pick is to say UCLA should win. However, the Bruins have had effort issues this season, and Alford has done one or two peculiar things in terms of tactical decisions (think Oregon State and the zone defense). Still, the signs do point to UCLA being successful on Thursday and continuing to work for a higher NCAA Tournament seed.
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