Once again the UCLA men's basketball team, and by extension, Coach Steve Alford, were presented with an opportunity to seize momentum for its season and once again the Bruins failed to grasp that momentum, coming up short both on the scoreboard and in effort in a loss at Stanford last Saturday. That makes three Pac 12 road trip splits for the Bruins, who still have yet to show the focus and intensity necessary to win back-to-back games on the road.
Now the Bruins receive a break from the road and get ready to welcome the Oregon schools this week, with Oregon coming to Pauley Pavilion on Thursday night (8:00 PST, ESPN2) and Oregon State stopping by on Sunday. This weekend and the final weekend in Washington have enormous implications for UCLA's postseason aspirations. The loss to Stanford, after crushing California in Berkeley, was particularly damaging in that the Bruins looked so good against Cal and so lethargic against the Cardinal. However, it also damaged the chances that UCLA would receive a top four seed in the West once the NCAA Tournament field is announced next month.
There are several positive aspects of the Bruins' NCAA Tournament resume. UCLA has a very good (#15) RPI, and is 5-4 against the RPI Top 50. The Bruins are 8-5 against the top 100 RPI schools and have two wins against RPI Top 50 teams on the road. There is only one "bad" loss (to Oregon State, a team outside of the RPI Top 100) on their resume. There are some significant issues, though. Four of UCLA's six losses have come on the road, and only two of those losses, to Duke and Stanford, have come to certain NCAA teams (as of right now). However, the most glaring omission from UCLA's resume is the lack of anything remotely resembling a marquee non-conference win. UCLA's best non-conference victory according to the RPI was over RPI #105 Santa Barbara. The two teams from BCS conferences that UCLA defeated, Northwestern and Alabama, are #114 and #116 respectively. That glaring hole is a big reason for the disparity in projections between bracketologists. Jerry Palm, who is probably the most accurate predictor of the Big Dance, has UCLA as a #7-seed after the Bruins' loss in the Bay Area. Conversely, the most well-known bracket predictor, ESPN's Joe Lunardi, has UCLA as a #5-seed. Other publications have made similar projections, which probably means UCLA could be anywhere from a 5 to a 7 seed.
With those underwhelming seed projections, UCLA's postseason hopes, to a certain extent, hinge on the next four games, starting with Oregon. UCLA probably won't be able to improve its seeding too much in the regular season, because three of the next four are against relatively poor teams. Oregon, however, may sneak in to the NCAA Tournament and, at the very least, the Ducks represent an opportunity for UCLA to pick up another top 50 RPI victory. A loss in any of the next four games would be very damaging to UCLA's potential NCAA Tournament seeding. Perhaps more importantly, wins in the next four games represent an opportunity for UCLA to build some momentum heading into the Pac-12 Tournament.
Before looking too far ahead, the Bruins must deal with the Ducks on Thursday night. The Ducks have some weapons that could really hurt UCLA and should be motivated. Oregon, which was seemingly cruising to a high NCAA seed in non-conference play, had a disastrous January, going 2-6 and immediately falling off the Pac 12 radar and nearly off the NCAA Tournament bubble. One of the ways Oregon could quickly position itself on the "right" side of the bubble is by beating UCLA on the road. In short, the Ducks should be highly motivated for this game.
Oregon head coach Dana Altman has had a reputation for being a master game manager and has shown a propensity for getting the most out of a given line-up, despite the fact that he is not known as a players' coach. However, in a bit of an anomaly of a season, Altman has had a difficult time integrating players into the rotation. Altman can't be held totally to blame, though. It isn't his fault that two of his players, including his starting point guard, sophomore Dominic Artis (6'1" 186 lbs.) were suspended for the first 9 games of the season. Altman does deserve the blame, though, for his poor player management skills since Artis' return. He allowed Artis to come off suspension and almost immediately step into the starting role that had been held by senior Johnathan Loyd (5'8" 163 lbs.) and for six games it hurt the Ducks tremendously. Now Artis is playing sparingly while Loyd has been solid, which has helped Oregon build some continuity. Given the way he's struggled since returning from suspension, it's probably not a coincidence that Oregon has played a bit better since Artis has been relegated to the bench.
Loyd has become valuable because, in spite of his physical limitations, he has done a great job of taking care of the ball. He also has the ability to have big games on a periodic basis. Unfortunately for the Ducks, he did not have one of those games the last time these two teams faced each other. In Eugene against the Bruins, Loyd went for 2 points in 22 minutes of play and missed all of his field goal attempts. However, Loyd had just had his nose broken and was wearing a protective mask for the first time. That isn't going to be the case on Thursday.
Another Duck who had a horrible game on January 30 was senior Mike Moser (6'8" 211 lbs.). I predicted he would make life difficult for UCLA's Kyle Anderson that game and Moser simply fell flat at both ends of the floor. Moser only played 14 minutes, went scoreless and was a big reason why his team fell behind by double-digits. He is another player that can't be expected to play as poorly as he did in Eugene, especially since he's played particularly well of late.
One Duck who had a good game was Junior Joseph Young (6'2" 185 lbs.). He had 25 points in that 2-point loss to the Bruins. He is the team's leading scorer and has been shooting at a high rate from both behind the arc and from the field in general. Alford is going to have to decide whether to try and stop Young directly with Norman Powell, who had a very good game in Eugene, or focus Powell's attention more on the point guard Loyd to keep Young from getting the ball.
Oregon is 2-5 on the road in conference play and is a very different team away from Matthew Knight Arena. The Bruins, on the other hand, are home-court heroes. UCLA has only one home loss this season and it was to then-No. 1 Arizona, by four points. UCLA has only needed to focus for bits of time, usually no more than a half of basketball, to blow the opposition off of John and Nell Wooden Court.
The Ducks actually match up fairly well against the Bruins, with Loyd, Young and sophomore Damyean Dotson (6'5" 209 lbs.) providing a great deal of perimeter firepower. Moser and his frontcourt mates have enough depth and bulk to potentially cause UCLA's Tony Parker, Travis Wear and David Wear some real issues. Oregon's biggest issue has been team defense, specifically defensive rebounding. Oregon is not a good rebounding team and that is one area where UCLA could potentially struggle. However, Oregon may not be good enough to take advantage of it.
UCLA has become a nightmare to try to predict. About the only think consistent about the Bruins has been their inconsistency, especially on the road. But this game is in Los Angeles and, what's more, Oregon has shown so far this season that they don't have an answer for Kyle Anderson.
More than anything else, this game will probably be decided by the home court advantage. UCLA has been, along with Arizona, the best home team in the conference, and it isn't close. Until Oregon shows that it won't struggle on the road against a better-than-average team, we have to go with the home side.
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