The Bruins are the #4 seed in the South Region with a 26-8 record, while Tulsa is the #13 seed and 21-12 on the season.
The game represents an opportunity for the Bruins to continue their good run of play that began with their conference quarterfinal victory over Oregon. It also represents an opportunity for the Bruins and Coach Steve Alford to surround the UCLA program with a more positive vibe as the 2013-2014 season enters its final stages.
Tulsa is unlike any team that UCLA has recently faced. The Golden Hurricane have pieces that will remind Bruin fans of certain Bruin opponents, but it would be a mistake to closely compare Tulsa to any single one of UCLA's opponents this season. Tulsa certainly has the capability of upsetting the Bruins but, like it's been for most of the season for UCLA, the outcome of the game should be primarily dependent on which UCLA team decides to show up on Friday -- the one that showed disinterest and a lack of intensity throughout many of this season's games or the one that provided consistent focus and intensity throughout the Pac-12 Tournament.
Tulsa is coached by Kansas legend Danny Manning, in his second year at the helm of the traditionally strong mid-major program. Manning has instilled a sense of belief and purpose in the Tulsa players not seen in the program in more than a decade. He has preached the importance of defense to his players while still insisting they play more up-tempo. Much of Tulsa's success this season, especially during its current 11-game winning streak, can be directly attributed to Tulsa's tough and aggressive half-court, man-to-man defense, which forces many turnovers. Tulsa has become adept at converting those turnovers into points. While Tulsa turns the ball over about 12 times per game, the Golden Hurricane are forcing their opponents to cough up the ball over 14 times per game. Those turnovers are really Tulsa's calling card. If an opponent can limit its turnovers when playing Tulsa then that takes away a lot from Tulsa's offense and its ability to control the tempo.
Tulsa plays an interesting style of defense. The Golden Hurricane like to put a lot of pressure on the ball, but they do so in the half court, choosing not to press too much. The location of the ball is truly the focus of the their defense. The ball pressure comes no matter where the ball is in the half court. If the ball gets into the paint, either because of a pass or because of dribble penetration, the Tulsa defense attacks the ball. The Golden Hurricane will double and even triple-team the ball when it goes into the paint. Because of this, Tulsa gives up an inordinate amount of three-point shot attempts. Knowing all of this, it's no surprise that Tulsa is only allowing opponents to shoot 40% from the floor, but almost 36% from behind the arc. To put it in perspective, Tulsa has attempted 80 or so more shots on the season overall than its opponents, but Tulsa's opponents have attempted 20 more three-pointers than the Golden Hurricane.
To counter this defensive strategy, the Bruin post players, most specifically Tony Parker, need to be ready to quickly kick out the ball to open shooters, who in turn need to be ready to shoot from distance because those shots will probably be available. Further, UCLA's motion offense focuses more on areas away from the low post, thus negating some of Tulsa's ability to double the post. Tulsa's defense really hasn't faced a forward group with the ability to shoot out to the three-point line like UCLA's David Wear and Travis Wear can do.
Offensively Tulsa relies on a variation of a motion offense variation combined with some isolation plays. Tulsa's shooting percentages are the opposite of its opponents' in that the Golden Hurricane shoot 44% from the field but less than 33% from behind the arc. In fact, Tulsa is a mediocre three-point shooting team, with no one player hitting over 39% of their outside shots. Less than 32% of Tulsa's shots have come from beyond the arc, whereas Tulsa's opponents have attempted almost 35% of their shots from distance. UCLA has attempted 28% of its shots from behind the arc, but UCLA is shooting at a much higher percentage from three than virtually all of Tulsa's opponents this season, with the Bruins connecting on almost 40% of their three-point attempts. The only team Tulsa has face that shoots the deep ball significantly better has been Creighton (which it lost to in November, 82-72).
It's clear that Manning has a style and game plan that he believes gives Tulsa the best chance at success: force tempo, force turnovers, clamp down on the opponent inside the arc at the expense of open three-pointers and hope that the opponent can't knock down those open looks.
Tulsa's line-up will be significantly smaller than UCLA's overall, but its backcourt has enough athleticism and size to think that it could cause UCLA some real problems.
The headline player for the Golden Hurricane is sophomore guard James Woodard (6'3" 183 lbs.), who leads the Hurricane in scoring at 15.7 PPG and rebounding at 5.8 RPG. He is the team's biggest outside shooting threat, making just under 39% of his three-point shots. He is athletic and won't hesitate to bring the ball into the paint. Stopping or slowing him would go a long way to ensuring a Bruin victory. He is very good in the open court and knows how to finish well on the break. He is also one of Tulsa's few very good free throw shooters. Whomever Alford decides to match-up on Woodard needs to be aware that he is a lefty and is much more apt to drive left than right. That may seem like a minor fact but in a game at this level losing half a step defensively because a defender has his hips favoring the wrong direction is a recipe for failure.
The other "star" player for the Hurricane is sophomore forward Rashad Smith (6'7" 206 lbs.), who averages 12.1 PPG and 4.9 RPG. The strength of Smith's game is his ability to work in the paint. His 55% overall shooting percentage is a testament to his athleticism. He is also another good finisher on the break. It will be interesting whom Alford matches on Smith since he's the second biggest player in the starting lineup for Tulsa, which, just based on size, would mean that one of the Wear brothers would guard him.
Sophomore D'Andre Wright (6'9" 247 lbs.) provides the only real bulk that Tulsa has, but he is more a hardworking body than a real threat down low. He does play strong in the paint on defense and he and Smith lead the team by a wide margin in blocked shots. It will bear watching how Wright, and to a lesser extent Smith, deal with the Wear brothers' shooting ability out to the arc. Much of Tulsa's defense is predicated on having Smith and/or Wright guard the paint on drives, often in great help position. The Wears' ability to hit outside jumpers means that, if UCLA is anywhere near as offensively efficient as the Bruins were in Las Vegas, then those players will have to move out of the paint, thus opening up more things for Bruins like Norman Powell and Zach LaVine to get to the rim.
There are three more guards who provide depth in the backcourt and on the wing, senior starter Tim Peete (6'4" 206 lbs.) and sophomores Rashad Ray (5'11" 170 lbs.) and Shaquille Harrison (6'3" 175 lbs.). Peete is the defensive stopper, while Ray provides the kind of jitterbug quickness that has given UCLA fits in the past. Harrison is the point guard and although he leads the team in assists he struggles with turnovers at times. All three work very hard and are very effective on defense.
In spite of the many areas where the game could turn, the reality is that if UCLA shows up with the intensity and focus it had in Vegas then UCLA wins, and probably wins big. Outside of Creighton, Tulsa simply hasn't faced an offense with the kind of scoring ability that UCLA has throughout the rotation. Further, UCLA would rather play up-tempo and the Bruins do it better than most teams in the country, Tulsa included. The key is on the other end of the floor, where Tulsa is a known defensive quantity while the Bruins only showed defensive resolve in the past week.
Tulsa's defensive strengths are going to be somewhat mitigated by the ability of the Wears to stretch the defense. Further, Tulsa's guards haven't seen anything like Kyle Anderson this season. Quite simply, if Kyle has a poor game, it will be because of Anderson. Tulsa, for all the effort that the team exerts defensively, simply doesn't have anyone that can guard Anderson.
Lastly, much has been made of Tulsa's 11-game winning streak. However, when examining that streak more closely, the reality is that Tulsa didn't beat any truly good teams. For example, Louisiana Tech, who the Hurricane beat in the C-USA finals, would finish in the bottom third of the Pac 12. That doesn't mean that UCLA will win, but if the Bruins show the effort necessary, then it is probably a good indicator. Again, if the Bruins show the effort.