After feasting on some pretty poor competition to open the season, the UCLA men’s basketball team heads to the Bahamas for the Thanksgiving holiday in order to compete in the Battle 4 Atlantis. This year’s version of the tournament has arguably the most competitive field of any of the 2014 early season tournaments. Besides UCLA, the schools in Nassau include North Carolina, Wisconsin, Georgetown, Butler, Florida, UAB and the Bruins’ opponent in Wednesday’s opener, Oklahoma (11:30 AM; ESPN 2).
Head coach Lon Kruger’s Sooners were one of the teams that had pundits talking in the preseason when the subject of “dark horse” contenders for a Final Four berth came up. However, the Sooners have started the season 2-1, have dropped out of the polls and, most importantly for the Bruins, have shown some real holes in their collective game as well as tendencies the Bruins can exploit. Make no mistake: the Bruins have some glaring issues as well, but this game looked like a sure loss for UCLA on paper only a few short weeks ago.
Oklahoma’s two wins have come over the same cupcake-like competition that UCLA saw in two of the Bruins’ first four games. While Southeastern Louisiana and Northwestern Louisiana State are not as bad as Montana State and Nicholls State, they are closer to those programs in terms of talent than they are to Coastal Carolina, let alone Long Beach State, the best of UCLA’s early season opposition. In fact, it can be argued that, because of graduation, the Creighton team that beat the Sooners is not nearly as talented or experienced as the LBSU squad UCLA just dispatched. However, that kind of extrapolative thinking can get one in trouble. The Creighton game was in Omaha, which may explain why Oklahoma blew an 11-point halftime lead.
That loss of the lead was indicative of what has been or at least what will be Oklahoma’s major issue this season -- reliance on the outside shot. The Sooners are shooting a good 41% from behind the three-point line on the season, however, they are only shooting 42% overall from the field. That is a clue that the Sooners are simply taking too many outside shots. Oklahoma has attempted roughly 33% of its shots from behind the arc. Interestingly, UCLA has attempted almost exactly the same percentage of three-point shots vis-à-vis overall attempts. The big difference is that UCLA is making almost 50% of its shots from the floor and over 42% of its shots from behind the arc. Again, though, it’s types of shots that are being attempted. UCLA has four players who have been to the line over 20 times this season, with Norman Powell and Kevon Looney both having attempted more than 30. Oklahoma’s leader, sophomore point guard Jordan Woodard (6’0” 189 lbs.), has only 18 attempts. Oklahoma isn’t getting to the line much, and considering the cupcakiness of two of the Sooners’ opponents, it’s almost shocking that OU has been to the line 11 times less than its opponents.
Part of the problem is the kind of players Oklahoma has on its roster. Really, the Sooners only have two natural inside players, junior Ryan Spangler (6’8” 235 lbs.) and senior transfer from Houston, TaShawn Thomas (6’8” 242 lbs.). Thomas was only recently cleared to play by the NCAA and appears to still be working his way into game shape. He is averaging a solid 8 PPG and 4.3 RPG, but considering Kruger has him on the court for almost 27 MPG, the Sooners feel they will get more out of Thomas as the season progresses.
Spangler is a dangerous player. First, he has a mean streak that could cause problems for the sort of laid-back play that UCLA’s Tony Parker brings to the floor. He averages 11.7 PPG and a team-leading 10.3 RPG. He is, quite simply, Oklahoma’s most important player. He is even a real three-point threat, going 4-5 so far on the season.
With Thomas being a bit slow coming out of the gate and Spangler having a bit of an inside-out game, one would think that putting Looney on Spangler may be a better idea. However, Spangler doesn’t have great lateral quickness and taking Looney away from the basket, where he’s averaging 12 RPG, would be a bad idea.
The backcourt battle will be interesting as it won’t be the first real test for either team. UCLA passed its test by defeating a Long Beach State team who, one could argue, had a backcourt about as talented as Oklahoma’s, but if not, the 49er guards are at least Oklahoma’s statistical equal. Oklahoma’s backcourt didn’t fare as well in its one defeat, losing the scoring battle by 2 in a game that the Sooners lost by 2.
The key player in Oklahoma’s backcourt is junior wing Buddy Hield (6’4” 212 lbs.). He leads the Sooners in virtually every major category except rebounds, assists and free throw attempts. He is a good outside shooter and can get to the basket relatively easily. The question has been why Hield hasn’t gotten to the basket more often. He really has spent a great deal of his offensive time at or outside the arc, where he has been very successful, to be fair, hitting 55% of his 3s. UCLA’s Powell is virtually the same size, although Norman is three lbs. heavier, but Powell has truly emerged as UCLA’s go-to player on both ends of the floor. Typically it’s fascinating when two teams’ best players match-up against each other all game. However, that may not happen as much as you might anticipate.
That’s because OU’s point guard, Woodard, is almost entirely a passer, thus he needs lanes to penetrate. He is sort of the anti-Sooner in that he has gotten to the charity stripe quite a bit, but has been horrible from the field. He’s 0-6 on his three-pointers and 5-13 on all other shots. This is a player the Bruins should be playing soft defense on in the hopes that the Bruins can keep him out of the lane, so that may mean a lot of zone.
The third guard in the starting line-up is also potentially the most talented: junior Isaiah Cousins (6’4” 194 lbs.). He averages 13.3 PPG and 7.3 RPG, both good for second on the team. He is the best mid-range shooter on the squad and arguably the best athlete in the backcourt. Assuming UCLA will have to play man defense on occasion, then Isaac Hamilton will have to guard either Cousins or Hield. That is an area that should concern UCLA coach Steve Alford and be another reason why UCLA will play almost entirely zone against the Sooners.
Kruger essentially plays an 8-man rotation, with senior D.J. Bennett (6’8” 202 lbs.) and freshman Khadeem Lattin (6’9” 201 lbs.) providing frontcourt depth. Both are more space-eaters, but watch Lattin as he may be the most natural rebounder on the floor, including UCLA’s Looney. Lattin averages 5.3 RPG in 11 MPG of play, which, if he averaged Looney’s minutes per game, would be around 15 RPG.
Backcourt depth is provided by sophomore Frank Booker (6’4” 193 lbs.), who is almost entirely a three-point specialist, having attempted 12 of his 15 shots on the season from behind the arc. When Booker is in then Cousins and Hield run the offense if Booker has spelled Woodard, though neither is particularly good at being a point guard.
This game may come down to intangibles. If Norman Powell isn’t the best player on the floor, then it very well could be Hields. The Sooner wing is also from the Bahamas, so this game is a homecoming for him. He will either play very well with the extra motivation of being home, or be too amped, much like LBSU’s Tyler Lamb seemed to be last Sunday.
Spangler and Thomas are the first post duo that can more than hold its own with UCLA’s frontcourt. Certainly, Looney and Parker can get the best of the Sooner big men, but this will be the first game where post play isn’t a clear advantage to UCLA.
Kruger is arguably one of the best in-game coaches in the nation. Alford has had an up-and-down career as a game tactician. If Alford calls a good game, it could be enough for him to help the Bruins win. If he is bested by Kruger, either because he was switching defenses faster than Alford could respond, or he was changing the Sooners’ offensive looks, then Oklahoma will win.
The Bruins should see a variety of defenses, although Kruger and the Sooners are primarily a man-to-man team. Further, the Sooners are the first team that the Bruins will face that has some length. Bruins fans should also be concerned about the Woodward/Bryce Alford match-up on both ends of the floor. The Sooner point guard is much more athletic and quicker than the Bruin floor leader.
This game truly looked like an easy pick as a Bruin loss only one month ago. However, Oklahoma doesn’t look yet like the team many expected them to be, while the Bruins, BRO predictions notwithstanding, look to be a bit further along than expected. That should make for arguably the best match-up of the first round on Paradise Island. In fact, regardless if UCLA wins or loses to the Sooners, there is every reason to believe that the Bruins have a very realistic chance of winning two games in the Tournament.
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