UC Riverside Preview

Dec. 9 -- When UC Riverside comes to Pauley Pavilion Wednesday night, it's the last opportunity for UCLA to work on some things against a cupcake opponent...

After a very close and poorly played “victory” over a decent San Diego Torero squad on Sunday, the UCLA Bruins return to action on Wednesday night (8 PM PST; Pac 12 Network) when the Bruins host the UC Riverside Highlanders in what will be UCLA’s final game against a mid-major non-conference opponent in the for the 2014-2015 season.

The game represents the final opportunity for the Bruins and head coach Steve Alford to work out some kinks before the much more challenging games against Gonzaga, Kentucky and Alabama come up in the next 20 days. While Riverside will certainly not be as poor as some of the other teams on UCLA’s schedule to this point, the Bruins should win the game, but Bruin fans would feel much better about this team and its prospects entering the second tough stretch of non-conference games and Pac 12 Conference play if there was some development against Riverside. To be blunt, UCLA will lose the remainder of its non-conference games after Wednesday if something drastic isn’t done about some of the issues facing this team.

Riverside enters the game with a 5-3 record, but the one foray the Highlanders had against high level competition didn’t go well. The Big West school lost to Utah, at Utah, by 46, 88-42. Riverside’s best win came against Portland State, which only begs mention because PSU opened the season by defeating USC.

Head coach Dennis Cutts’ Highlanders will probably be much better in March than they are now as they have some talent, even some players that could hurt UCLA. The questions for the Highlanders are whether or not one of those players can duplicate the performance of Johnny Dee of San Diego from Sunday night and whether Cutts can create (and successfully implement) a similar game plan to what the Toreros used.

The Riverside offense runs clearly through the inside\outside tandem of juniors Taylor Johns (6’7” 220 lbs.) and Jaylen Bland (6’3” 205 lbs.). They are the two leading scorers on the team, combine for about 30 PPG, and they are the leaders in some key categories beyond scoring. Johns is the inside force on the squad, averaging 7.9 RPG and having 19 blocks on the season. Bland is a very good outside shooter, averaging 46% on his ‘triples’ this season, and leads the team with 10 steals.

However, they both have some holes in their respective games. Johns is almost exclusively a low post player, and as such, he is undersized. When the Highlanders play man-to-man defense he will more than likely have to guard UCLA’s Kevon Looney. That would be a mismatch in UCLA’s favor as Looney is taller, longer and more athletic.

Bland actually shoots better from distance than he does from inside the arc. His less than 44% overall shooting percentage is definitely less efficient than his ability to hit the long jumper. He is helped by the fact that he shoots 86% from the free throw line. Johns struggles a bit from the charity stripe, hitting on only 63% of his free throws.

Bland is definitely strong enough and long enough to be able to guard UCLA’s Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford, regardless of which one he is matched up on, but he isn’t as quick as many of the other guards that UCLA has faced. In fact, it almost seems as if Bland has sacrificed some quickness to add some bulk. Because of Riverside’s personnel, though, chances are that Bland won’t be matched on Alford.

After Bland, the backcourt is experienced, but not spectacular. Senior Nick Gruninger (6’0” 160 lbs.) and junior Steven Jones (6’0” 175 lbs.) will man the point guard position and while Jones has recently supplanted Gruninger as the starter, both can do a fine job of running the offense. In fact, UCLA’s own point guard, Bryce Alford, would do well to watch how Jones and Gruninger, and especially Gruninger, run the Riverside offense. Gruninger is a very good shooter at over 50% from the field and 42% from the three-point line, but he doesn’t shoot much. He’s too focused on getting the ball to his designated scorers. Further, he only shoots generally when it is in the rhythm of the offense. Lastly, Gruninger isn’t the best athlete, but he works his tail off, especially on defense. Still his talent level, and that of Jones, who has played very well since becoming the starter, is below that of UCLA’s Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Norman Powell.

The last player in the backcourt/wing rotation is senior Steven Thornton (6’4” 215 lbs.). Thornton is more of an outside shooter, having taken 21 of his 39 shots on the season from behind the arc, who can get to the line and plays average defense. The easiest way to describe Thornton is to compare him to UCLA’s Noah Allen. They are very similar players with similar talent, although Allen is 2 inches taller. Senior Charles Standifer (6’5” 185 lbs.) will spell Thornton from time to time.

The other frontcourt players are both freshmen, Alex Larsson (6’9” 245 lbs.), who will start, and Robert Boezeman (6’7” 220 lbs.), who may have the most natural feel of any player on the roster. Neither is terribly athletic and Larsson in particular will find himself athletically overmatched by virtually all the Bruin forwards. The two are second and third on the team in rebounds per game.

The Highlanders want a game in the upper 60s but when they’ve done so against their more talented opponents they’ve lost. They tried to speed up Portland State and the Vikings blew them out. They were forced to slow down by Cal State Bakersfield and they pulled out that game.

Riverside is a team that seems as if it should be better considering some of its players. The Highlanders have decent statistics, but much of that was built on victories over two non-Division I schools.

If Riverside is to find any success, the Highlanders need to slow down the game, reduce the number of possessions and then play within themselves on offense, but even that, coupled with switching defenses and effort on the boards may not be enough. That’s because once again, this game is about UCLA. The season, though, has gotten to the point where it is no longer about “this game” but about the season, and for the Bruins to accomplish anything, even something as simple as growth as a team, then it will come down to the Family Alford.

There are two major factors that will dictate how the season plays out from this point forward: the play of Bryce Alford and the coaching of Steve Alford, specifically how he handles his son.

The team executes much better when the offense has a facilitator, regardless of what Coach Alford has stated publically about not needing a point guard. At this point it is obvious that Bryce is a shoot-first “point” guard, however. The team has operated more cleanly and more like a “team” on offense on those occasions when Bryce has looked to involve his teammates first and only shot when it was in the flow of the offense. A good example of that was the first half of the Fullerton game. However, Bryce reverted to the shoot-first mentality he’s displayed much of the season in the second half of that same game and the team’s offensive execution suffered mightily as a result.

However, it’s more than that; Alford’s “me first” attitude on shooting clearly has a negative impact on his teammates. The body language of certain players on the team has been indicative of when Bryce has decided to shoot more than he quite frankly should. This is where the lines between the two Alfords blur a bit because it is just this sort of situation where a player takes the team out of its offense and the head coach should step in, regardless of whether that coach is the father of the player in question.

We have to think there is dissatisfaction from the rest of the team, and not just over Bryce’s shot selection, but that the coach is allowing this to happen. Coach Alford has almost universally refused to bench Player Alford when he has taken poor shots, shots that often lead to easy buckets at the other end of the floor for the opposition.

Now, before this preview is accused of being biased or unbalanced, Alford has allowed Kevon Looney and Norman Powell to take poor shots and he has not benched them either. As Tracy Pierson has said, the entire team seems to have a perpetual green light. However, neither Looney nor Powell have done it as much as Bryce has and neither of them is the team’s floor general or the head coach’s son.

If Bryce wants to see how a skilled shooting point guard properly plays the position and gets his teammates involved, he will get it up close on Saturday when the Bruins host Gonzaga and senior point guard Kevin Pangos. While this isn’t to suggest that Bryce has the skill level or the athleticism of the Zags’ point guard, there isn’t anything preventing Bryce from being a good decision-maker in terms of involving his teammates, unless his coach doesn’t have him face consequences when he’s being selfish.

Tracy Pierson and Greg Hicks have both addressed these issues and how they might affect the team, and they’ve both done so more than once. This could become a situation where there is one set of rules for most of the players and then another set of rules for the other…or the one. Alford replaced a coach who could count that kind of behavior as a reason why he was fired. Further, it can be argued that Alford’s predecessor, Ben Howland, began to suffer on the recruiting trail in part because word got out that he was inconsistent in his treatment of players. It’s one thing to treat each situation differently and quite another to be seen as inconsistent. It often spells the employment death knell of teachers and coaches, who really are one and the same, aren’t they? They are positions built on trust.

If the Bruins are caught in tight games this season against far better competition than they’ll face on Wednesday night, then the perception of preferential treatment can cause an individual’s will to win to wane, and thus affect the team. If the Bruins begin to lose games that, on paper, they should win, then this could very well be the reason why.

The solution to this and the way to get the Bruins to play their collective and individual hardest is to have Bryce recognize the duties of a point guard, make decisions accordingly and have the head coach pull him from games when he doesn’t. This may cost the Bruins a game or two in the short term, but it may benefit them and the coach with regard to longevity and long term success.

Let’s see how Bryce plays on Wednesday and how Coach Alford manages his point guard.

Riverside 64

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