Coming off its second straight lackluster victory over a mediocre mid-major program, the UCLA men’s basketball team will now begin a tough three-game stretch to finish the non-conference portion of the 2014-2015 schedule by hosting #9 Gonzaga at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday night (ESPN2, 7 PM PST).
Conventional wisdom is that the Bruins are about to begin a three-game beat-down at the hands of the Bulldogs, Kentucky on December 20 and at Alabama one week later. Much of this handwringing by Bruin fans is because of perceived long-term issues, namely the lack of depth, and short-term issues, namely coming out very flat against San Diego and sleepwalking in the first half against UC Riverside (which could become long-term if team chemistry worsens). However, the Bruins do have talent, albeit not a great deal of depth, but they are about to face a Zags team that actually has many of the same depth issues as the Bruins. The key for this game will be how focused the Bruins will be coming out of the gate. If UCLA brings solid intensity and desire, it doesn’t need to be great, and there is a very good chance for an upset victory for the Bruins.
Over the past several years the national college hoops media has made Gonzaga, along with Butler and VCU, their darlings. No one can argue with Gonzaga’s success since before head coach Mark Few took the reins, a success that has only increased over the course of his tenure. Some of that is due to his team’s playing in the West Coast Conference, but there’s no denying that Few knows how to both recruit and instill his system into his players. However, Few’s teams have slipped up consistently in the past against more athletic or more talented teams that played a solid fundamental game. This has typically happened in March and one of the reasons (remember, there is a certain amount of luck involved…ask Adam Morrison) is that Few has not been able to get elite athletes to come to Spokane.
The lack of elite athleticism also plagues this year’s Zags squad. That’s not to say that Gonzaga’s roster isn’t made up of very smart, good basketball players -- it is, but the roster doesn’t have the greyhounds of a Kentucky or Duke…or North Carolina. That lack of athleticism showed up in Gonzaga’s lone loss of the season, at Arizona in overtime. Gonzaga led most of that game (partly because Arizona is coached by Sean Miller, but that’s for another time) but when crunch time hit, Arizona’s superior athletes took over.
Tracy Pierson wrote that he had visions of the North Carolina debacle swimming in his head when he thought of UCLA’s next three opponents. The Bruins may lose to Gonzaga, but it won’t be because they are out-athleted. Gonzaga may win big, and it may be because the Bruins “quit” as they did against the Tar Heels, or it may be because the Zags generally execute excellent offense and fundamentally sound defense, but it won’t be because the Bruins were run out of the gym. In fact, the Bruins match up rather well with the Zags, comparatively speaking, with one glaring exception.
Gonzaga’s senior point guard, Kevin Pangos (6’2” 182 lbs.), is arguably one of the best floor generals in the country. He isn’t great at any one thing, however, he is good-to-very good at everything. He’s a solid overall shooter, at just over 48%, he’s an excellent three-point shooter, at 41%, and excellent free throw shooter, at almost 85%. His assist-to-turnover ratio is almost 4 to 1, and he only has 11 turnovers on the year. He is a good defensive player with a knack for creating turnovers, and his energy rarely wanes. This is in contrast with UCLA’s point guard, Bryce Alford, who has played poor-to-dreadful defense all season, tends to dribble into no-man’s land when driving, and looks to shoot first and ask questions later. They are virtually the same size and yet the difference between them right now is a chasm. One is a selfless player who will do anything to help the team and the other hasn’t quite figured that out. This is the mismatch that bears watching. If UCLA plays man defense then Pangos could have a field day against Alford. This is where UCLA head coach Steve Alford needs to earn his paycheck. He needs to either light a fire under his son and inspire a difference in the way Bryce plays defense, or he has to find a way to hide him. The problem is that Alford has the same issue with Isaac Hamilton, who is coming off an awful defensive performance against Riverside. The obvious answer would be to have Norman Powell guard Pangos, but that would leave two very good wing players, both of whom do look to score, to be guarded by Alford and Hamilton. It is quite the conundrum for the elder Alford.
Those two very good wing players are seniors Gary Bell (6’2” 214 lbs.) and USC graduate transfer Byron Wesley (6’4” 206 lbs.). They are very good because they have both bought into Few’s system and do a pretty good job of playing to their respective strengths. Bell is almost strictly an outside shooter, having taken more than 2/3 of his total shots from behind the arc. Wesley is almost exclusively a slasher, having only attempted 8 three-pointers on the season. Bell is much less effective putting the ball on the floor while Wesley, as Bruin fans well know from watching him when he was at USC, is much less effective when limited to being an outside shooter. In truth, more was expected from Bell this, his fourth year in the program, than his 9.6 PPG. He is shooting 44% from behind the arc; the issue is that he simply hasn’t attempted that many shots. On one hand he could be playing well within the offensive system, which is focused on getting the ball in the paint, on the other, he can simply be not asserting himself enough. He has attempted the least amount of shots of any of the starters.
Wesley has stepped right into the starting line-up fresh off his arrival from South Central. He still struggles as a shooter, but his defense has been excellent from the get-go. Ever since the broken jaw suffered by freshman point guard and former UCLA recruit Josh Perkins (6’3” 186 lbs.), Wesley’s responsibilities have gone up, as has his minutes. The same is true for Bell, but it’s been a pretty dramatic change for Wesley. Since Perkins’ injury he’s been averaging almost 35 MPG, second only to Pangos.
The question for Alford is, how does UCLA guard the three Gonzaga wings/guards? Bell is a very good outside shooter and with the way Isaac Hamilton has played defense, especially against Riverside, that would seem to eliminate him as an option for guarding Bell. That would leave Alford the option of guarding Bell with his son or with Norman Powell, knowing that Wesley would probably be too much for Hamilton to handle, but at least putting Hamilton on Wesley allows UCLA’s post players the opportunity to help when Wesley beats Hamilton on drives to the hoop. It may actually work in UCLA’s favor to have Hamilton on Wesley as Hamilton can be so slow on closeouts that the Zag senior may decide to start taking jumpers, and that is clearly not his game.
That would mean having Bryce guard either Pangos or Bell. While Bryce has also been slow, even lazy, on closeouts this season, he has shown that he has the ability to at least go over the top of screens and chase, which should at least force Bell to put the ball on the floor, which is not his game. That leaves Powell to guard Pangos, which could ultimately be to UCLA’s advantage as this would put the most amount of pressure on Gonzaga’s point of attack, while also hiding UCLA’s biggest defensive weaknesses: Bryce and Isaac.
Of course, UCLA will play zone for parts, if not much of the game. What fans saw against Riverside, the move of Hamilton and Alford to the low wings in the 2-3 zone, may be what Alford tries on Saturday. The strength of Gonzaga’s shooting has been from the free throw line and out, as opposed to the baseline. However, if that is the case and Alford does opt for a zone with Hamilton and Bryce on the baseline, then expect Few to adjust and have his wing shooters shade towards the baseline in order to get open for jumpers.
That’s a great deal of space spent dissecting the Gonzaga backcourt when the frontcourt is the focal point of the Gonzaga offense. It truly is an inside/out style of offense. The thing is, the match-ups are much simpler to dissect and UCLA actually matches up better in the frontcourt than it does in the backcourt.
The offensive focus for the Zags, if there is one, is the junior transfer from Kentucky, Kyle Wiltjer (6’10” 240 lbs.). He leads the team in scoring at 16.4 PPG and is shooting 52% from the floor and 36% from behind the arc. He has both low post and perimeter skills and is good at utilizing both. He is certainly more savvy that UCLA’s freshman Kevon Looney, and his offensive game is refined, but Looney is a much superior athlete, so much so that it should more than likely offset any strength advantage Wiltjer may have. When the Zags played Arizona and St. John’s, Wiltjer faced front lines with similar athleticism and he really struggled, shooting a combined 9-25 for the two games, including 1-8 behind the arc.
The other two frontcourt stalwarts are similar in size and style. Junior Przemek Karnowski (7’1” 288 lbs.) of Poland and freshman Domantas Sabonis (6’10” 231 lbs.), son of former Portland Trail Blazer Arvydas Sabonis, both play a bruising, old-school low-post style that UCLA hasn’t seen yet this season and probably won’t again. Neither will realistically attempt a shot outside of 6 feet and they are good, in Karnowski’s case, very good, rebounders. Karnowski is simply a mountain of a player and will be able to move any of the UCLA posts off the block with regularity. However, both Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh are more polished and athletic than Karnowski. Also, neither Karnowski nor Sabonis are shot blockers and Karnowski does have a habit of getting into foul trouble. Further, while Sabonis has been an excellent shooter this season, averaging 75% from the floor, some of that is because of Few’s decisions on when to use Sabonis , and Karnowski is a train wreck at the free throw line, hitting only 35% of his free throw attempts.
If the Bruins can get the ball into the post with regularity there is a real chance of getting all three Zag forwards in some foul trouble. That’s where the game can be won as Gonzaga, contrary to what pundits have written and said, is not a deep team. In fact, with the loss of Perkins, Gonzaga’s starters are averaging roughly the same minutes as UCLA’s starters. Pangos played 83 of a possible 85 minutes against St. John’s and Arizona and even logged 36 against Southeast Louisiana State, a game the Zags won by 19. There is just no credible back-up to the three backcourt starters and Sabonis is the only real frontcourt sub. Few will play senior Angel Nunez (6’8” 202 lbs.) in the post and junior Kyle Dranginis (6’5” 202 lbs.) on the wing but they will only play a few minutes and the hope is that neither will lose the game for the Zags.
This is, quite frankly, a game that UCLA can reasonably win. Gonzaga’s depth issues are actually more acute than UCLA’s, at least with Perkins out. To add intrigue to this, Pangos suffered a head injury against Washington State and, although he returned to the game, there have been very reasonable suggestions that he suffered a concussion. It bears watching as to how crisp his game is on Saturday.
UCLA’s players have more raw talent than Gonzaga’s players, but Gonzaga is much more experienced and they play in a system that works. The Gonzaga offense is efficient and tends to get good shots, which can be expected on Saturday because of UCLA’s struggle on defense.
However, the Zags can be had by a team that runs. If ever there were an undisciplined offensive team in college basketball, it’s Steve Lavin’s St. John’s team. Although they lost to Gonzaga, the Johnnies were able to keep that game close because of the easy baskets they were able to get in transition. Tracy Pierson has written that when faced with a better opponent, the Bruins would be wise to value possessions more than they have this season. As usual, Pierson’s analysis is spot on, but for this game the Bruins should try and run a bit. Gonzaga’s half-court defense is solid and can cause UCLA some problems, especially if the Bruins hurry things and make bad decisions, but its transition defense is not great and UCLA has the two best athletes in the game in Powell and Looney.
The issue in this game is that Gonzaga’s system is so ingrained and well-run that the Bruins are going to have significant issues trying to break it down. There are a great many ifs in this game: if Powell can shut down or slow down Pangos; if UCLA can get Gonzaga’s frontcourt players in foul trouble; if UCLA can play with some focus and intensity.
Expect this game to be close, with some ebb and flow depending on the foul issue and the relative depth issues that those fouls might create. Certainly Gonzaga has more experienced and mentally stronger players, especially in Pangos, but if Alford can manage the match-ups correctly then UCLA can win.
There are a few other issues that may be subplots to this game. Few has undoubtedly had the 2006 Sweet 16 game Gonzaga lost to UCLA in his head since. That was arguably Few’s most talented team and it was derailed by an unlikely series of plays. There are those in the media who have written that this year’s version of the Zags is the best that Few has ever had. They have no idea what they’re talking about. Regardless, Few will put pressure on himself to win this game, but it remains to be seen if this will help or hurt Gonzaga.
In the end the Bruins are playing at home, and although the San Diego and UC Riverside games could be a foreshadowing of some dreadful basketball, the guess is that the Bruins will play angry and focused, at least for this game. That, plus the Gonzaga depth issues, will cause this game to be closer than some think. However, the experience of the Zags, coupled with UCLA’s not having a point guard in crunch time, will ultimately do in the Bruins.
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