The UCLA men’s basketball team returns to the court Sunday night for its first game since the national embarrassment that was the Kentucky game when the Bruins travel to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to face the 8-3 Crimson Tide (3:30 PM; ESPNU).
The game is now critical to UCLA’s postseason aspirations but the Bruins will be facing a Tide squad that needs this game just as badly for their postseason resume.
It will also be the first true road game for the Bruins, while the Tide is a perfect 7-0 in their home arena, Coleman Coliseum.
Winning this game will help put some of the sting of the Kentucky loss behind them, but the Bruins will have no shot at a victory unless they bring more focus, intensity and attention to execution than they brought last Saturday. That’ll be a tall order for the Bruins to accomplish in a week. However, there are some tendencies that Alabama has shown this season that could open the door for the Bruins if UCLA plays like its season depends on it -- because it does.
In many ways UCLA will find a mirror image of itself when it takes the floor on Sunday afternoon. The Tide is currently mired in mediocrity and head coach Anthony Grant is under a great deal of pressure from Alabama fans to make the NCAA Tournament this season. Grant has made the Big Dance once in his previous four years and the fan base, what little there is of one because of football, feels that the program has actually taken a step backward under his watch. It’s especially so considering the record of his predecessor, Mark Gottfried, who won one SEC regular season title, had the team ranked #1 in the country in 2002, had five straight NCAA appearances and made the Elite Eight in 2004. Compared to that, Grant has definitely underachieved and Gottfried was forced out midseason because his teams became mediocre, attendance was free-falling and there was a sense that he couldn’t right the ship. Alabama pulled the trigger on Gottfried after star player Ronald Steele quit mid-season (something most schools are never bold enough to do even if they recognize an untenable). Regardless, rumor is that Grant is fully aware that he needs to make the NCAA this season, and probably even make some noise or he will be given his walking papers.
Alabama’s offensive style of play is pretty similar to UCLA’s, with virtually every player on the floor given free reign to shoot. That’s a reason why roughly 40% of Bama’s shots come from behind the arc and why the Tide are shooting barely 31% collectively from distance. The only player that doesn’t have a proverbial green light is sophomore post Jimmie Taylor (6’10” 240 lbs.), who actually supplies little offense but is a large defensive presence. He is an excellent shot blocker with long arms and athleticism. However, he is an average rebounder and should be averaging more than his team-leading 5.5 RPG considering the minutes he gets. Further, he has fallen in love with his role so much that he often gets carried away and has found himself in foul trouble. He’s been disqualified from two games so far this season and when he’s off the floor the Tide is a completely different team.
That’s because Grant wants his players to run a ball pressure defense with many chances being taken for steals. That’s because the Tide players know that even if they get beat they have a significant rim protector in Taylor. When he gets in foul trouble it then throws off the entirety of Alabama’s defensive foundation. In fact, when Taylor is out of the game, look for Alabama to run some zone defenses at UCLA.
The Tide actually has several players that perform well in the green-light offense, particularly seniors Levi Randolph (6’5” 208 lbs.) (Pictured above) and Rodney Cooper (6’6” 218 lbs.). Both have been above average shooters for the tide with both averaging over 40% from the three-point line. They are both also outstanding free throw shooters, averaging over 82% from the charity stripe. The problem for the Tide is that neither of these two seniors is shooting enough. Instead many of Alabama’s outside shots are coming from players who collectively average fewer than 24% from distance.
Randolph is more of the slasher and distributor, as Alabama’s offense has no true point guard, while Cooper has taken more than half of his shots from behind the arc. It would make sense, then, for UCLA head coach Steve Alford to put Norman Powell on Randolph and have Isaac Hamilton stay with Cooper. However, Powell has seen a major dip in form on the defensive end, which could be due to some frustration, disinterest and team chemistry issues. A focused and interested Powell is key to UCLA having any chance in this game.
After Taylor, Randolph and Cooper, it’s really anyone’s guess who will start for the Tide. Grant runs a nine-man rotation, with all nine players seeing at least 14 MPG, and the low-man on the proverbial totem pole is junior Retin Obasohan (6’1” 208 lbs.) who was a starter last season.
Also expected to get major minutes are sophomore forwards Shannon Hale (6’8” 226 lbs.) and Michael Kessens (6’9” 223 lbs.). Hale looks like he will be Alabama’s go-to player before his time in Tuscaloosa is done, but his shot selection this season has been downright Hamilfordian, while Kessens has played very well the past several games.
Freshmen Justin Coleman (5’10” 160 lbs.) and Riley Norris (6’7” 207 lbs.) will also play close to 20 minutes on Sunday. Norris has a nice outside stroke while Coleman is the team’s point guard of the future, but Grant hasn’t given him the keys to the car just yet.
Finally, there’s junior guard Ricky Tarrant (6’2” 190 lbs.), a player who has all the offensive tools a guard needs at this level in order to be successful, but for whatever reason hasn’t put it together quite yet. The poor less-than-31% shooting from behind the arc has something to do with that, but he has been a much better shooter in the past. It would be fitting with the way the Bruin season seems to be headed that Tarrant comes out of his prolonged slump on Sunday.
It probably makes more sense for the Bruins to run more zone than man on Sunday, considering that Alabama is shooting much better inside the arc than outside of it. However, that’s really six-of-one-half-a-dozen-of-the-other with regard to UCLA’s defense this season. UCLA’s defense has been porous the past several weeks regardless of what formation the Bruins run.
When the Bruins have the ball they have to keep turnovers to a minimum. In Alabama’s three losses, admittedly to solid-to-good schools in Iowa State, Wichita State and Xavier, the Tide wasn’t able to pressure the opposition into many turnovers. When the Tide did (the Cyclones had 15), it didn’t matter because Iowa State shot almost 60% from the floor for the game. Xavier shot almost 55% from the floor in its game with Bama. The point is, if Bama can’t get easy points then its offense tends to stall. UCLA has to take care of the ball, and that also means good shot selection. Poor shot selection is every bit the turnover that throwing the ball away is because many times a poor shot means no floor balance, and this UCLA team has a bad habit of being slow in defensive transition.
Rebounding will also be another key as UCLA has generally done a good job of rebounding and Alabama has not. Specifically, UCLA will have the best player on the floor in Kevon Looney and his rebounding should see a spike in number in this game. Bama just does not block out well, nor does it have a lot of girth inside.
What Alabama does have are athletes, while UCLA ostensibly has better basketball players. The problem for the Bruins recently is that those players have been playing a very individual game, which negates any advantage UCLA has with regard to basketball IQ. If UCLA allows this game to become a track meet then the Bruins will lose and it won’t be close. However, if the Bruins take care of the ball and show some semblance of shot selection then they do have a very realistic chance to win this game.
The Kentucky game showed UCLA’s warts in the limelight, and they aren’t going to disappear overnight, even if the head coach admitted something was amiss. UCLA will have to play a game on Sunday anti-thetical to its style over the past several weeks, which has been getting more and more individualized, as it were, and the Bruins just don’t seem like they have that in them.
A BRO member posted that UCLA was blown out by Stanford in Steve Lavin’s first season and then proceeded to win the Pac 10 and get to the Elite 8. The obvious comparison is that, if that team could bounce back, so could this one. The poster went so far as to note another simiarlites between the teams, that the 1997 team also had a short bench and used a a six-man rotation. Newsflash: that Bruin team had Charles O’Bannon, Toby Bailey and Cameron Dollar, among others, players who had already won a national title. This season’s Bruins have Looney and…Bryce Alford? Isaac Hamilton?
If UCLA loses this game then it could see its season spin out of control, with UCLA arguably being the weaker team in its first four conference games. If Coach Alford is feeling any pressure now, imagine how he’ll feel if in 16 days if the Bruins are 8-9 overall and 0-4 in the conference.
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