The UCLA men’s basketball team and its head coach desperately needed a reprieve from all the negativity that surrounded a five-game losing streak, and the Bruins got just that with a home sweep this past weekend against the Bay Area schools. While the season may not be saved (the issues plaguing the program under Steve Alford’s leadership assuredly still remain), it certainly avoided a potential mid-season collapse.
The Bruins now travel across town to take on rival USC at the Galen Center on Wednesday night (6 PM; ESPN2). It’s a game the Bruins should win and, quite frankly, have to win in order to keep the momentum and advantage they gained from this past weekend’s sweep. It is a dangerous game for a variety of reasons, and the Bruins very well could lose. However, there are some key tactical factors that should play in the Bruins’ favor.
One of those key tactical issues is going to be the coaching battle. In last week’s two previews there was mention of Stanford and California both being coached by men who aren’t exactly known for their tactical coaching chops. In fact, to credit BRO’s Greg Hicks, Stanford was “Dawkinsed” by its own coach, whose questionable personnel usage and tactical decisions probably allowed UCLA back into that game.
The USC game presents another interesting coaching battle. While UCLA’s Alford isn’t considered one of the best “Xs and Os” coaches in the game, many pundits would say that at least he’s not Andy Enfield of USC. Enfield brought his highly up-tempo scheme from Florida Gulf Coast when he arrived in Los Angeles two seasons ago, but the Trojans have appeared completely unorganized and without talent. To Enfield’s credit, he has started to address the talent issue, but the tactical scheme still resembles a group of circus clowns trying to douse a fire. If Alford’s UCLA offensive scheme is truly “AAU ball,” then USC’s appears to be “AAU ball on meth.” This is a match-up where Alford should be expected to get the best of his adversary. It wouldn’t take much as Enfield’s in-game strategies have almost been more of his team’s nemesis at times this season.
Enfield wants his team to get up and down the floor and apply a great deal of heavy ball pressure in order to create turnovers. However, this type of strategy and extended defensive pressure may actually play into UCLA’s strengths.
If there is one thing Enfield has been successful with, it’s infusing more talent into the USC program. His best player is freshman point guard and former UCLA recruit Jordan McLaughlin (6’1” 170 lbs.). McLaughlin has the ability to involve his teammates in a way that is superior to anyone on UCLA’s current roster. He has an almost 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio on a bad shooting team and plays very solid on-ball defense. His shooting has been erratic at best, but that could very well be because he needs to adjust to the college game and immediately stepping on campus and being considered the go-to player on the team. He leads the team in scoring at 12.9 PPG and although he’s shooting less than 40% from the floor and less than 30% from behind the arc, he clearly has the ability to explode in terms of scoring. He also leads the team in steals and will be putting heavy pressure on UCLA’s Bryce Alford from the outset.
Freshman wing Elijah Stewart (6’5” 180 lbs.) is another talented addition that Enfield reeled in with this class. There was talk that UCLA would have had a good chance with Stewart if they had recruited him seriously, which they didn’t, at least not more than lip service allowed. Stewart is a very good athlete with the ability to be a lockdown defender. While his offense isn’t refined yet, it’s clear that his scoring struggles are due to his poor shooting, which is something that will almost certainly improve. The combination of his size and athleticism is something UCLA just doesn’t have on its roster.
It would be interesting to see where UCLA would be right now if McLaughlin and Stewart were adding depth to the Bruin roster, especially from a defensive and athletic standpoint.
McLaughlin and Stewart are far from the only talented newcomers. Freshman guard Malik Marquetti (6’6” 190 lbs.), while not having the athleticism of McLaughlin or Stewart, has been a solid presence on the roster. His ability to step into the point guard role after McLaughlin was injured for USC’s victory over California was an unexpected positive development. Again, although his shooting isn’t great, his athletic ability is good enough that his developmental trajectory for the next 3½ years is good.
Enfield didn’t only recruit guards and wings. Freshman post Malik Martin (6’11” 220 lbs.) may be raw but also has enough athleticism to show that he should be a solid contributor for the Trojans for the next three seasons. He gives USC a defensive presence, averaging 3.5 RPG in only 17 MPG played. Further, he is the one true shot-blocking presence on the roster. To put that in perspective, Stewart is tied for the team lead in blocks with 13; If a wing is leading a team in blocked shots then that team probably doesn’t have much of a defensive presence in the paint. That has been true in many games this season for USC.
Unlike his freshmen teammates, Martin does not struggle at the other end of the floor. He averages well over 50% from the field, and although he will step out for the occasional three-pointer, he gives the Trojans another legitimate low-post presence. However, McLaughlin and Stewart are shooting 38% from the floor while Marquetti is at 29%.
The shooting struggles don’t end with the freshmen. The Trojans are the worst shooting team in the Pac-12 and one of the worst shooting teams in major college basketball. They hit less than 43% of their overall attempts and less than 30% of their three-point attempts. No one epitomizes these struggles more than sophomore Katin Reinhardt (6’6” 205 lbs.). A UNLV transfer, Reinhardt was supposed to be the kind of shooter that Enfield could count on to loosen up defenses. He certainly has been a shooter, but the problem is he’s been a poor one. The fact that Reinhardt averages 10.3 PPG speaks completely to the volume of shots he’s attempted rather than anything he’s done particularly well. He has attempted the most shots on the team for the season and the most three-pointers. He’s actually not too bad from behind the arc, at 33%, but he’s almost at 29% inside the arc. Reinhardt’s problem, besides the fact that he isn’t quite as good as Enfield envisioned when he took him, is that, unlike the freshmen, Reinhardt does lack athleticism. For him to be successful, Reinhardt needs to really be in a more structured offense, one where he can come off screens and get his feet set. He can be very successful in that kind of offense. As it is, teams that have scouted USC know they want to focus on forcing Reinhardt to have to shoot off the dribble. Further, Enfield’s offense is predicated on having players whose strengths and weaknesses are, quite frankly, the opposite of Reinhardt’s. Beyond his shooting, Reinhardt really doesn’t add much else to the Trojans. He isn’t a superior athlete or defender and doesn’t rebound well at all for his size. He also continues to be dogged by criticism of his work ethic both in practice and in games, especially on the defensive end. UCLA fans have probably seen Reinhardt before in the form of Nikola Dragovic.
Enfiled does have one player with experience who virtually every other team in the conference wished they had in sophomore post Nikola Jovanovic (6’11” 230 lbs.). He averages 12.8 PPG and a team-leading 7.9 RPG. He works hard on both ends of the floor and gets quite a bit out of his limited athleticism. The area in which Jovanovic needs work is in his passing. He still can be a bit of a black hole when the ball goes to him on the low block, but often that’s because he turns it over trying to pass rather than always looking for his shot. He is going to have quite a challenge in this game as UCLA’s Tony Parker is probably better tha Jovanovic in virtually every aspect of the game outside of passing, and even that is probably a wash. However, if Parker gets in early foul trouble then Jovanovic should become more of the focal point of the offense.
Sophomores Darion Clark (6’7” 220 lbs.) and Julian Jacobs (6’4” 180 lbs.) round out the USC players that get substantial playing time. Even though they’ve taken basically the same amount of shot attempts, Jacobs is the better offensive player right now, mostly because of his ability to hit the outside shot and get to the basket, being the only guard or wing shooting the ball with any consistency. Clark is the better defender and is the second-leading rebounder on the team at 6.8 RPG.
USC’s problems this season haven’t been about talent, which the Trojans are beginning to stockpile and will only add to when the 2015 class comes to campus in the fall. No, the problems the Trojans face come partly from youth and partly from coaching.
UCLA’s Coach Alford has bemoaned all season his squad’s lack of experience. The Trojans, though, have the youngest team in the conference and one of the youngest in all of college basketball. Junior Strahinja Gavrilovic (6’9” 230 lbs.) is the only player even somewhat in the rotation who is not a freshmen or a sophomore. There isn’t a single senior on the roster. From that standpoint, the future looks pretty bright for the Trojans.
However, if there is one thing that could hold back USC it’s Enfield. Offensively his team makes UCLA’s “green-light motion” look very efficient. The USC players often look lost and many times it appears as if the adjustments Enfield is making are more of the rah-rah variety than anything else. If USC had a credible tactical head coach, coupled with the talent the Trojans have, then they probably wouldn’t have lost games to Akron, Portland State and Army…read that again; USC lost to Army. Enfield seriously can be compared to Steve Lavin when Lavin was at UCLA. Again, his recruiting seems to be on an upward trajectory, and while there is every chance that Enfield will mature into the position, the reality is that right now, he is as much the reason for USC’s almost .500 record as are the players.
If I were to project Enfield’s story arc at USC, it’d be similarly to Lavin: he’ll recruit well while he still has the honeymoon buzz, but when people (read recruits) figure out that Enfield’s a bit of a fraud and his teams under-achieve, recruiting will dry up.
In this game, Enfield’s loosey-goosey, unorganized, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later (or don’t ask questions later) kind of offense plays to UCLA’s strengths. Although UCLA has often done the same thing offensively as USC, the Bruins are more talented and do it better. Neither team has shown any consistency in taking care of the ball in terms of shot selection nor have they been fundamentally sound defensive clubs. UCLA has been terrible in transition defense this season, but USC has been about as bad. In short, USC is the kind of opponent that can mask UCLA’s shortcomings.
The Bruins have something USC doesn’t have: Kevon Looney. The precocious freshman is clearly now the best rookie in the conference and has the capability of doing what he did against Stanford last Thursday night in just about every conference game. USC has no one that can guard him. More than that, UCLA’s Parker should have his way inside with USC’s posts. The key will be UCLA’s guards getting the posts the ball on the low block. Touches in the paint will help determine the outcome of this game.
UCLA also has better bad-shot shooters than USC in Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton. So there’s that.
Still, as Jekyll and Hyde as USC has been this season, they are more athletic than UCLA across the board and have that Lavin-like ability to play off emotion at certain times. You would think McLaughlin will certainly be fired up to have a go at Bryce Alford, while USC in general should be highly motivated for this game, especially after the beat-downs UCLA put on the Trojans last season. Expect the Trojans to bring a lot of energy to the floor Wednesday night.
UCLA has struggled on the road, and even though USC has averaged less than 4,000 fans at the Galen Center for its home games, expect Wednesday’s crowd to be much larger and quite loud. Much like last week’s previews asked UCLA to prove it could win before actually expecting the Bruins to do so, it’s tough to expect UCLA to win when the Bruins have looked so dreadful away from Pauley Pavilion. True, the game isn’t a true road game in terms of miles, but it is in terms of being in a foreign arena with foreign rims. There’s a reason all of UCLA’s bad habits become much worse on the road, and that led to the Kentucky and Utah embarrassments.
UCLA has a very narrow margin for error for the rest of its conference schedule. Anticipating how the Bruins might not pull out too many upsets (meaning road wins against the decent conference teams), it needs desperately to hold serve in the games it’s expected to win, and this is one.
But until UCLA can prove it can win on the road, even if that road trip is a short bus ride to the other side of town, it’s tough to actually see them doing so.
Enfield's Trojans, too, haven't had that watershed-moment kind of game (well, in this case, a false watershed-moment kind of game because it's Enfield). Emotionally you can sense they're building to one and beating UCLA on its home floor would be it.
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