Well, that was ugly…again. The UCLA men’s basketball team and head coach Steve Alford, after losing to a short-handed and, quite frankly, much less talented Oregon State squad on Thursday night, now face another “must-win” game when the Bruins travel to Eugene to face the Oregon Ducks (1 PM; CBS).
This game is now a pivotal one in determining how the season ultimately goes -- either mediocre or potentially disastrous. After Oregon, the Bruins will face Utah and Colorado at home (probably a split at best) and then two in the Bay Area against two schools who should have all or their respective players available. That means the Bruins will be decided underdogs in both games. In short, lose to Oregon and UCLA is staring at 12-12 when the Oregon schools come to Pauley Pavilion in February. After Thursday night, the Oregon State game looks like a toss-up at best at Pauley simply because of the tactical advantage Oregon State clearly has with Wayne Tinkle as head coach.
Granted, UCLA lost on Thursday without Tony Parker in the line-up and unless someone can tell me that he’s on a plane to Eugene right now, the guess is that he’s not playing on Saturday, either.
This is not a good situation for the Bruins: on the road, where UCLA is clearly an inferior team; against a more athletic team, and missing one of the players who provides the Bruins with a major mismatch.
However, the Oregon game is a much better match-up for the Bruins, even if they are short-handed.
The foremost difference in this match-up compared to the OSU game is the coaching. When Oregon’s Dana Altman took the reins in Eugene he came with a reputation as a spot-on game tactician and a very good technical basketball coach. However, his time in Eugene has not been kind to him, or he hasn’t been kind to it. Not only has his program had some off-the-court issues, he’s garnered a reputation in his short time in Oregon as a great Xs and Os coach but very difficult to personally deal with. In many ways, he is very similar to former UCLA coach Ben Howland, but probably not nearly as nice.
Regardless, these off-court issues seem to be affecting Altman’s abilities to alter games. He simply isn’t to be feared as a game coach as he once was. While he still has the capability of having a game or two here or there where he is the positive difference in the outcomes, those games are becoming fewer and farther between. Certainly the Bruins will not enter the game with such a coaching disadvantage as was seen on Thursday in Corvallis.
Oregon also plays a style that is much more comfortable for the Bruins. Essentially we are going to witness a game between two fully green-lit teams. UCLA will not have to worry about the slowdown tactics of Oregon State, or the defensive intensity of the Beavers.
Oregon may have more talent that OSU, but as UCLA’s players have shown this season, it’s not about talent as much as it is that talent knowing its roles. Oregon has more than a few players who think they are the Northwest’s version of Chuck and Duck.
However, Oregon’s best player is going to be difficult to handle during the game.
Senior point guard Joseph Young (6’2” 180 lbs.) is one of the leading scorers in the Pac 12 Conference at 19.4 PPG, but he is also a high-volume shooter. He was 6 for 20 on Thursday in Oregon’s win over USC, and only 3 of 12 from behind the arc. His saving grace all season has been his ability at the free throw line, where he is hitting 92%. Because Young is ostensibly the team’s “point guard” he should almost, by default, be guarded by UCLA’s Norman Powell. As the primary evidence for why this would be a smart move, ask Gary Payton II of OSU how his second half was on Thursday from an offensive standpoint.
Quite frankly, part of Oregon’s problem is they really have no one on the roster that could be termed a “good” shooter. If there is one then it would have to be senior Jalil Abdul-Bassit (6’4” 197 lbs.). He is really the only true outside threat on the team. He shoots 43% from behind the arc, which is almost 10% better than anyone else on the squad. Young will certainly hit some shots, but that’s because he takes so many. It can be argued that if the Bruins rebound soundly that they can allow Young to shoot the Ducks out of the game. However, they can’t allow Abdul-Bassit open looks.
Remember that UCLA will probably be without Parker and will have a much harder time rendering the Ducks moot on the boards. If Parker plays, even in a diminished capacity, then UCLA will have an exponentially better chance of winning. Although Oregon rebounds well as a team, averaging over 40 RPG on the season, the Ducks simply don’t do well when faced with a more imposing front line.
That’s because Altman runs a bunch of wings and guards through his rotation. The only “big” that plays is freshman Jordan Bell (6’9” 215 lbs.), who is a very poor man’s version of UCLA’s Kevon Looney. Bell is averaging 7.2 RPG and has 66 blocks on the season. However, he is a complete afterthought on offense despite being one of the only Ducks to shoot better than 50% from the floor. He hasn’t faced anyone of Looney’s caliber yet.
Altman has used the same starting line-up the past few games, and that included Young, Bell, freshman Ahmaad Rorie (6’1” 175 lbs.), freshman Dillon Brooks (6’6” 225 lbs.) and junior Elgin Cook (6’6” 205 lbs.). The reality is he has many similar players, outside of Rorie, who he inserts in the line-up to let Young play more off the ball. The Ducks are a tough man-to-man match-up for the Bruins, however, because Oregon isn’t a great outside shooting team. Heck, they are on the poor side even when Abdul-Bassit’s percentages aren’t factored in, so it figures that the Bruins should find success when they play zone.
That brings me to the personnel change most people who watch the Bruins know should happen: Isaac Hamilton should come off the bench and Gyorgy Golomon should start. If the Bruins played zone with Golomon, Looney and Parker/Welsh on the floor then UCLA would have one of the longest teams Oregon has faced. It would also be a better rebounding team and a better defensive team.
Further, it would allow Hamilton to presumably come off the bench and look for his shot against some of Oregon’s bench players and, theoretically, add some scoring punch to UCLA’s offensively lightweight bench.
As mentioned previously, Oregon actually averages over 40 RPG. That is an inflated number, though, both because of some of Oregon’s own diet of cupcakes and the speed at which the Ducks like to play. In reality, over the course of the past five games, where the Ducks have gone 2-3, they had one good rebounding game, against USC, one game that was a push, against Wazzu, and were crushed on the boards in the other three -- Arizona, Arizona State and Washington. If the Bruins win the battle of the boards then they stand a good chance of winning.
That’s because Oregon is a turnover machine. UCLA would do well to sit in a zone and be patient as an Duck will inevitably pass the ball to a Bruin. That truly isn’t much of an overstatement. Oregon averages 13 turnovers per game; they just had 15 against the Trojans, and the turnover issue was how USC got back in the game. The problem is that UCLA is averaging about 12 turnovers per game itself. Don’t be surprised if this is going to be a sloppy game.
If Parker were playing it would be easy to predict a Bruin victory. Heck, if he had played on Thursday there is every reason to believe that UCLA would have pulled out that game, despite the shooting of the three guards. However, even without Parker, UCLA should be able to stay in this game simply because Oregon allows the kinds of selfish shots that UCLA takes to go relatively uncontested. Seriously, if UCLA does pull out this game, it could be because Oregon acted more like UCLA than the Bruins did.
Even without Parker, if Alford actually decides to use Golomon for large portions of the game, then the Bruins will have a much better chance of winning. But like UCLA is these days, I will believe it when I see it. The question is whether or not Alford sees it. There have been whispers that he knows if the season goes truly south (which will be hard to do in the Pac 12) then his job might very well be on the line. Will he make some changes if for no other reason than self-preservation? So far at UCLA he hasn’t shown he’s nimble in making mid-season personnel tweaks. This game is one of the good chances at a road victory for this year’s Bruins, so surely Alford must realize that.
The criticism publicly died down for Alford a bit after the sweep of the Bay Area schools at home and the destruction of USC. However, it will ramp right back up again if UCLA loses to Oregon because of the gauntlet of games UCLA has after the trip to Eugene (Or it might not, simply because it seems UCLA basketball fans have lost so much interest at this point). If the season does ultimately end up disastrous rather than just mediocre, well, for those of you that unabashedly state Alford will be back next season, you shouldn’t be quite so sure. And this game could very well be a big key in how this all plays out.
The potential absence or inclusion of Parker is, then, a very big key to this game. It may very well be the key to the season.
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