The Bruins host the Utah Runnin’ Utes on Thursday night (7 PM; ESPN2), the same Utah team that ran UCLA off the court less than one month ago.
Now, this could all be completely off-base, but in many ways the season could come down to Thursday night’s game against the Utes. If the Bruins win that game, then they will be just as likely to finish with 20 wins in the regular season. If not, we could see a further slide into futility. This game is truly that important.
It’s unfortunate that such an important game is perhaps the worst match-up UCLA could face in the conference, and why the game should be closer to what happened in Salt Lake City than in any win UCLA has garnered this season at home.
Utah is a team that personifies the adage: “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” The Utes are very good at every aspect of the game and have a roster that is filled with players who know their respective roles and perform them well. That is a testament to Head Coach Larry Krystkowiak and the foundational concepts he laid with the team since his first season.
The coaching match-up is really where to start when looking as to why this game is a bad match-up. Regardless of the reason why, UCLA’s Steve Alford has truly regressed as a coach this season (or perhaps we’re seeing his true coaching nature after an aberration last season). Thursday he and the Bruins are facing arguably the best strategist and tactician in the conference. First, Krystkowiak has instilled a defense-first mentality in his squad, one that has seen the team’s defense hold opponents to shooting less than 40% from the field and less than 35% from behind the arc. They hold down their defensive boards and limit their opponents’ rebounding opportunities because of their efficient and patient offense. Further, they create turnovers more because they force teams to utilize much of the shot clock and often their shots are of questionable quality.
Contrast this with UCLA’s lack of defensive prowess. We’re 20 games into the season and UCLA has yet to show that it can consistently play with great effort on defense from possession to possession. That is a recipe for disaster against a Utah offense that is among the nations most efficient, both at making shots and shot selection.
It can’t be overstated how this comes down to coaching. One coach, Krystkowiak, has laid down a foundation and identity based on defense, since his first days in Salt Lake City, much like the first three years of Ben Howland at UCLA, while the other, Alford, has not done that and the results speak for themselves.
Utah doesn’t have great athletes or even truly great basketball players, but because of the discipline showed by the Utes on the offensive end they often outplay and beat opponents who, on paper, should have a talent advantage. Occasionally the Utes will play a team that has superior talent and that opponent plays a relatively focused and disciplined game. The Utes were run off the floor in the second half in Tucson against Arizona because Arizona’s talent advantage was too much to overcome in that game. However, that was a bit of an anomaly and opponents would be wise not to think that is something that should happen again.
Certainly UCLA has some talent, and probably superior talent to Utah, but the Bruins’ talent has not even come close to reaching even a bit of its potential as a team.
Utah continues to be led by the one-two punch of senior point guard Delon Wright (6’5” 190 lbs.) (Pictured above) and junior forward Jordan Loveridge (6’6” 222 lbs.). Wright is the best point guard in the conference and one of the best in the nation. He has 115 assists to only 32 turnovers. About the only area where he struggles is outside shooting. However, he does everything else very well, from rebounding to playing defense, where his length and strength, not to mention his effort level make him a top-notch defender.
Contrast this with UCLA’s anemic backcourt of Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Norman Powell. Certainly Powell has the ability to at least give Wright a battle when defending him, but Coach Alford has shown a propensity for not assigning his players to defend the best match-ups. Against Oregon Alford allowed Hamilton to guard Joseph Young and the Duck senior was able to easily initiate offense. There is no reason to think that Alford will suddenly have an epiphany about putting his best defender on the opposition’s point guard. Expect Wright to have a very good game.
Loveridge is one of the best three-point shooters in the nation. He is at almost 50% from behind the arc. His range is going to force UCLA’s Kevon Looney to play tight defense away from the basket, thus taking the Bruin freshman away from the area where he can dominate -- on the glass. This coupled with Hamilton’s continued poor play is one of the reasons why many on BRO have advocated for Alford to bring Hamilton off the bench and go with Gyorgy Golomon. However, Coach Alford hasn’t shown the ability to adjust as his personnel and the effort of that personnel have dictated so to expect a change at this point of the season is probably not reasonable. Loveridge will hit his shots and still force Looney away from the bucket. That’s why Utah should win the rebounding battle.
In terms of knowing roles, Utah may be the team UCLA should try and emulate. True freshman post Jakob Poeltl (7’0” 235 lbs.) is a defensive and rebounding force, being a solid shot blocker while averaging almost 8 RPG. Junior guard Brandon Taylor (5’11” 167 lbs.) is a threat to light things up from distance every game and has the ability to allow Wright to play offense off the ball from time to time. Junior wing Dakarai Tucker (6’5” 196 lbs.) and freshman forward Brekkott Chapman (6’8 200 lbs.) have been forces off the bench, with Tucker leading the team in scoring this past weekend against Washington.
Again, it’s because the Utah players know their roles and how to exploit their opponents.
Which again hits on the coaching issue. Krystkowiak consistently designs a game plan that takes away an opponent’s best offensive options and forces that team to use less reliable players to score and dictate offense. Conversely, Coach Alford appears these days to almost be rolling the ball out and telling his charges to “have at it.”
Utah’s defense will probably be focused on two things. First, the Utes will look to force Bryce Alford into bad decisions, which really shouldn’t take much. Wright will more than likely be assigned to harass the Bruin sophomore. The second focus will be on not allowing Looney, who will have the most pure ability of any player in the game, from becoming a force and having a big game. Looney and Tony Parker are really the only potential match-up advantages that UCLA might have in this game and Parker, if he plays, will be coming off missing the past two games because of back spasms. Further, he’ll be facing Poeltl, who is one of the few players in the conference who can slow or stop Parker. That’s why stopping Looney will be paramount to Krystkowiak.
For their part, the Bruins will probably help the Utah game plan by not getting the post players consistently involved in the offense, and this will play right into Utah’s hands. Remember that UCLA only scored 39 points in Salt Lake City and nothing has changed in the past several weeks to make anyone think that the Bruins can even put up 60 on the Utes.
About the only hope the Bruins have going for them is the fact that the game is at Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins have proved to be a much better and even more disciplined team at home than on the road. Utah, though, doesn’t seem to see its play suffer any real drop-off on the road. But if there is a part of the game that could propel the Bruins to an upset then it is the homecourt factor.
UCLA’s chance here, as it is with so many games, is if the Bruins get hot in their bad shot selection, and that does tend to happen more in Pauley Pavilion than outside of it.
Besides the fact the game is in Pauley, though, the Bruins lose every match-up analysis against the Utes. Utah has the better offense, the better defense and the better coach. Further, the Ute players are simply playing better so the Utes probably have the better roster as well.
The Bruin players have shown some resiliency so far this season – you have to give them credit for that. While there is a collapse structurally in terms of coaching, leadership and tactics, the individual players haven’t yet shown too many signs of throwing in the towel mentally. There have been some hints of it in some of UCLA’s bad losses but nothing too extreme. We do think, though, if the season goes the way we think it could, that it’s just a matter of time before there is a breaking point and the players finally cave to the fact that the season is trending heavily downward.
The game Thursday, if UCLA loses, could be a substantial move in the direction of a spiral. If the Bruins lose to the Utes, we’re not going to wait until the Colorado preview and say right now that UCLA will lose to the Buffaloes Saturday. If that happens we think there’s a good chance UCLA’s gradual deflation manifests on the road in the Bay Area, and the next week at home against the Oregon schools. UCLA might not lose all of those games, but it definitely could. If this weekend against Utah and Colorado doesn’t go well we could see the Bruins losing some remaining games it should win, and potentially put together another losing streak. That could set up an even more disheartened Bruins team for perhaps one of the worst weekends in recent UCLA basketball history, when it goes to the Arizona desert and, after playing ASU that Wednesday, potentially suffers a Kentucky-like loss in Tucson that Saturday.
UCLA hasn’t done well on national television this season, but this game against Utah is the one game that Bruin fans should watch since it’s such a huge key to the season. If the Bruins win then you could easily see the opposite of my doomsday scenario happening. The Bruins could rally for the rest of the season and at least finish in a respectable way.
Utah then is kind of what you would call a precipice game. UCLA, with a win, could back away from it, but with a loss, well…
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