I am sincerely happy when the UCLA men’s basketball team can make my predictions look, well, uneducated…at least when they prove me wrong and win. The Bruins did just that on Thursday night with a convincing, as in never really threatened, win over #11 Utah at Pauley Pavilion. I wrote in the Utah preview that another hefty loss at the hands of the Utes could actually cause the spiral that many Bruin fans were simply waiting to happen.
Okay, stupid is as stupid does…and I am happy that it is so.
The Bruins will now look to consolidate the Thursday victory when they host a short-handed Colorado squad at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday (7:30 PM; Pac 12 Network). Colorado is also coming off a victory, having defeated USC on Thursday night…in 3 overtimes. Let that sink in -- three overtimes. Forget the outcome. Colorado had to play a 55-minute game. It was basically a game and a half. There may be no larger factor in the outcome of Saturday’s game than Colorado’s probably tired legs. However, there are other factors to consider.
The Utah preview pointed out the vast difference in coaching between Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak and UCLA’s Steve Alford and. even thought the Bruins won, that was more a testament to the effort of the players than anything else. As Tracy Pierson wrote in his Utah game review, there was little change in UCLA’s strategic vision or foundation for the game. The only real tactical adjustment was the placement of Kevon Looney at the top of the zone. Krystkowiak is the better coach, although in Alford’s defense, the Utah head coach is probably better than anyone else in the Pac 12 and most others in the nation.
Alford will now be facing Colorado’s Tad Boyle, and there are those out there that believe that Boyle is a very good coach. I for one think he has an excellent eye for talent, but that he is average at best as a tactical game coach. It really doesn’t matter who is correct, though, because Alford won’t be facing the kind of acumen deficit he would when facing Krystkowiak or Oregon State’s Wayne Tinkle.
Colorado’s leading scorer is senior gunner, Askia Booker (6’2” 175 lbs.), but Colorado’s best player is junior post Josh Scott (6’10” 245 lbs). Scott is still suffering from the back injury that sidelined him when these two teams met in Boulder at the beginning of the month and didn’t even make the trip to Los Angeles. That alone should tip things heavily in favor of the Bruins.
Describing Booker as a gunner is not meant to be a compliment. There have been a few games in his career in which he shoots like he did on Thursday night against Southern Cal when he scored 43 points on 13-23 shooting from the floor, 4-10 from behind the arc and 13-15 from the free throw line. Only his free throw shooting was not an aberration. Typically Booker shoots 42% from the field and less than 40% from behind the arc, although that number has steadily gotten better as his senior year has progressed. Booker will be the key player for Colorado on Saturday simply because he really is the only bonafide scorer that could realistically put up 20-plus points on the Bruins. However, two things that happened on Thursday should limit Booker’s effectiveness. First, Coach Alford shocked some people, including yours truly, by having Norman Powell guard Utah’s Delon Wright. With Powell disrupting Utah at the point of attack, the Utes suffered from a lack of execution. True, the Utes were uninspired, but Powell really outplayed Wright. While Booker isn’t Wright, the guess (hope???) is that Alford will allow Powell to have a go at Booker. Second, Booker played 51 of the available 55 minutes on Thursday night. The triple-overtime game could be the gift that keeps on giving for the Bruins on Saturday. Expect Booker’s shots to start coming up short as his legs run out gas during the game.
The funny thing about Thursday’s game is that only two other Buffs played more than 40 minutes. Junior guard Xavier Talton (6’2” 185 lbs.) played 42 minutes, which is significant. Talton is Booker’s primary back-up as point guard. Talton’s minutes were probably just as taxing as Booker’s 51 because Talton is the team’s best perimeter defender and he was chasing USC’s Jordan McLaughlin all night. He’ll be pretty gassed, too, by the second half on Saturday, we suspect.
Freshman guard Dominique Collier (6’2” 170 lbs.) played 40 minutes. By the way, Collier is the only other point guard on the roster besides Booker and Talton.
Quite frankly, UCLA should be able to defensively handle Colorado’s point guard, whoever that might be, based on Powell being the primary defender and the tired legs the Buff point guards should be carrying into the game.
Junior forward Xavier Johnson (6’7” 230 lbs.) (Pictured above) had a strong game, scoring 12 big points and pulling down 5 boards. Interestingly, Johnson is now coming off the bench, with Boyle acknowledging that injuries have basically caused his bench to be toothless when it comes to scoring. Boyle moved him to the bench to ensure he came into the game fresh against the opponent’s second unit and provide some scoring…sort of like certain BROs have been advocating Alford do with Isaac Hamilton and Gyorgy Golomon. However, Johnson also played 36 minutes and is bound to be a bit tired, although not like the guards.
Sophomore forward Wesley Gordon (6’9” 240 lbs.) had been the only solid post with Scott’s injury, and he continues to play consistent, physical defense and add some scoring. But the revelation of Thursday night was true freshman Tory Miller (6’9” 255 lbs.). Miller “only” played 29 minutes, but he had 11 points and 13 boards. Granted, USC doesn’t have a great front line, but Gordon only managed 8 and 7. Perhaps USC was keying on Gordon because of Scott’s absence, but whatever the reason, it is probably a relief to Boyle to know that Miller is capable of that kind of game. He and Gordon will battle Looney, Tony Parker, Golomon and Thomas Welsh, and as well as Miller played against USC, the Bruins have a decided edge in the frontcourt. They simply have to exploit that advantage.
Colorado is a pretty good three-point shooting team on the season, at 38%, but they were a bit below that on Thursday, at 36%. It should be expected that the Buffs will struggle with longer shots sooner because of the inevitable fatigue they should suffer as a result of Thursday’s marathon. It should also affect their rebounding and their ability to be bouncy on defense. In fact, don’t be surprised if Colorado is a step slow throughout.
Now that the Bruins have upset Utah, there are some positive things the Bruins can aspire to, namely a healthy winning streak. If UCLA plays just as they did on Thursday and no better, in its next 5 games, the Bruins could realistically win all 5, putting them at 17-9 and in contention for (dare I write it?) an NCAA berth. However, slowing down and looking at things realistically, the Bruins really just need to focus on Saturday night. If the Bruins lose to the Buffs then all the predictions of doom and gloom will be right in the forefront again.
The Bruins have some significant advantages in this game. The first and biggest is that they should be much fresher than the Buffs. That advantage right there may be enough for the Bruins to claim a victory.
The second advantage is Norman Powell. Powell is better, stronger and more athletic than anyone in Colorado’s backcourt. Powell could dominate this game simply on the defensive end, but if he plays solid defense and has the kind of offensive game he had against Utah, then the Bruins should win comfortably.
The final advantage is in the frontcourt where Looney and Parker, backed-up by Golomon and Welsh, should be much better than Gordon and Miller and whomever else Boyle uses in the frontcourt rotation.
The one caveat is that Johnson is a bit of a wild card for the Buffs. He has the potential for a big game because UCLA really has no one on the roster who can naturally guard him in terms of size and athleticism. However, Johnson isn’t typically a player who is going to go off for 30 points.
By Saturday at about 9:00 p.m., BROs should be discussing how to keep the winning streak alive when the Bruins hit the road for the Bay Area next weekend.
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