The UCLA men’s basketball team looks to complete the home sweep of the Oregon schools when the Ducks visit Pauley Pavilion on Saturday (Noon; Fox).
As the Oregon State game was before this one, Oregon represents a must-win for the Bruins if UCLA has any realistic hope of making the NCAA Tournament. Beating the Ducks would carry even more weight than did beating OSU because the Ducks are also currently a “bubble” team for the Big Dance and their RPI is currently 20 spots higher than Oregon State’s. In short, this game is huge for both teams.
There are a few factors that point to this game being very different than the embarrassing loss UCLA suffered last month in Eugene.
Oregon is, in a word, interesting. They are fairly athletic as a group and are coached by one of the best game tacticians around in Dana Altman. However, the players generally don’t like Altman and those that choose to go to Eugene are doing so because of other amenities and almost in spite of him. They tend not to be a fundamentally sound group but they have the ability to suddenly shoot opponents quickly off the floor, as they did to the Bruins.
However, that game In January was in Eugene, and Oregon definitely was feeling the home-court advantage. Several Ducks had career games that afternoon, like junior forward Dwayne Benjamin (6’7” 210 lbs.). He was 6-6 from the field, including 3-3 from behind the three-point line; He has been shooting under 43% for the year and 34% from behind the arc. Freshman guard Ahmaad Rorie (6’1” 175 lbs.) is shooting at barely 40% from the field and was in a tremendous slump heading into the UCLA game, and he hit all of his shots that game. In fact, the Ducks had an almost record-setting day on Matt Court. They shot 62% for the game from the floor and 69% from behind the arc. Teams that go through shooting drills with no defense rarely shoot that well.
Oregon is not a great team. The fact that the Ducks shot so well says more about the pitiful defense played by the Bruins than about Oregon’s offensive capability. UCLA played one of its three worst games of the season that Saturday in Eugene, while Oregon played one of its better games in the past two years. Chances are that the culmination of poor UCLA defense and unbelievable shooting by the Ducks will not converge for the Ducks on Saturday on the road in Pauley.
The Ducks are interesting because they have a fairly decent at-large resume. Like most of their Pac-12 brethren, the Ducks are almost unbeatable at home, losing only to Mississippi and getting trounced by Arizona. Oregon, though, is generally better on the road than the rest of the conference outside of Arizona and Utah. While Oregon was hammered again by the Wildcats two weeks ago in Tucson, the Ducks did leave the desert with an overtime win over Arizona State. The Ducks also own a non-conference win over Illinois in Chicago. On the other hand, the Ducks have also been swept by the Washington schools, which is what is dropping their RPI below the Bruins.
This season Oregon has relied on its offense to be its best weapon. The Ducks generally don’t have the best defense and they have tried to compensate by running as much as possible. The Bruins did shoot poorly in Eugene at 41% for the game, but the Ducks are allowing their Pac 12 opponents to shoot 46% from the floor. Oregon is also allowing the opposition to shoot 34% from the three-point line. The Ducks are turning the ball over as much as their opponents and the Pac 12 opposition is consistently outrebounding the Ducks.
The key for the Ducks will be shooting. If they are on, they will be in the game. If they aren’t then the Ducks will lose.
When these teams met in January, there were three factors that worked very much against the Bruins. The first was the absence of Tony Parker. After Thursday night’s performance against Oregon State, it’s probably time to argue that Parker may be the best low-post player in the Pac-12. Parker was sorely missed in Eugene and assuming his back is fine, the Ducks really don’t have someone to match up with him. Freshman Jordan Bell (6’9” 215 lbs.) is the tallest Duck who plays regular minutes, but he is now coming off the bench because of a discipline issue. He should play, and probably even start, and while he pulled down 7 boards against the Bruins the last time these teams faced off, Parker wasn’t in the line-up. When Bell began coming off the bench, Benjamin replaced him in the starting line-up.
Junior Elgin Cook (6’6” 205 lbs.) is the other “post” player that Altman consistently starts. While he is the second-leading rebounder on the team he only had 2 in the game in Eugene because he was dealing with UCLA’s Kevon Looney.
Offensively, though, everything for the Ducks runs through senior guard Joseph Young (6’2” 180 lbs.). He leads the team in scoring at just under 20 PPG, has almost twice as many assists as the next person on the team and even rebounds well. Granted, he can shoot his team out of games, but it’s not as if he’s Colorado’s Askia Booker. Young will generally get his. More importantly, he is good at recognizing when to get his teammates involved and when he needs to take over. He did just that on Thursday against USC, almost single-handedly propelling the Ducks to a victory in which his teammates were generally pretty bad.
For some inexplicable reason, UCLA coach Steve Alford has many times not put Norman Powell on the opposition’s best perimeter player. That can’t happen on Saturday. In fact, it is highly probably that if Powell doesn’t guard Young for the majority of the game the Bruins will lose.
The second reason for the blowout in Eugene was the abysmal play of UCLA’s backcourt, but really of Isaac Hamilton. The Bruin sophomore had a weekend to forget, scoring a total of 2 points in the two games and looking horrible defensively. It was that two-game set that led much of BRO, including Tracy Pierson and myself, to openly suggest that Hamilton should come off the bench in favor of Gyorgy Golomon or Noah Allen.
Things have changed for the Bruins, and changed for the better.
Hamilton has been playing more within himself on offense and thus looks much looser than he did for much of January. His defensive effort has been better and it has appeared to energize his teammates. If the Bruins get the Hamilton of the past two weeks then that will go a long way to a Bruin victory.
The third reason is that the game in Oregon represented, yet again, the AAU-style, green-light motion offense that has cratered the UCLA program at times this season. It was as bad a performance as the Bruins have had this season, and that’s saying something considering the Kentucky and first Utah games. Still, it is something that hasn’t reared its head, at least not like that, since that Saturday in Eugene. If UCLA can replicate its decision-making from this past Thursday then UCLA should be just fine.
This should be the toughest game UCLA has left at Pauley Pavilion. The Ducks have had a tendency this season to play the second game of the weekend much better than they played the first. Part of that could be that they’ve been facing the tougher of that week’s two opponents first, but outside of the two losses in Washington, the Ducks have generally played better in the weekend game.
UCLA also doesn’t play well on national TV, at least not this season, and the game will be on Fox…not Fox Sports 1 or a local Fox affiliate as the national game. Remember, the first game at Oregon was a nationally televised broadcast on CBS. Whether that really means anything or not is arguable; It might be it heightens the pressure on the Bruins, just enough to knock them a little off their game.
The crowd may also be a factor. Without getting into the discussion once again, if people want to know why UCLA coach Steve Alford may be on the hot seat, one only need to look at the more than half-empty Pauley Pavilion on Thursday night for the Oregon State game. The most concerning part was the lack of attendance in the student section. If the fans show on Saturday, especially the students, and give UCLA at least some modicum of a homecourt sway, then it may tip the balance in what could be a close game.
UCLA also tends to shoot much better in Pauley than on the road, which has been the case with most teams in college basketball this season. It’s one of the reasons that the product is getting harder and harder to watch for real fans/students of the game. Regardless, UCLA should figure on at least a decent uptick in its shooting percentage from the game in Eugene. That should be good for at least 10 points.
However, the biggest factor should be Parker. He has truly become that big of a difference-maker for the Bruins. Of course, that means the guards have to get him the ball, and if UCLA regresses back to the poor shot selection from earlier this season, then all bets are off. But, if the guards recognize that UCLA has a massive advantage in the frontcourt and get the bigs consistent touches, then UCLA should win. Oregon simply doesn’t have the bodies to match-up with Parker, Looney and Thomas Welsh.
This will be a close game. In fact, it could be in doubt when the clock goes into the final minute. The game is huge for both teams and UCLA is probably going to get Oregon’s top effort. A win for Oregon would probably put them on the right side of the NCAA bubble, while knocking the Bruins out of at-large contention short of a victory at Arizona. A UCLA win would help UCLA’s Tournament resume, including probably getting the Bruins into the RPI Top 40 for the first time this season. It would also set up a huge game in the desert next week with Arizona State.
This game could go either way, especially if Altman outcoaches Alford as he is fully capable of doing. However, for UCLA to win it won’t take a genius on the sideline. Alford needs to get everyone focused on getting the ball to Parker and Looney and playing with some effort on defense.
Do that and UCLA will survive and advance.
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