Well, folks, this is about as simple as things get: Win and they’re in; lose and it’s NIT-bound.
The UCLA men’s basketball team did what it needed to do on Thursday night, crushing USC 96-70 in a game that wasn’t that close, setting up a game on Friday in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament against the top-seeded Arizona Wildcats (6 PM; Pac 12 Network).
This game as well as this preview may come down to whether or not UCLA freshman forward Kevon Looney plays. Looney suffered a blow on his cheek as the result of an elbow in Thursday’s game. He was taken to the hospital for a precautionary CT scan during the game and nothing has been heard since. It is very safe to say that if Looney can’t play then the UCLA athletic administration needs to prepare Pauley Pavilion to host a game in the NIT.
Many posters on BRO have written in the twelve or so hours since the end of the USC game how Arizona is a national title contender, with some even going so far as to call the Wildcats well-coached. Both ideas are partially true. The Wildcats are national title contenders, but they can also suffer serious, game-long lapses in concentration. Witness the loss to a bad UNLV team. Further, while Arizona head coach Sean Miller is considered a very good teacher of defense, and the Wildcats have the capability of being a dominant defensive squad, he is, quite frankly, a below average offensive coach and that mediocrity has probably cost Arizona in past postseason games. In short, Arizona can be very, very good in the current college basketball landscape, but the Wildcats are by no means unbeatable. It may be a long shot, but the Bruins do have a legitimate shot to win the game, but again, only if Looney plays.
For UCLA to win the game, a few things have to happen. First, the Wildcats have to have an off shooting night. In particular, junior shooting guard Gabe York (6’3” 185 lbs.) will have to be off. If he is, Arizona’s offense tends to really bog down even against poorer defensive opponents. If York is off then it will be because of something he’s not doing rather than something UCLA is throwing at him. Chances are Isaac Hamilton will be guarding him and while Hamilton has shown defensive effort in some games, he has more often than not been a matador with his perimeter defense.
It would be great if UCLA’s Bryce Alford could take Arizona senior point guard T.J. McConnell (6’1” 195 lbs.) out of his comfort zone, but after watching Alford against USC, chances are very high that won’t happen. Alford actually had a nice offensive game, recognizing the match-up advantages that UCLA had and that Hamilton was white-hot from the floor. Alford only took 6 shots on the game, which is very out of character for him. However, Alford was especially bad on the defensive end and it was only USC’s lack of talent and fatigue that didn’t make that more of an issue. Many don’t realize, but 50% of basketball is defense and Bryce Alford has proven in almost two seasons that he isn’t very good at it.
The past month has shown that Arizona’s leading scorer, freshman Stanley Johnson (6’7” 245 lbs.), is not necessary for Arizona to win games. Miller has shown little hesitation to bench Johnson for bad effort or bad shot selection. Also, UCLA’s Norman Powell was able to handle Johnson in the game earlier this season in Tucson and UCLA still lost. Assuming the match-up remains the same, even when junior Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (6’7” 220 lbs.) is in the game instead of York, the key match-ups will be against McConnell and whomever is on York or Hollis-Jefferson.
Quite frankly, UCLA did enough in the game in Tucson at the start of the second half to win. Unfortunately for the Bruins, their offense was very bad for the remainder of the game. Some of that was because of Arizona’s defense, but much of it was because of UCLA’s poor decision-making when the game was tight. The Bruins will have to make solid offensive decisions much of the game in order for them to have any shot at the upset.
To that end, UCLA coach Steve Alford has to find a way to keep post Tony Parker motivated as well as get him open for easier looks than he had against Arizona in Tucson. Give Miller credit – he had a game plan that recognized UCLA would be much easier to beat if the Wildcats took away either Parker or Looney because the frontcourt is the one area where UCLA has a possible match-up advantage. He threw two-post double teams at Parker, and even a third player when warranted, and Parker didn’t handle it well. If Parker has a solid offensive game then that would help the offense a great deal.
Hamilton may be an X factor and it may be really good or really bad. Hamilton’s 36-point outing against USC was great to see, but considering the kind of mentality Hamilton brings to the floor, it will cause one of two things to happen on Friday. On the good side, Hamilton could continue to light it up from all angles. He is clearly comfortable shooting in the Las Vegas venue. If that happens then UCLA will be difficult to defend because that will open lanes for Powell to get to the basket, which Arizona was able to take away for the most part in the game in Tucson. It will also allow Bryce Alford to get open looks with his feet set, which he has shown he can bury with consistency.
However, because of Hamilton’s approach to the game, he may feel as if the basket is the size of the ocean and he’ll keep shooting even when the ball is not going in. At that point his shot selection will become akin to a turnover. Bruin fans should be very nervous about this happening.
Finally, UCLA has to show some composure. Yes, effort and intensity for the 40 minutes of the game are a must, but the Bruins have to be composed and not fall behind by 14 points at the half as they did in Tucson. That is simply too much to overcome against a good defensive team. Further, much like last year, this is going to be a virtual home game for the Wildcats with the fan support they will bring. Lastly, the guess is that Miller and the Wildcats would like nothing more than to knock UCLA out of the running for an NCAA Tournament bid. Composure is necessary to deal with all of these emotions and the inevitable ebb and flow of a game.
If Looney doesn’t play then UCLA has no chance. However, if he does play and is effective (and depending of the type of injury and the severity of the injury, that will be up in the air), then UCLA does have a chance.
The comparisons between Steve Alford and former Bruin head coach Steve Lavin have grown louder in the past several weeks. This is a game that Lavin would have won as coach, and there may be something to the idea that Alford can pull a similar rabbit out of his hat. The probability is that it won’t happen, but, depending on Looney’s status, this game could be much closer than people predict.
This prediction is based on Looney playing, and being relatively close to his normal self.
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