PG Aaron Holiday (Photo by Steve Cheng)

UCLA vs. Gonzaga Preview

Dec. 11 -- UCLA has a real opportunity to take another major step forward on Saturday against a suddenly vulnerable Gonzaga team...

Roughly one week ago, the UCLA men’s basketball team was staring at yet another loss to an elite program, a loss that would have left the Bruins with a .500 record and dwindling opportunities to offset the season-opening loss to mid-major Monmouth. However, the Bruins changed the narrative with a wire-to-wire win over then-#1 Kentucky on national television. Couple that with Sunday’s win over a decent Long Beach State squad, and now the 6-3 Bruins have put themselves in a position where holding serve against the remaining mid-majors on the schedule should put the Bruins reasonably in the discussion for an NCAA bid, assuming UCLA has a solid conference season. Looking at their resume now, the Bruins have wins over UNLV (which has only lost to UCLA and Wichita State) and one-loss Kentucky, which is more than enough to offset a loss to Monmouth, especially given that Monmouth has turned out to be fairly decent.

Now head coach Steve Alford’s Bruins have an opportunity to basically solidify the aforementioned NCAA bid and, in fact, change the narrative again, to one where the discussion surrounding the Bruins is one about seeding for the Big Dance and not whether they will receive an invite.

That opportunity has arisen because UCLA still has two games remaining on its non-conference schedule against arguably elite teams where the Bruins will be in win-win situations. The first of those games is Saturday when the Bruins travel to Spokane to take on a suddenly reeling Gonzaga (7 PM PST, ESPN2).

In many ways Coach Mark Few’s Zags have been the class of West Coast college basketball for the past few years. While this year was supposed to be a bit of a step back for Gonzaga, no one envisioned the issues that are currently plaguing the squad. Even though Gonzaga is 6-2, the team hasn’t looked very convincing in its wins, culminating in the squeaker over Montana on Tuesday. The same issues that have hurt them this year have just become more acute in the team’s two losses. The issues truly revolve around the play of the backcourt.

The frontcourt, which was (and is) supposed to be the strength of the team took a major hit when senior starting center Przemek Karnowski (7’1” 287 lbs.) suffered back spasms and then a subsequent back injury that has left him sidelined the past 10 days. His loss is huge for the Zags for a couple reasons. First, he is a very good defender who clogs up space, rebounds well and is very nasty as a player. Second, his loss means the Zags have no reliable depth past senior Kyle Wiltjer (6’10” 240 lbs.) and sophomore Demantas Sabonis (6’11” 240 lbs.). While those two are good enough to be in the conversation for best frontcourts in the country, they’ve been logging some serious minutes the past several games and it showed at the end of the Arizona and Montana games. Wiltjer in particular looked as if his legs had no lift at the end of both games. Having Karnowski would alleviate those issues, but, from all indications so far, it appears that Karnowski will not play. The back injury is not a simple muscle injury, pinched nerve or simple disc issue. One of his discs has slipped, but it is pressing directly on a key nerve in the back. Treatment has included trying to get the disc to move and working the muscles around the inflammation, but nothing has seemingly worked. Even if he suddenly found relief, he is one bad turn, off-balance landing or fall away from reinjuring the back in exactly the same way. There are whispers that are now growing that the Gonzaga big man will need surgery to correct the issue.

The Zag frontcourt is arguably the most formidable that UCLA will face this season…if Wiltjer and Sabonis are on the court. As soon as one of them goes to the bench, UCLA will have a distinct advantage in the post.

Wiltjer is arguably the most polished/best player in men’s college basketball right now. He averages 20.6 PPG, 7.4 RPG, shoots almost 50% from the floor despite being a face-up four, shoots almost 40% from behind the arc and is a threat to block a shot on every possession. He has the quickness to drive by bigger players and the size to power around smaller ones. He is a match-up nightmare. However, the Bruins conceivably have a player inJonah Bolden who could make life a little more difficult than normal for Wiltjer. The problem is that Bolden’s raw defense and lack of experience will probably be exploited by the talented senior. Tony Parker will have major quickness issues trying to guard Wiltjer and Thomas Welsh isn’t an option.

Sabonis is one of the hardest-working big men in the country. He averages 14.4 PPG and 10.4 RPG. He shoots over 63% from the field, but what makes Sabonis special is his motor. He has relentless drive on every possession. He’s the kind of player you point to as an example of great effort. The thing with Sabonis is that his game still isn’t polished on either end of the floor. He may not be stronger than either Welsh or Parker, but his constant high level of effort makes it seem so. He simply outworked the entire UCLA front line in both of last season’s losses to the Zags. The easiest way to combat Sabonis is to get him off the block, but that is much easier said than done.

Even though both Wiltjer and Sabonis have been playing roughly 35+ MPG since Karnowski’s injury, they do need a rest and this is where the Zags suffer a huge drop-off. The only size left on the roster is sophomore Ryan Edwards (7’1” 290 lbs.) and the best thing about him is his size makes him look like Karnowski. He certainly doesn’t play like him. If Edwards, who is averaging a bit more than 5 MPG, has to play more minutes, Gonzaga could be in real trouble.

The clear strength of this team is the frontcourt, even with Karnowski’s injury but the real issue for this team has been the lackluster play of the guards. In a real worrying sign, guar play for the Zags has been getting worse rather than better.

Gonzaga starts redshirt frosh point guard Josh Perkins (6’3” 185 lbs.) and after starting the season fairly well, he has really struggled as of late. He hit the late game winner against Montana but until then was very poor. His poor play arguably cost the Zags in the losses to Texas A&M and Arizona. His shooting was off and his confidence was and is clearly shaken. He is playing right now like someone who is thinking too much and his decision-making is suffering because of it. He is shooting 37% from beyond the arc, but his numbers are slipping and he now has more turnovers than assists on the season. Perkins struggled against Arizona even though the Wildcats don’t have a lockdown defender in the backcourt. UCLA’s Aaron Holiday may not be a lockdown defender (yet) but if the player who shut down Tyler Ulis shows up for this game then Perkins may be in for a long night. It should be fun watching these two young men compete for 40 minutes.

The rest of the backcourt has clearly underperformed. While it would be difficult for any program to replace the experience and talent of the since departed Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell and Byron Wesley, no one in Spokane foresaw this kind of drop-off.

Senior Eric McClellan (6’4” 196 lbs.) is suffering from many of the same issues as Perkins, chiefly lack of confidence. His shooting hasn’t forced teams to respect his outside shot and as a result things are harder to come by for teammates such as Wiltjer. Like Perkins, McClellan has more turnovers than assists on the season.

The final starter is senior Kyle Dranginis (6’5” 203 lbs.), who is at least getting teammates involved and taking care of the ball. His 31 assists on the year leads the team and he only has 11 turnovers. The problem for him is that the rest of his game has been horrid. His shooting is close to 35% overall and 30% from distance. His lack of athleticism has been highlighted more and more as teams learn they can attack him.

However, the biggest sign that something is amiss is that these three backcourt starters have been dreadful from the charity stripe. They are a collective 48% from the free throw line with Perkins and McClellan barely above 50% and Dranginis at 30%.

Like the frontcourt, an ongoing issue for Few has been the lack of depth at the guard spots. Only sophomore Silas Melson (6’4” 186 lbs.) gets any real play, and it’s clear that he is struggling as well, being 37% overall from the floor and 26% from behind the arc. At least Melson is dependable from the free throw line, hitting 78%.

So, with all the depth issues and confidence woes, how is Gonzaga still a formidable opponent? Because the Zags still play top-notch defense. The Zags are holding the opposition to 36% shooting overall and 24% from behind the arc. The Zags have outrebounded everyone. But upon closer inspection there are issues. First, Gonzaga commits far more turnovers than it causes. Those kinds of numbers tend to even things out in a given contest — just ask Monmouth. Second, Gonzaga’s defense can really be measured by halves rather than whole games. In their two losses, the Zags allowed A&M and Arizona to have at least one half where those teams shot 50% or better from the floor. Keep in mind as well that Karnowski is a huge part of Gonzaga’s defensive prowess and his absence will only hurt the Zags.

What should be more alarming for Few is that since Karnowski’s injury, the Zags are struggling to win even when holding an opponent under 40% shooting from the field.

So, UCLA is heading into its first true road game against a team with little depth and some diminished confidence. The stars have lined up for UCLA to come out of Spokane with another marquee victory, except this one is on the road.

The question remains how UCLA will handle the keys to the game.

The most obvious key is UCLA’s overall effort. If the Bruins play like it’s the Kentucky game all over again then they will win because that effort will match the effort of the Zags and UCLA has more offensive weapons right now than Gonzaga.

Another key will be Coach Alford’s game plan. Quite frankly, Gonzaga is a much worse match-up for UCLA than Kentucky was because of Gonzaga’s outside shooting. However, the Zags are seriously lacking confidence right now outside of Sabonis and Wiltjer, and those two players looked worn down in the 2nd half of the Arizona and Montana games. If ever there was a time to play a packed-in man-to-man defense against Gonzaga, which is what UCLA used to great success against Kentucky, this is the time.

Of course, the confidence question should be asked of the Bruins as well. Bryce Alford and Holiday are seemingly immune to confidence issues right now, but Isaac Hamilton is well known for having confidence issues and Prince Ali is coming off a horrible game against Long Beach State.

Even though the Zags lack confidence right now, you can bet that they will come out with high intensity and energy at the tip. How UCLA responds to the opening 4-8 minutes will be critical. If the Bruins simply allow Gonzaga to gain confidence and energy from the crowd then the competitive portion of the contest will go south quickly. However, if the Bruins fight through that initial buzz, then Gonzaga’s players will almost certainly begin to question themselves and the Bruins could find themselves the team on the rise come halftime.

The last key will be UCLA’s guards being patient and smart on offense. For all the talk about Gonzaga’s frontcourt, UCLA’s big men will be the best low post presence the Zags have had to face yet this year. If UCLA can focus on getting touches for Parker and Welsh then there is every reason to believe that they will give Wiltjer and Sabonis their toughest defensive test to date. Remember, if either of the two Gonzaga forwards gets into any sort of foul trouble, the Zags will be in real trouble.

There are quite a few factors that are pointing to UCLA’s advantage right now. However, the game is on the road and Alford teams have not traditionally won on the road and certainly not against elite or close to elite competition. However, if ever the stars were aligning for Alford’s program to finally take that step, they are this weekend.

I am hedging, though, against a UCLA victory. It’s a real “I won’t believe they can do it until they do it” sort of thing. It absolutely wouldn’t be a shock if UCLA won, and this game will be closer than it would have been had Karnowski played, but, ultimately, I don’t believe the Bruins will quite get over the hump on Saturday.

Gonzaga 75

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