C Thomas Welsh (USA Today)

UCLA vs. Oregon State Preview

Jan. 20 -- UCLA will look to preserve its fading hopes of an at-large NCAA Tournament bid starting tonight against Oregon State...

The UCLA men’s basketball team travels to Oregon this week knowing that it needs at least a split of the two games in order to maintain realistic hope of an NCAA Tournament bid The Bruins begin the road trip on Wednesday night in Corvallis against a well-coached Oregon State squad (8 PM PST, ESPNU). The key for the Bruins will be playing with the effort and intensity the Bruins showed in the home sweep of the Arizona schools 10 days ago and not with the lethargy and lack of urgency the Bruins showed in getting thoroughly beaten by USC last Wednesday. While a sweep would do wonders for both UCLA’s confidence and postseason prospects, the reality is that the Bruins must avoid being swept themselves. That’ll be a tall order for a program that has had real difficulty winning on the road in the Pac 12 during head Coach Steve Alford’s tenure.

Since Head Coach Wayne Tinkle took over the moribund Beaver program, OSU has become known for giving great effort game-in and game-out, being focused and being well coached. Tinkle is arguably the best Pac 12 coach when it comes to game planning for an opponent and is very good at making in-game adjustments. He is still trying to get OSU’s talent level to a point where it can compete game after game in the conference and he is making strides.

The Beavers boast three players who could play for any team in the conference. They are senior guard Gary Payton II (6’3” 190 lbs.) and freshmen Stephen Thompson Jr. (6’4” 170 lbs.) and Tres Tinkle (6’8” 220 lbs.). They are the three leading scorers on the squad, with Payton averaging 17.3 PPG, Tinkle 11.7 PPG and Thompson 9.7 PPG. The three account for more than 50% of Oregon State’s total point output per game. However, while each one of them is talented, each also has a weakness that the Bruins could exploit.

Payton is clearly in the discussion for Pac 12 Conference Player of the Year this season. He not only leads the team in scoring but also in rebounding at 8.3 RPG and, since he’s taken on the point guard duties full time this season, he has more than twice the assists than any of his teammates. He has a solid 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and although he is a scoring lead guard, he does a nice job of getting the Beavers into their offense. He is also the team’s best defender. Still, Payton does have a hole in his game. His 31% shooting from behind the arc is below average, and given how good he is at driving into the paint, that means that UCLA should clearly force him to the perimeter. Payton may only be 190 lbs. but he is arguably one of the strongest players in the conference. If the Bruins allow him to drive then they do so at their peril.

Tinkle has been a nice addition this season for his father, as has Thompson. Tinkle has done a good job of making sure both play plenty of minutes but he lessened the pressure on each by making sure they both come off the bench. Neither has started a game this season. While Payton plays a whopping 35 MPG, Tinkle plays 25.1, good for third on the team. While Thompson doesn’t play as much, he offers something OSU has been lacking the past decade: a very good athlete who is also a good basketball player. Thompson certainly has the ability to get to the rack but he hasn’t been good shooting off the dribble, at only 42% overall. That said, he’s been very good from behind the arc, hitting over 40% of his three-point shots. He is also a solid defender.

The younger Tinkle had some offers to play for bigger programs and it’s apparent why. He is a tireless worker who is second on the team in rebounding (5 RPG) and does many of the little things that a typical “glue guy” does, even though Tinkle is clearly one of the better players in the program. He’s quick enough to be a decent inside/out threat and is more than competent from beyond the arc (36%). However, he, like Thompson, struggles when putting the ball on the floor. He also struggles against length and it’s a good bet that the Bruins and Alford will have either Jonah Bolden or Thomas Welsh guarding him when he is on the floor.

Beyond those three players, one significant contributor is junior guard Malcolm Duvivier (6’2” 210 lbs.) who was a one-man wrecking crew against the Bruins last year in the corresponding game. He had 19 points that night and was lights out from the charity stripe, going 11-12 for the game. He was virtually invisible when the Beavers came to Pauley Pavilion later in the year. He is still a viable three-point threat, hitting almost 40% on treys for the season.

Speaking of three-point threats, seniors Langston Morris-Walker (6’5” 215 lbs.) and Olaf Schaftenaar (6’10” 235 lbs.) are both also hitting almost 40% of their shots from distance. Morris-Walker is actually hitting better from outside the arc than inside the arc while Schaftenaar also struggles from inside the paint, although not like Morris-Walker. Morris-Walker’s job is to provide defense and leadership while Schaftenaar is a typical European stretch-four who can help loosen defenses. Neither is a great rebounder but Morris-Walker will at least be a physical presence.

With the multi-game suspension of senior Jarmal Reid (6’7” 235 lbs.), freshman Drew Eubanks (6’10” 240 lbs.) will probably provide the last of the Beaver depth for the game. He has a very nice touch inside but his lack of strength and athleticism lead to his getting pushed around quite a bit. He is the player who will often give way to Tinkle, although he is a better rebounder than Schaftenaar.

Oregon State is like many well-coached teams in that the team’s performance is often greater than what the individual parts would suggest. The first thing that Tinkle did when he arrived in Corvallis was to get these kids to compete on a nightly basis. If UCLA’s bugaboo this season has been a lack of consistent effort, the OSU is the opposite of the Bruins. Now, if the Bruins match the Beaver effort, then it’ll be game over because outside of Payton, who relies more on his will than his skill, the Bruins are simply much more talented than the Beavers. But as all Bruin fans have seen this season, the Bruins can’t be counted on for a consistent effort. They may bring a Gonzaga-like effort and they may bring a McNeese State-like effort. No one really knows, including the coach.

Tinkle also knows how to both defend a team and attack its defensive weakness. The Bruins have a big advantage in the low post but they have to establish it for it to actually be an advantage. If OSU has a collective Achilles Heel, it’s the fact that they are a poor rebounding team. UCLA must take advantage of that.

USC exploited Bryce Alford’s poor defense throughout the second half of the Trojan victory last week and you can bet the house that Tinkle is going to do the same. UCLA should follow Valparaiso’s blueprint for beating the Beavers in Corvallis, which was to fight over every screen and force the Beavers to put the ball on the floor. The Crusaders beat the Beavers at the beginning of the season by 6 in a game that wasn’t competitive in the second half. The Beavers made a flurry of shots, including one at the buzzer that made the score a lot closer than it was. The bottom line is that UCLA cannot go under screens or the Beavers will kill them from behind the arc. Style-wise, while USC is much more athletic than the Beavers, the two teams play a similar style, looking for the deep shot to propel their offense. In some ways that could be good for UCLA in that they’ll be facing a team that wants to do the same things that USC did, but the Beavers will be much slower at doing it.

The Bruins also need to be prepared for a grind-it-out slugfest. OSU will be physical. The question is whether the Bruins will respond in kind.

Knowing the Bruin starting line-up and Alford’s substitution patterns, the questions of defense is paramount. Assuming Aaron Holiday guards Payton, Alford then has a tough choice of who to assign to Bryce and Isaac Hamilton respectively. Hamilton has proved this year that he is capable of defensive effort. Heck, Bryce has as well, but his lapses have been more pronounced.

There are two factors that will impact the game but we won’t know how much or in which direction until after the tip-off. The first is what UCLA has done in the past seven days. Alford bemoaned his team’s lack of defense in the loss to USC. He harped on it continually at the press conference. It remains to be seen what kind of changes have been made to actually effect change.

The second factor is the suspension of Reid. The program has become the butt of national jokes and the trip of referee Tommy Nunez is still getting national play. Reid was suspended at least 4 games by the university, a punishment the conference endorsed, and the bad publicity it has generated for the school will cause pressure on the team coming out in its next game. The Beavers will either close ranks and play well or they will play distracted. No one really knows how this will turn out because the Beavers and Tinkle have never faced a situation like this.

My USC prediction was based on a gut feeling because, as I was writing the preview I thought to myself, “who’s gonna guard these guys?” and it turned out to be more true than I ever imagined. The Bruins have been horrible on the road in Alford’s tenure; they don’t play with sustained effort and tend to play at or below the level of their competition. Still, despite all that I feel that the Bruins will win this one. Its nothing more than a gut feeling once again, although I could see the Bruin rebounding dominating this game. One thing is for certain: at least in this game UCLA won’t be athletically embarrassed all over the court.

Oregon State 66

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