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UCLA vs. Oregon Preview

Jan. 22 -- UCLA takes on Oregon on Saturday with a chance for Steve Alford's first road sweep...

UCLA Bruins defeated the Oregon State Beavers on Wednesday night in Corvallis, accomplishing at least the minimum necessary for this particular road trip to be considered a success. Because of the victory over the Beavers, the Bruins are once again “playing with house money” as they prepare to face an Oregon Duck squad that is more athletic and talented than Oregon State. The game will be nationally televised on CBS at 1 PM PST. The game will come down to intensity and focus, a theme that at this point in the season has become the proverbial broken record in both our game previews and reviews, and the match-up between the teams. There has been much posted on BRO the past two days, especially since Oregon dispatched USC with relative ease on Thursday night, about the athleticism and length of Oregon and how that works in Oregon’s favor. That may be true…but then again, it might not.

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first: when UCLA shows up with intensity and focus and a willingness to compete as a unit, the Bruins have shown this season that they stand a very good chance of winning, e.g. Kentucky, Gonzaga, and Arizona. When the Bruins fail to bring those qualities to the table then they have a very good chance of losing, e.g. Wake Forest, Wazzu and USC. If the Bruins do not bring the requisite will to win, then the rest of this preview is a complete waste of your time. The Bruins will lose.

However, if the Bruins come to play, there is a solid chance of their finishing off the sweep of this road trip.

In terms of individual match-ups, the posters on BRO who’ve written about Oregon’s athleticism aren’t wrong. They have length, speed and quickness. It starts with leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, sophomore Dillon Brooks (6’7” 225 lbs.). He is averaging 15.7 PPG and 6.5 RPG. He is long and rangy which helps his passing ability (he’s second on the team in assists) and his on-ball defense. However, he is a poor outside shooter, hitting less than 28% of his three-point shots. He is the team leader in shot attempts by a wide margin. The key for defending Brooks is sagging off him and not letting him drive by the defender, who in this case, unless Bruin Head Coach Steve Alford decides to go “big” will be either Thomas Welsh or Tony Parker.

The most talented player on the roster could be freshman guard Tyler Dorsey (6’4” 180 lbs.), a former specific recruiting target of the UCLA staff. There is a lot to like about Dorsey’s game from his ability to handle the ball in a pinch, to his ability to post up certain guards. However, even though he’s averaging only 13.8 PPG (good for second on the team), the real threat he presents is his ability to shoot outside. He and his 45% three-point shooting percentage have shown Dorsey to be one of the best shooters in the Pac 12. UCLA has struggled this season in being able to shut down outside shooters, so Dorsey presents a particular danger. If there’s a knock on Dorsey this season it’s been his defense at times. He tends to cheat and take chances (and doesn’t have great steal numbers to prove his chances are successful) and often takes defensive possessions off. He will probably guard Isaac Hamilton when Oregon Head Coach Dana Altman has his players in man-to-man defense.

Senior post Christopher Boucher (6’10” 190 lbs.) is one of the premier shot-blockers in the country. He has 71 on the season, which is good for roughly 4 BPG. However, his weight isn’t a misprint — he is very slightly built. He gets most of his blocks off help in the lane, coming across to swat one of his teammates’ defensive assignments. He struggles, though, when a bigger, more physical opponent takes the ball into his body. He has gotten into foul trouble against teams with big, physical front lines and, like Brooks, has fouled out of several games. It is imperative that Welsh and especially Parker go right at Boucher because Oregon really suffers defensively when he’s off the floor When he’s in the game his teammates take more chances and put far more ball pressure on opponents because they know Boucher will block most any player getting into the lane. The Oregon wings noticeably back off defensively when Boucher is off the floor. Boucher leads the Ducks in rebounding at 7.7 RPG.

Senior wing Elgin Cook (6’6” 205 lbs.) is the clear leader of the team. He is a solid scorer (over 13 PPG) and decent enough rebounder (4.8 RPG) but what Cook really brings to the table is leadership and defense. He is the best man-to-man defender on the team. If fact, in terms of individual match-ups he’s probably the most important person on the squad because the guess is that Altman has watched a lot of tape and seen that UCLA’s Bryce Alford has struggled against longer, rangier guards. Cook should guard Alford and that could cause UCLA’s offense to go out of sync unless Alford plays within himself, as he did against Kentucky.

Sophomore point guard Casey Benson (6’3” 185 lbs.) is very good about getting his team into its offensive sets, but he is very athletically limited. In fact, one poster on BRO suggested that Bryce can guard Benson even with the younger Alford’s penchant for not giving the best defensive effort in games. The key with Benson is not to worry about him making his first pass, but making sure he doesn’t get the ball in a position to make an easy assist, which is often his second or third pass in a possession. Whoever guards Benson needs to be sure to go over every screen. Benson does not like shooting off the dribble but is more than serviceable when he gets his feet set. One more thing to consider — Benson is the weakest defender in Altman’s rotation and because he is the only true point guard, he will log minutes short of injury or foul trouble. When playing man defense, Benson will have to guard someone and chances are it will be Aaron Holiday. The Bruin frosh needs to be mentally ready to take advantage of that match-up.

While freshman Kendall Small (6’ 175 lbs.) will play a few minutes, it’s really only because Small is the only other point guard on the roster that is even remotely ready to play. Altman’s depth is really provided by sophomore Jordan Bell (6’9” 225 lbs.) and senior Dwayne Benjamin (6’7” 210 lbs.).

Bell is a more consistent inside scorer than Boucher, but because Altman doesn’t need scoring out of that position, Boucher remains the clear starter. Further, while Boucher can step out and hit the ‘3’, Bell is strictly a true post on offense. He is more physical than any other forward on the roster and he played well last season against the Bruins.

Benjamin is the epitome of the ‘microwave’ player coming off the bench. I am not comparing him to Vinnie Johnson of the Detroit Pistons, the original ‘Microwave,’ but rather commenting on Benjamin’s ability to add offense to the team and, more importantly, bring energy and grit to the floor every time he plays. UCLA really has no one like Benjamin in terms of style. However, he will need to be guarded closely because even though he has the worst shooting percentage of any player in the rotation, he has the second-best three-point shooting percentage (which says something about his lack of mid-range game). Roughly 50% of Benjamin’s shots have come from behind the arc.

There you have it: Oregon, outside of Benson, has long, quick players who can defend and get out in transition. UCLA has players who are much more physical (at least down low) and is a conceivably better offensive team. Oregon is at home and road games have consistently been an issue for Alford’s teams these past two-plus seasons.

This one, though, may be different.

USC pretty much did what it wanted to UCLA last week and the Trojans were beaten relatively easily Thursday night by the Ducks. It would stand to reason that Oregon would beat UCLA even more handily.

But the Transitive Property of Sports is a poor predictor, especially when objectively looking at match-ups. Oregon is a bad match-up for the Trojans, at least in terms of the way USC was coached last night, because USC tried to defend the Ducks on the perimeter and Oregon’s athleticism made the Trojans pay. It helped that Oregon had one of their best long distance shooting nights of the season, specifically because of Benjamin, but Oregon was getting by the Trojan defenders pretty consistently on the outside. Further, because USC’s offense relies on a lot of dribble-drive concepts, Oregon was able to take away the drive in a way UCLA couldn’t or wouldn’t last week, and do so without help, thus negating a key part of USC’s offense; the kick-out.

However, UCLA, because the Bruins focus more on screens away from the ball than a team like USC, will be able to theoretically obtain more open shots. Further, the Bruins focus (or should focus) more on playing inside/out, which is, again, something USC does not. Trojan post Nikola Jovanovic had decent numbers, certainly better than several of his backcourt teammates, but he didn’t see the ball nearly enough.

The biggest area affecting the match-up, though, is Oregon’s ability, or lack of ability, to shoot outside as a team. I’ve mentioned Kentucky several times throughout the preview and that wasn’t by accident. The Ducks and Wildcats are incredibly similar to each other both in style and individual tendencies. The Wildcats had one dangerous outside shooter (Murray) as does Oregon (Dorsey) while the rest of the team was mediocre at best, like Oregon. Parker, and to a lesser extent Welsh, had their way inside against the Wildcats because of Kentucky’s lack of a physical post presence. The same very well could be true in this game.

Further, Oregon is not a great rebounding team and turnovers have tended not to be a real decider in the outcomes of the Ducks’ games. Of course, if UCLA turns it over 24 times then it’ll probably be a real decider, but that will also show that UCLA’s effort and intensity weren’t there and I wrote in the beginning of this that if UCLA’s intensity and focus were poor then match-ups wouldn’t matter anyway.

The thing is, there is a real chance that UCLA will bring a “good Bruin” effort on Saturday. It is a nationally televised contest, which tends to bring out better effort in the Bruins, plus, and this is a complete guess, the Bruins read…and hear…and know that they’ve had their intensity questioned. Further, they know the criticisms levied at the program because of UCLA’s lack of conference road game success. They may even all know about Coach Alford having not yet won a road sweep in conference play since his arrival in Westwood. The guess is that will all play a factor in UCLA bringing a determined effort.

Then the match-ups matter and, so long as UCLA plays a pack-it-in man defense or goes with a 1-2-2 with an effective point player at the top, then UCLA can look to emulate the game played against Kentucky.

One thing that is worrisome: it was fairly obvious from subtle comments made in Coach Alford’s radio interview on Thursday that Jonah Bolden is in the doghouse right now. If the Bruins are to win the game then he needs to get out of that doghouse quickly. Noah Allen and Gyorgi Golomon can get increased minutes against Oregon State because the Beavers don’t have the athleticism to take advantage of those two being on the floor for big minutes. Oregon does, so the Bruins will need their best athletes at times to have a shot at the victory. That goes for Prince Ali as well.

Assuming that Alford doesn’t continue to go with the “seasoned vets” off the bench at the expense of Bolden and Ali, and assuming that UCLA brings a good effort, this one is going to be the “shocker.”

Oregon 79

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