Thomas Welsh (Steve Cheng, BRO)

UCLA vs. Utah Preview

Feb. 18 -- The rest of the season is full of must-win games, starting tonight against Utah...

After taking care of business in a must-win game at Arizona State on Sunday night, the Bruins return to Los Angeles this week to host the Mountain schools, Utah and Colorado. The Utes visit Pauley Pavilion first tonight (7 PM PST, ESPN2). Obviously it’s another must-win game for the Bruins, who played pretty well against Arizona last Friday night in a close loss and then put forth arguably their best effort of the year in defeating the Sun Devils. The Bruins will need a similar effort and level of focus to take down a Utah squad that sits one game out of first place in the Pac 12 Conference.

Utah’s biggest strength may be on its bench in the form of head coach Larry Krystkowiak, who is arguably the best bench coach in the conference. When Krystkowiak arrived at Utah, the program was in the midst of some poor seasons. The talent was down and the level of effort and focus that Utah brought to the court each game was inconsistent. Krystkowiak was able to increase the talent level and now has the program to a point where the effort is at a consistently high level, game after game. If there’s one criticism of Krystkowiak’s teams since he’s been at Utah, though, it’s that his teams don’t play with the same kind of focus on the road as they do at home. This year is no different as the Utes are 13-1 at home and only 6-6 away from the Huntsman Center.

If the Bruins bring the same effort to the court tonight that they brought in Tempe then UCLA should be in good shape. The Utes are actually a fairly good match-up for the Bruins. However, there are some players that UCLA and head coach Steve Alford need to view with some concern based on the individual match-ups.

Utah has one of the best big men in the nation in sophomore Jakob Poeltl (7’0” 248 lbs.). He is a future sure-fire first round NBA draft pick and arguably a future lottery pick. He has a soft touch from 12 feet and in, as evidenced by his nearly 70% shooting from the field. He plays tougher than most Europeans who come to the United States to play college ball and works just as hard on the defensive end and on the glass as he does on offense. He leads the team in scoring at 17.8 PPG, rebounding at 8.8 RPG and has 38 blocks, tops on the team. If he has one area that needs improvement it’s at the free throw line where he shoots about 68%. He’s different from, say, Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski, in that his game isn’t predicated on pure brute strength like the Arizona big man. Poeltl has struggled at times against defenders who can match his length, and UCLA has that in Thomas Welsh.

Krystkowiak has discovered a nice low post partner for Poeltl in sophomore Kyle Kuzma (6’9” 221 lbs.). He is second on the team in scoring at 11.7 PPG and in rebounding at 6 RPG. He does have range out to the three-point line, but if Kuzma decides to shoot from behind the arc then UCLA should be content to allow it as Kuzma is only hitting 17% of his long distance shots. He is an average free throw shooter and while he rebounds solidly, he isn’t a shot blocking force by any stretch. He’s not overly athletic so he may really struggle with UCLA’s Jonah Bolden if Bolden continues his solid play from last weekend.

The forward who should concern the Bruins, though, is senior Jordan Loveridge (6’6” 220 lbs.). He was expected to have a more productive year than he’s had to this point. In fact, there are some who feel his senior campaign has been a disappointment. However, he is still one of the best three-point shooters in the conference and certainly the best on the team. The issue for UCLA is who is going to guard Loveridge. If Alford sticks with the same starters as the last three games then it’s certain that the duty of marking Loveridge will fall to Isaac Hamilton. Now, Hamilton has certainly improved his defensive effort over the course of the season, but Loveridge is both bigger and stronger than Hamilton, so much so that he will realistically be able to shoot over the UCLA guard or back him down in the post should he so choose. If Loveridge gets hot early then don’t be surprised to see Alford go to a line-up that includes Welsh, Bolden and Tony Parker on the floor at the same time. Utah is one of the few teams in the conference where using that line-up should help the Bruins. Parker would take Kuzma while Bolden could then take Loveridge and there’s a good chance that the Utah senior would be bothered by Bolden’s length.

The frontcourt depth is provided by senior Dakarai Tucker (6’5” 194 lbs.) and sophomore Brekkott Chapman (6’8” 205 lbs.). Tucker can play either the 2-guard or the small forward spot. He is a dangerous outside shooter but he doesn’t rebound well for his size.

Chapman was another heralded recruit for Krystkowiak, but he has yet to live up to that billing. Much of that probably has to do with the fact that he isn’t typically one of the top three offensive floor options when he’s in the game. The other factor is that Krystkowiak’s offense is based on a lot of tough, physical screening and Chapman hasn’t reached the level of toughness yet that his coach requires.

The three-man backcourt rotation is solid but not spectacular. In fact, the Utah guards are probably more known for their collective defense than what they’ve done from a scoring aspect. Senior point guard Brandon Taylor (5’10” 170 lbs.) initiates the offense the majority of the time, but junior Lorenzo Bonam (6’4” 189 lbs.) will also run the offense at times even when Taylor is on the floor. From a size perspective it would make sense for Aaron Holiday to guard Taylor, but Bonam is actually a much bigger offensive threat. Taylor has struggled from the field this season, hitting only 38% from the floor and 31% from behind the arc. Because Taylor doesn’t need to be face-guarded, there is an argument to be made to have Bryce Alford guard him at times and just keep Taylor from getting into the lane. That way, Holiday, the better perimeter defender, could guard Bonam at times.

Depth is provided by sophomore Isaiah Wright (6’2” 180 lbs.), who is a solid back-up but generally isn’t someone who is going to light up the scoreboard. He is statistically very similar to Taylor without Taylor’s passing ability or defense.

Utah should make the Bruins work hard on defense. The Utes run arguably the most physical motion offense west of the Mississippi River. The Bruins should be sore by the end of this game. Utah’s game plan is to essentially beat an opponent into submission by setting physical picks all game, which eventually forces even the stoutest teams to start going under screens. That opens things up for Utah to get clear outside looks. The motion offense is also more of a true motion, one where the screens are coming away from the ball and one that spreads the floor more with the obvious intent of getting Poeltl touches. The Bruin posts are going to need help on Poeltl and it will be interesting to see if Welsh specifically tries to front Poeltl. Utah has had some difficulty with entry passes when Poeltl has been fronted by posts of similar size.

The other end of the floor is where UCLA should have a bit of an advantage. The Bruins have struggled offensively against athletic teams that really look to deny the ball and take away UCLA’s high ball screen. Utah doesn’t fall into this category. Krystkowiak’s defensive philosophy is similar to Stanford’s when Mike Montgomery was the coach. The Utes use the three-point line as a guide to pack in their defense. They play good lane-denial defense and force teams to either work very hard to get anything inside or settle for outside shots. This, of course, can come back to haunt the Utes if a team shoots well from the perimeter and UCLA is a much better outside shooting team at home than on the road. The Utes are also very good at rotational help. To be honest, the Utes, defensively, will remind people of Ben Howland’s UCLA teams at the height of his success in Westwood.

Utah’s defense is also predicated on rebounding, not turnovers. In fact, the Utes have committed almost 50 more turnovers on the season than their opponents. However, Utah averages almost 6 RPG more than its opponents. The defensive theory, also espoused by Virginia’s Tony Bennett and his “pack-line defense,” is that if you consistently deny the interior to a team and just as consistently hold them to one shot then you stand a very good chance of winning.

Assuming Coach Alford continues to get the players to play with effort and focus, as he and the staff were clearly able to do in Arizona, then the Colorado match-up is actually a more concerning one than the Utah match-up. The Buffs have some athleticism and tend to play a more controlled version of what Washington tries to do, and we all saw how Washington’s up-tempo pace bothered the Bruins in two games this season.

This is not to say that Utah won’t defeat the Bruins, but if the Bruins from last week show up then really it comes down to talent, and the Bruins have more talent. Certainly the match-up with Loveridge and how the Bruins defend him will have a say in the outcome, but as long as UCLA plays with intensity, the Bruins should be able to win.

Utah 71

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