SG Isaac Hamilton (USA Today)

UCLA vs. Colorado Preview

Feb. 20 -- This could be a battle of which team is more motivated, and motivation has been a big issue for UCLA this year...

The UCLA men’s basketball team saw any realistic chance at an NCAA Tournament bid fly out the window with Thursday’s 2-point loss at home to Utah. The issue for the Bruins now becomes how they will finish the remainder of the season. Certainly the Bruins have a remote shot of suddenly putting things together and winning their last 5 regular season games, thus re-emerging as a legitimate contender for a Tournament bid. However, the Bruins have yet to put together a 5-game winning streak at any point this season, so that outcome seems remote. In fact, there is a possibility that the wheels completely come off now that the players inevitably realize that they probably aren’t going dancing (unless, of course, they win the Pac-12 Tournament).

With the loss to Utah only two days old, the Bruins will return to the court to host one of those athletically bad match-ups at Pauley Pavilion tonight when the Colorado Buffaloes come to Pauley Pavilion (8 PM PST, Fox Sports 1). The real question now is whether Head Coach Steve Alford can get the Bruins to at least play with pride with seemingly little else left to play for.

Coach Tad Boyle’s Buffs enter the contest with their own mental questions. Colorado lost on Thursday night at USC, which in and of itself isn’t bad. Everyone who has traveled to the Galen Center this season has left with a loss. No, it was the manner in which the Buffs lost. Imagine, for a moment, that UCLA came all the way back on Thursday and won the Utah game. Imagine how emotionally spent the Utes would be trying to come back from that kind of loss. Colorado led USC by 14 points on Thursday with 8 minutes to go in the game, a very similar situation to the Utah-UCLA game. The difference is that Colorado absolutely melted down in the next 7 minutes, allowing USC to storm back and win the game. So really, tonight’s game will be a battle between two teams who have to be struggling mentally right now.

The problem for the Bruins is that Colorado is simply a better team. Certainly the Buffs have their own issues, which I will address in a bit, but in terms of athleticism, length and effort, the Buffaloes are the better team.

Boyle has a consistent 9-man rotation that starts with senior power forward Josh Scott (6’10” 245 lbs.). He is a beast in the low post with the ball in his hands. He shoots the ball well all the way out to the three-point line, although he has only attempted 8 long distance shots. He leads the team in rebounding at 8.8 RPG and scoring at 16.7 PPG. Quite frankly, a player of his quality, athleticism and strength should probably be rebounding at over 10 RPG. Still, the Bruins really don’t have a player who can guard him outside of Thomas Welsh, and he was simply miserable on defense when it counted against Utah. One caveat: Scott is coming off an ankle injury that forced him to miss several games, but he returned on Thursday against the Trojans. He was able to play 23 minutes and score 17 points, but he was slow to the point of being gimpy on defense and he only pulled down 3 boards, clearly not being able to explode to the ball for rebounds.

The other usual frontcourt starter is junior Wesley Gordon (6’9” 220 lbs.). Gordon’s numbers for the season are pedestrian, though he does average 7.4 RPG. However, he really has picked up his play in the absence of Scott. He is a similar player to Scott, but relies a bit more on his jump shot than Scott does. The match-up between Gordon and Jonah Bolden will be a key one as Bolden has the length and athleticism to take Gordon out of his game. Further, Bolden will make it difficult for Gordon on the defensive end.

Low post depth is supplied by sophomore Tory Miller (6’9” 246 lbs.), who is far less dangerous than Scott or Gordon.

Colorado has three players who are truer small forwards than anyone in UCLA’s rotation. The best of the bunch is sophomore George King (6’6” 220 lbs.) His shooting and scoring ability is similar to Utah’s Jordan Loveridge, though King has been the better player this season. The fact that King is similar to Loveridge should concern the Bruins as Loveridge’s play was a key catalyst for how Utah was able to upend the Bruins on Thursday night. Isaac Hamilton struggled guarding Loveridge and will have to step up his defensive play for the Bruins to have a chance to win.

The other two wings are juniors Tre’Shaun Fletcher (6’7” 205 lbs.) and Josh Fortune (6’5” 200 lbs.). Fortune is the more dangerous of the two because of his ability to hit the long-range jumper. He was a starter for much of the year but has been coming off the bench recently. Fletcher is strictly a role player who provides depth.

Colorado has three guards in the rotation, with senior Xavier Talton (6’2” 185 lbs.) and sophomore Dominique Collier (6’2” 190 lbs.) being the starters and freshman Thomas Akyazili (6’2” 180 lbs.) providing depth. There really is no true point guard among the three, although Collier tends to play on the ball more than Talton. Collier is the bigger overall scoring threat, especially from outside the arc where he’s hitting on 45% of his shots. Talton isn’t a poor shooter by any stretch, but he’s probably the last option on offense of the starters. Oddly, Talton had a strong game against USC while Collier was held scoreless.

Tactically, Colorado likes to push the pace, but the Buffs are not a breakneck pace team like, say, North Carolina. Part of the problem is that Colorado has a massive turnover problem. They are among the worst teams in the conference at turnovers committed compared to turnovers forced. They also have more turnovers than assists. However, Colorado has one of the best rebounding margins in the country, being essentially a +10 on the glass per game. The Buffs killed USC on the glass, 37-21, but as UCLA has showed this season, winning the rebounding battle but losing the turnover one is a recipe for a loss. Colorado turned the ball over 20 times against USC, many times unforced, and only forced the Trojans into 11.

There’s a good bet that Saturday’s contest is going to be a sloppy game because both teams lack the focus necessary to take care of the ball and consistently take good shots. The difference could be UCLA’s inability to defend the three-point line effectively this season and Colorado’s having three of the better outside shooters in the conference in King, Collier and Fortune.

Also, keep in mind that Colorado hasn’t suffered a ‘bad’ loss on the season and are clearly headed to the NCAA Tournament barring a late season collapse.

The loss to USC, though, was the result of a big in-game collapse, the kind that can linger with a team mentally for a couple of days. That’s what this game is probably going to come down to: which team is more ready mentally. There are reasonable arguments to support either team winning the game because the other team is simply not engaged. The issue for the Bruins will be whether or not the players have now resigned themselves to not going to the Big Dance this season. If that happens then Colorado will win comfortably even if the Buffs aren’t near their best.

This will be an interesting last five games for the Bruins. There is at least a question as to whether Alford has lost the attention of his team. If he has, then these final five games could be a real slog. The team didn’t quit against Utah, though, when the Bruins were down 14 points to the Utes with roughly 8 minutes to go in the game and the team should be commended for that. The question, really, is if the players respect Alford enough to make the effort necessary to compete, both on Saturday and for the rest of the season. That’s the million-dollar question right now because it cuts to the heart of Alford’s ability to motivate the team.

With two teams coming into a game where they both appear to have some mental baggage from the last game, I’d normally go with the home team. There is every reason to believe, though, that the home court advantage won’t be much of an advantage for the Bruins on Saturday. The crowd was pretty dead for large portions of Thursday’s game and that was an extremely important game..

That being the case, take the team with more talent, that has a more respected coach and that has a lot more to play for.

Colorado 77

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