PG Bryce Alford (USA Today)

UCLA vs. Oregon Preview

Mar. 2 -- Tonight's game may not be important for this season, but it could be critical for Steve Alford's longevity at UCLA...

Now that Coach Steve Alford’s UCLA men’s basketball program has truly hit the skids, the real question is whether the program has hit bottom or if things could get worse. Unfortunately for the Bruins, that question might very well get answered in a bad way tonight when the Oregon Ducks visit Pauley Pavilion (6 PM PST, ESPN2). Outside of the non-conference home victory over Kentucky, UCLA has struggled mightily this season against long, athletic teams and Oregon may be the longest, most athletic team the Bruins will face this season. Things are setting up for a lopsided loss at home on national television with a very empty Pauley Pavilion only adding to the sense that the team and program are in disarray. The question is whether the Bruins will step up enough to make the game competitive with nothing on the line other than pride. Virtually every sign over the last week points to UCLA’s inability or disinterest in doing so.

The backdrop for the game is very negative for the Bruins. It’s pretty apparent at this point that Alford has lost the team’s attention. Whether or not Alford and his players were taken out of context in the post-game interviews after the Stanford game, the language that was used is indicative of a team being pulled in several different directions. Adversity generally causes two types of reactions — rally around each other and play with an “us versus the world” mentality or splinter into various factions. It seems the latter is taking place and that is never a good sign for a team or a program.

Alford will be entering Wednesday night’s game with many Bruin fans behind the idea that he needs to be replaced at the end of the season. Obviously most BROs are aware that there was a petition started last weekend calling for UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero to make a coaching change at the end of the season. The petition already has over 1000 signatures, signifying a serious lack of support for the coaching staff among fans. In the days since the petition was initially circulated, it has been picked up by various local media outlets and is now starting to creep into a more national discussion. Common sense would dictate that Alford is aware of the petition and the general lack of support he and his staff currently have.

Really, the only way to stave off the storm that’s building is to have his team win. That’s why Oregon is coming at the worst possible time. Alford needs a victory tonight and, if it’s going to come, it needs to come against a team that simply is a horrible match-up for the Bruins. Much like USC earlier this season, the match-up is so bad for UCLA that even should the Bruins summon a terrific effort, they probably still would need Oregon to be off its game in order to pull off the upset.

Coach Dana Altman’s Duck squad is currently in first place in the Pac 12 and need to sweep this weekend’s games in Los Angeles to ensure the top seed in next week’s conference tournament. Oregon will surely be focused with so much on the line, so it’s unlikely that the Ducks will be guilty of looking past the Bruins.

Oregon’s roster is filled with the long, athletic wing players that give the Bruins fits. Specifically sophomore Dillon Brooks (6’7” 225 lbs.), who is in the discussion for Pac 12 Player of the Year, freshman Tyler Dorsey (6’4” 180 lbs.), senior Elgin Cook (6’6” 205 lbs.) and senior Dwayne Benjamin (6’7” 210 lbs.) give Altman and the Ducks an array of players that UCLA simply can’t match. It’s amazing how good a team can be when it has a few true small forwards on the roster. Of the quartet, UCLA can really only match-up defensively with Dorsey, and that’s because Aaron Holiday is still playing with great effort on the defensive end despite what’s going on around him. It’s a shame that Holiday is only 6’1” because that lack of height is the only limitation he has in terms of who he can guard. Perhaps Jonah Bolden could do a reasonable job of guarding one of the other three, but Bolden will probably be needed to deal with one of Oregon’s athletic post players. Even if Holiday and Bolden are able to guard two of the aforementioned four, that still leaves two others that UCLA simply can’t defend in one-on-one match-ups.

Once again, this is another game that screams for a zone. However, as the California game from last week showed, Alford may think otherwise. The Bruins started the Cal game playing man defense and quickly found themselves staring at a 12-point deficit. The Bruins went to a zone defense after that and got themselves back in the game, but the damage had already been done. Oregon is better than Cal, especially on the road, so starting the game in a man defense will be a recipe for disaster for the Bruins.

The Bruins might struggle in the low post as well, even if Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh are fully engaged. Welsh appears to continue to bring effort, but he may have hit a bit of a wall at a very inopportune time, while Parker has been wildly inconsistent. They’ll now face two very athletic and springy post players in sophomore Jordan Bell (6’9” 225 lbs.) and senior Christopher Boucher (6’10” 190 lbs.) who both bring energy and desire to the defensive end as well as in the rebounding game. These are the kinds of players that Welsh and Parker have struggled against, particularly Parker.

The only other Duck in the regular rotation is sophomore starting point guard Casey Benson (6’3” 185 lbs.) who has been excellent at initiating the offense and getting the ball to the correct player on any given possession. His offensive game has developed enough to where opponents have to defend him honestly or risk his hitting a couple of outside shots. His burgeoning perimeter game prevents defenses from helping off of him the way they did at the beginning of the year.

Oregon certainly isn’t a juggernaut by any means. The Ducks have holes, specifically at the defensive end, where Oregon gives up a pretty high shooting percentage, especially from behind the arc (almost 37%). Further, while Dorsey has been very good behind the three-point line, the rest of the Ducks are rather pedestrian outside shooters. That’s why UCLA really needs to start in a zone and ride that defense in the hope that Oregon has an off night.

Oregon also isn’t a great rebounding team, so UCLA should be able to hold its own on the glass, but that was the thought going into the game in Eugene in January and the Bruins were killed on the boards. Oregon is arguably the most opportunistic defense in the conference, forcing almost 100 more turnovers than the Ducks have committed. UCLA did a good job of limiting turnovers in Eugene, finishing with only 9, but the Bruins still lost by 14. Can you imagine what will happen on Wednesday night if the Bruins are sloppy on offense?

Regardless of what defense Alford decides to utilize on Wednesday, the determination of whether this will be a close loss or an embarrassing blowout is going to come down to how engaged the Bruins are knowing that only a Pac 12 Tournament championship will get them into the Big Dance. Externally the Bruins simply don’t appear to have the toughness necessary to step up and make the game competitive.

If a bad home loss does take place, then the pressure on Alford and program will likely get even greater. If UCLA gets stomped on its own floor then it’s difficult to envision the Bruins being able to get back up for the Oregon State game on Saturday. Lose both home games and the Bruins will be 15-16 going into the conference tournament, where a first-round loss would then be highly likely. David Woods wrote in the Stanford game review that if the end of the season turned into a disaster that Alford’s job security, which is certain to be highly tenuous going into next season, may simply become untenable much sooner. Certainly the negativity surrounding the program and Alford’s position will reach a level probably not seen since the last year of Steve Lavin’s tenure (remember that in Ben Howland’s last season he won the Pac 12 regular season title).

Really how this all plays out may very well come down to how the Bruins perform on Wednesday night. Unfortunately for the Bruins, almost every external sign points to a team that simply wants the season to end. That is a recipe for disaster.

Wednesday is setting up as a very ugly night for the program.

Oregon 88
UCLA 71


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