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UCLA vs. Oregon State Preview

Mar. 5 -- UCLA closes out its season against Oregon State today, and it could be a significant game for Steve Alford's job status at UCLA...

CLA will close out its regular season today against the Oregon State Beavers (3:30 PM PST, Pac 12 Networks), and it’s a more interesting game than you’d think. Right now, the Bruins are 15-15, and in real danger of finishing the season with a losing record. While it has been posted on BRO several times and in several ways over the past 10 days that UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero will more than likely retain Steve Alford for the 2016-2017 season, if the Bruins finish the season with a losing record then Guerrero’s timeline may change dramatically and decisively. That is what UCLA’s season and Alford’s tenure has come to: beat Oregon State at home on Senior Day and relieve pressure on the coach’s job security or lose and see that pressure ratchet up to an even higher level. Certainly Alford and the Bruins have the “second season” of the Pac 12 Tournament next week in order to go on a bit of a winning streak, but it would take a seismic shift for this team to be able to pull off the four straight wins necessary to win in Las Vegas. So, not to overstate things, but this game, and potentially Alford’s tenure at UCLA, is really going to come down to how much effort UCLA plays with today.

The last few weeks have stoked the fires under Alford’s seat quite a bit. There has been talk behind the scenes among major donors about buying out Alford’s contract after this season. Fans also created an online petition calling for his ouster that quickly saw more than 1,300 people sign in short order. There has also been talk of a fan protest before today’s game as well. Those are just the major developments of the past month of so. Never, not even in the waning days of Steve Lavin or Ben Howland, has the “Bruin Nation” been so angry and vocal.

Obviously, it’s still more likely than not that Alford is retained for next season, but it would help for the season to not end with a complete disaster. The problem for Alford is, despite the team’s generally decent effort on Wednesday in losing to Oregon, the Bruins have seemed to stop listening to him. This is a very nuanced issue to work through. Buying in is not the same thing as playing hard. Tony Parker was engaged and intense on Wednesday, and really, that shouldn’t have come as a big surprise. It was the beginning of the last home stand of his college career and it was against the conference leader on national television. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Parker is just as engaged against the Beavers seeing as it’s Senior Day. That doesn’t mean Parker is suddenly truly buying-in to the staff’s coaching. True freshman Aaron Holiday has given great effort in every game, so his effort on Wednesday shouldn’t have been a surprise at all. However, there have been strong indications that Holiday is unhappy with the staff for various reasons. That is before even getting into the discussion of whether Holiday is concerned about his potential role on next year’s team.

That “tuning out” shows up in other ways. The Bruins have been pretty bad coming out of timeouts, regardless of who calls it. The Bruins have gotten less and less efficient in the last 5 minutes of close games resulting in multiple missed opportunities and close losses. Finally, the Bruins have, for the most part, been missing the kind of toughness necessary to be consistently successful at this level. Remember that, when Steve Lavin’s Bruins were 13-11 and in real danger of missing the Big Dance in 2000, the team rallied around him, rattling off 8 straight wins. Alford’s Bruins have shown no propensity to rally around their coach. That may change with today’s game now that there has been a very active week of negative speculation surrounding Alford, but we can only go by what we’ve seen up to this point and the Bruins haven’t seemed inclined to “win one for the Gipper.”

Oregon State has a great deal to play for in this game. The Beavers have legitimate NCAA Tournament bid hopes, but they are probably now hanging by a thread after this week’s blowout loss to USC. The Beavers lost that game by 11 but were down by 23 at the half and the game was essentially over. The Beavers need to win this game to have any real hope at an at-large bid. That means the Bruins should be facing a very focused OSU squad.

But it will be a significantly depleted Beaver team. Head Coach Wayne Tinkle has worked wonders in his second year in Corvallis, and while he has arguably the best player in the conference in senior guard Gary Payton II (6’3” 190 lbs.), the team’s success has hinged largely on the play of Tinkle’s freshman son, Tres Tinkle (6’8” 220 lbs.) who has proven to be a very good sidekick to Payton. However, Tres picked up a foot injury in practice just before the USC game, which forced him to miss that game, and it has been confirmed that he’ll miss the game with the Bruins. His loss affects the team in all areas. He is the second-leading scorer and rebounder and is arguably the team’s best interior defender. The Beavers played the first half of the USC game as if they felt they had no chance without the young Tinkle.

Payton II, who leads the team in scoring, rebounding and assists, had a good game, as did true freshman Stephen Thompson Jr. (6’4” 170 lbs.), who played very well in his first start of the season. They combined for 14-31 from the floor, which should have been good enough to keep OSU in the game. But the Beavers simply couldn’t defend in the first half. They allowed USC to shoot 61% from the field in that half and that was essentially the game.

That was reminiscent of the first time the Beavers met the Bruins in Corvallis earlier this season, when UCLA won by 9 after shooting 58% from the floor in the first half. Parker and Thomas Welsh combined for 18 points and 23 rebounds as they dominated the glass and the starting guards (Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Holiday) combined for 56 points.

Still, the Beavers had to play against USC without any real practice to get them ready for Tinkle’s absence, and they’ve now had several days to get over that shock. Tinkle is a good enough coach to get his team more prepared to give a very good effort today.

If the Bruins win then they’re staring a 16-16 overall record after a probable first round Pac 12 Tournament loss to Washington. If they lose to the Beavers then the Bruins and Beavers will match up again on Wednesday in Las Vegas, with the Bruins needing to win two games just to guarantee a .500 record.

So, there it is: this game is probably the difference between a probable losing record or an NIT berth. The latter would probably give Dan Guerrero enough pause to allow Alford to coach at least one more season. However, a losing record in this, Alford’s third season, could very well force Guerrero’s hand. The donors will be further upset by the absolute collapse of this team late in the season. Fan vitriol will probably reach new levels and Guerrero may simply just give in to the inevitable at that point.

If the Bruins start well, and I suspect they might, then they may very well build a big enough lead that they can avoid a very close game the last few minutes. The Bruins haven’t done well in those situations this season and it stands to reason that would continue. If the Bruins start slowly then that close ending may be the best they can hope for and the Bruins will be in a position to pull the game out with a late-game victory.

Still, the way the season has gone, expect the Bruins to be up for the majority of the first half and much of the second. There will come a lull when Payton II will lead the Beavers to close the gap. With the game on the line in the last minute, UCLA’s Bryce Alford will miss a three-pointer that would have iced the game and Payton II will come down and hit a bomb at the buzzer causing the Beavers to win by 1.

Take the Beavers simply because they have more to play for…

Oregon State 72

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