UCLA basketball fans are about to find out what kind of fight Coach Steve Alford’s Bruins have as they enter the final scheduled game of the season tonight in the first round of the Pac 12 Conference Tournament (6 PM PST, Pac 12 Network).
Waiting for the Bruins in Las Vegas will be a team that has simply dominated the Bruins this season: the USC Trojans. UCLA enters the game knowing it needs to win at least two games in order to avoid a losing record and win an unfathomable 4 games on the trot in order to make the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins are currently on a four-game losing streak and have lost five of their past six games. Will the Bruins give an effort equal to tonight's challenge, or will the season end with a very large thud? The answer to that question may have ramifications far beyond the end of the season if the Bruins do in fact lose.The Trojans enter the game on a weak run of their own, having lost four of their past five games. There’s no telling how the Trojans will play given their recent lack of success, but there are some things that could motivate the Trojans to a resounding victory.
USC was a virtual lock for the NCAAs about three weeks ago, but the run of losses since then has seen USC plant itself firmly on the proverbial “bubble” of making the Big Dance. Trojan Coach Andy Enfield has probably been filling the heads of his players with the idea that a loss to the Bruins would mean probably missing out on an NCAA Tournament bid. In short, that alone gives the Trojans something very significant to play for in this specific game, and that's something UCLA just doesn't have.
There is more than that, though. While the Trojans have defeated the Bruins three times in one season before, it hasn’t been done in quite the dominating fashion in which Trojans won the first two meetings this season by a combined 33 points…and the games weren’t as close as the scores indicated. USC now has an opportunity to put the kind of embarrassment on the Bruin program that will act as a strange historical role reversal. Remember that UCLA thoroughly dominated USC in three meetings last year en route to the season sweep. It’s as if the British Army that surrendered at Yorktown has made an appearance in Los Angeles simply to once again play “The World Turned Upside Down.”
While the Trojans are playing for an NCAA bid, the Bruins appear to be simply riding out the string, based on their play and postgame demeanor after last week’s home losses to the Oregon schools. The Bruins look dispirited, disinterested and, quite frankly, mentally spent. The idea of UCLA being able to muster enough gumption to win the game tonight, let alone four games in a row, seems unlikely at best given what appears to be UCLA’s poor mental state.
To top it all off, USC represents arguably the worst physical match-up for the Bruins. The Bruins clearly struggle mightily on the defensive end of the floor, especially in keeping players in front of them. When that’s happened this season, Alford has opted for a 1-2-2 zone and that has had some success. But that success has come against teams that struggle to make outside shots. USC is one of the best three-point shooting high major teams in the nation. Despite that, though, UCLA’s best option is probably to play that zone and hope that USC has an off shooting night.
Outside of Aaron Holiday, the Bruins really struggle to handle the athleticism of USC. If Holiday is matched on, say, sophomore Jordan McLaughlin (6’1” 170 lbs.), who is arguably USC’s best player, that leaves junior Julian Jacobs (6’4” 180 lbs.) and sophomore Elijah Stewart (6’5” 180 lbs.), as well as junior Katin Reinhardt (6’6” 220 lbs.) to be guarded by Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford and Noah Allen. Those match-ups have allowed USC to simply own the Bruins from the perimeter. UCLA freshman Prince Ali certainly has shown flashes of enough athleticism to guard one of those Trojans, but he has clearly become an afterthought in Coach Alford’s rotation.
To make matters worse, the Trojan frontcourt rotation of junior Nikola Jovanovic (6’11” 235 lbs.) along with freshmen Chimezie Metu (6’11” 215 lbs.) and Bennie Boatwright (6’10” 220 lbs.) has made every Bruin forward not named Bolden look really bad. Jovanovic is a solid low-post player with shooting range, while Metu, when properly motivated, as he’s been against the Bruins, is an athletic beast compared to Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh. Boatwright’s outside shooting ability is simply insult to injury against the Bruins. The thing is, it’s not as if the Trojan frontcourt is filled with better basketball players than what UCLA’s forwards can offer. The difference is really motivation. Enfield has been able to properly and fully motivate his players, at least for the UCLA games, while Alford has failed to do the same with the UCLA roster.
Certainly USC gets as good as it gives on the glass, and the Trojans give up almost as many turnovers as they cause.. The difference, at least throughout the season, has been USC’s shooting ability, especially from distance. If UCLA can supply effort then there is reason to hope that USC might be lethargic, especially if the Trojans start cold.
Perhaps the Bruins laid four eggs (Cal, Stanford, Oregon and OSU) simply because they knew they were out of the discussion for an NCAA at-large bid. Perhaps the Bruins will now turn it on because the Pac 12 Tournament represents a new opportunity, and UCLA certainly has enough talent to win four games in four days. Perhaps I will win the Powerball after being abducted by aliens because I was struck by lightning. Look, UCLA has only had two instances of winning streaks longer than 2 games this season and they both took place in 2015 and included a high sugar diet. Since the New Year, the Bruins haven’t won more than 2 games in a row.
While there’s a chance that UCLA can pull out the upset, the chances are just as good, if not greater, that this could be an incredibly lopsided game. It’s impossible to know the mental state of a team without being in the locker room or at practices, but it’s clear that USC enjoys playing UCLA this season while the Bruins seem dejected and splintered. Say what you want, but it wasn’t a coincidence that UCLA made a furious run at Oregon State last Saturday after Bryce Alford was lost for the game with a head injury. The defensive intensity increased significantly and it was clear the Bruins were playing as a cohesive unit. Bryce has been cleared to play tonight, so expect him in the starting line-up.
And what if the game turns into a boat race?
While there has been series of negative reactions to Alford’s continued employment in Westwood past this season, from the petition to the many emails sent to Morgan Center, there has also been confirmation from both Tracy Pierson and other connected BROs that the likelihood of Alford being bought out after the season is very remote at best. The only way that could conceivably change is if the Bruins are on the wrong end of a 2014 Kentucky-type beat down. That may not even be enough, although no one really knows the temperament of those that could influence UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero’s decision-making. However, if the Bruins are embarrassed and it looks clear that Alford has lost the team (which, if true, would be almost impossible to counteract even next year if the roster stays relatively intact), then things could change.
There are of course other factors as well, such as players transferring, etc. However, if Alford can motivate the Bruins to play hard and with pride, then he almost assuredly keeps his job for one more season. Things, though, are absolutely trending in the wrong direction. The Bruins want the season to be done while USC has everything to play for. The Trojans also clearly have a chip on their collective shoulders when they see the blue and gold of UCLA. The athleticism advantage held by the Trojans will be difficult to overcome and they would have to have four good outside shooters all be off in order not to stretch the Bruin defense.
This has the makings of a game that will be over early.
Of course, if Bryce goes down hurt again or gets into serious foul trouble, then all bets are off.
Something tells me, though, that Coach Alford’s seat is going to be scorching by Thursday morning.