The UCLA men’s basketball team returns to action on Thursday night when the Bruins play the Portland Pilots in the first round (technically the CSUN game was the first game) of the 2016 Wooden Legacy (8 PM PST, ESPN2).
The game will be played at Cal State Fullerton’s Titan Gym, as will the second round game, before the Tournament concludes at the Honda Center in Anaheim on Sunday.
This game represents the beginning of a stretch of contests that will challenge the Bruins much more than the recent spate of low-major cupcakes UCLA has been dispatching with relative ease. Portland is a good team with the ability to completely take advantage of the mistakes the Bruins make and fully capable of putting the Bruins into the loser’s bracket of the Tournament. This is a game where UCLA’s relative lack of defensive effort could really hurt them. It will be critical to UCLA’s success for the Bruins to improve the focus and intensity on the defensive side of the ball.
Gonzaga and St. Mary’s have owned the West Coast Conference, for the most part, over the past 10-12 years. BYU has made some noise since the Cougars’ entrance into the conference a few years ago, but it has essentially been the Zags and the Gaels and everyone else. If there is a team in the WCC that could challenge both mid-major powers, then, it is Portland. They have the depth, experience and size necessary to be a serious part of the WCC championship conversation going forward.
It also appears that the Pilots have the coaching needed to instill confidence and a style conducive to success in former NBA great, Terry Porter. The Pilots’ 3-0 start to the season doesn’t say much considering the quality of the three schools they’ve beaten, but watching the Pilots for any length of time would make any Bruin fan concerned about the outcome of the Thanksgiving game. Porter has the team playing an unselfish brand of offense, with a healthy mix of ball-screen offense coupled with a more traditional motion. There are specific isolation set plays thrown in just to keep opponents truly off-balance. Most impressively, Porter has instilled a very solid lane-denial, man-to-man defense that has made life difficult on the opposition. UCLA’s offense has been excellent so far this season but Portland will have the best defense that UCLA has seen yet. Whatever Porter is doing, it has made for a markedly improved look from what the Pilots had the past few seasons.
Portland also has the depth and talent in both its frontcourt and backcourt to cause the Bruins real issues. More than that, the Pilots have the size up front to at least force UCLA to have to truly work to maintain the advantage on the glass the Bruins have had so far this year.
The frontcourt battle may actually be the key to the game because UCLA has so dominated up front through its first four games.
Portland has two big bodies to plug into the center position in junior Phillipp Hartwich (7’1”, 250 lbs.) and senior Ray Barreno (6’10”, 250 lbs.). Hartwich is the starter and the more mobile of the two while Barreno is more of a low-post brute, making him more effective offensively in the low post. However, offense isn’t necessarily their job. They are part of the rotation because of their collective ability to defend the paint and rebound. Between them they average about 7 PPG, but just under 4 RPG and 2 BPG. If the Bruins had Ike Anigbogu at full strength then the post play wouldn’t be much of concern, but with Gyorgy Goloman being the primary back-up to Thomas Welsh, the latter must prove he can handle Hartwich’s length and Barreno’s physicality. While Barreno and Hartwich shouldn’t score much, they should make it much more difficult for Welsh (and Goloman) to score.
Further depth is provided by freshman Joseph Smoyer (6’10”, 210 lbs.), who shouldn’t play much.
Porter will start with two traditional forwards in junior Gabe Taylor (6’8”, 230 lbs.) and senior Jarrel Marshall (6’6”, 185 lbs.). Taylor is arguably Portland’s best all-around player, averaging 17.3 PPG and 8 RPG. He is really a slightly shorter version of UCLA’s T.J. Leaf. He has a very nice inside/outside game, hitting 49% of his shots, including 44% of his three-point attempts. Leaf is the better athlete, but not by much. This will be Leaf’s toughest match-up to date on both ends of the floor. Leaf will be tasked with not only scoring, but with defending a player who can take complete advantage of the Bruin frosh if he gets lazy.
Marshall is the best on-ball defender on the team, which is really his role. He is a good mid-range shooter and slasher, but he struggles from distance. Again, though, his role is that of defensive stopper. He is also the most aware help-side defender on the team, who averages at least one block per contest. Marshall’s role may be critical to Portland’s success because the guess is that he will be tasked with guarding UCLA’s Lonzo Ball. Only Marshall has the length and athleticism to at least cause Ball some issues that he may not have seen yet.
Junior D’marques Tyson (6’5”, 215 lbs.) provides depth for both forward positions. He is a bit of a ‘tweener in terms of body type, not quite having the athleticism of Marshall and not quite the strength of Taylor. He is, however, a better offensive player than Marshall, averaging 7.7 PPG, and shooting well (46%) from behind the arc.
The backcourt is in capable and experienced hands, led by senior Alec Wintering (6’0”, 165 lbs.) and sophomore Jazz Johnson (5’10”, 200 lbs.). Wintering is clearly the team’s leader, if not its best player. He leads the team in scoring at 19 PPG and in assists at 8 APG. He also leads the team in steals with 4. Oddly, he hasn’t yet hit a three-point shot this season, but that’s not his game. He is more of a slippery, deceptively quick guard who can get in the lane and hit the 8-foot jumper or find the open man. If there were a knock on Wintering, it would be his lack of athleticism.
Johnson is strictly an undersized two guard, but he is very good at what he does, which is shoot the ball. He is averaging 14.3 PPG on 8 shots per game. He is hitting 63% from the field and 67% from distance. He is adept at finding the open spots around the arc so that Wintering can find him when he gets in the paint. He also makes very good decisions on when to shot-fake and drive. His size limits him on defense, but he is very active.
Depth is provided by sophomore Rashad Jackson (6’3”, 180 lbs.) and freshman Andre Ferguson (6’0”, 180 lbs.). They both can shoot and both can play defense. They can both play the point in a pinch, although Jackson is more of Johnson’s relief and Ferguson ostensibly spells Wintering.
That’s a very solid 10-man rotation, counting Smoyer.
Both Leaf and Welsh may find the going difficult in the paint because of Portland’s focus on lane-denial defense. Ball will be key in attacking that defense because of his ability to get into the lane and make the correct pass. Obviously, both Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford must be ready to take and hit outside jumpers because Ball will find them. Further, both Alford and Hamilton will have a decided size advantage against whomever is guarding them. Hamilton has been solid but not great so far this season. This may be a game where he needs a bit of a breakout performance on offense in order for the Bruins to win the game. He is the one Bruins who should have a physical advantage all over the floor unless Marshall is guarding him. However, if that is the case then expect Ball to have a field day.
Porter is almost certain to attack Alford when the Pilots have the ball. If UCLA is going to play man defense then the smart play might be to put Alford on Marshall when the Pilot junior is in the game. When any of the other wing players are in the game then things become a bit dicier. The remaining Pilot guards all have the ability to hit outside shots and drive the lane, certainly enough to beat any defender not playing with focus and intensity. UCLA Head Coach Steve Alford will certainly have some decisions to make if Porter elects to go more with Tyson instead of Marshall, which may happen if Porter thinks the game is going to turn into a track meet.
There are other concerns for the Bruins in this game, namely Portland’s ability to shoot from the three-point line and its ability to hit the glass. UCLA’s perimeter defense has been mediocre at best this season. Of UCLA’s first four opponents, only CSUN has shown any ability to make UCLA pay for its poor closeouts, especially on kick-outs. Portland may be the best outside shooting team UCLA sees this weekend, so the prospect of playing a team that can take advantage of one of UCLA’s major weaknesses should cause concern.
Portland also has the ability to stay with UCLA on the glass. UCLA’s line-up, especially without Anigbogu, really isn’t a physically stronger line-up than Portland’s. What UCLA has is more polished offensive players. That isn’t going to count for much if UCLA’s shooting isn’t on and the game turns into a bit of a rebounding battle.
There are two areas where UCLA does hold a significant advantage. First, for all the things Portland does well, they collectively lack in athleticism. There is no one on the Pilot roster that even approaches UCLA’s Aaron Holiday in terms of speed and quickness. Ball, although not a terrific athlete, is certainly a good enough athlete to create match-up issues on both sides of the floor. If Leaf has one advantage on Taylor it is that the UCLA frosh is a better athlete.
The other area that UCLA can find an advantage is turnovers. Portland doesn’t cause a lot of turnovers, but does turn it over at a clip of almost 15 TOPG. Wintering is especially guilty of this, averaging over 3 TOPG himself. If Ball, who is a heady player when it comes to steals, is on Wintering, look for the Pilot senior to struggle at times.
The outcome of this contest could be pretty simple; if UCLA is hot from the perimeter then the Bruins should win relatively easily. Portland’s defense isn’t built to extend so a good shooting night from the Bruins could lead to Portland being outside of its defensive comfort zone.
However, if UCLA is just mediocre from distance then this will be a dogfight. Portland is going to score and it’s not as if UCLA can simply pound the ball inside as the Bruins did against their first four opponents and expect a consistent advantageous match-up. The Bruins need to be as selfless and smart offensively as they were last Sunday against Long Beach State. The Bruin defense is what it is and will not change, short of a miraculous increase in effort. That means, as the BRO season preview pointed out, UCLA will generally have to outscore the opposition.
This game is absolutely a potential loss for the Bruins as Portland is probably the best mid-major they will face this season. It may all hinge on the offense.
A little side note: the last time the Bruins were in the Wooden Legacy, it was called the 76 Classic and the Bruins played Portland in the first round. The Pilots won 74-47. That was in 2009. This Bruin team is certainly a better offensive squad than that Reeves Nelson-led team, and Portland doesn’t have the same kind of talent it did then, although it is close.