UCLA returns to Pauley Pavilion on Thursday night when the Bruins host the Oregon Ducks (7 PM PST; ESPN). The Ducks are tied for first in the Pac-12 Conference, two games ahead of the Bruins, so this game is massive for UCLA in terms of both its Pac-12 regular season aspirations and possible NCAA Tournament seeding in a few weeks. Make no mistake — this is arguably the most important game of the season so far for the Bruins. Oregon can easily sustain a loss on Thursday and still win the Pac-12 title and get a very high protected seed in the NCAAs. On the other hand, the Bruins still have to play Arizona on the road and a USC squad at home that easily beat the Bruins at the Galen Center a few weeks ago. UCLA could absolutely lose those games, so if the Bruins do lose to Oregon, they could be staring at a record of 25-6 (or worse) entering the Pac-12 Tournament in March, having gone 0-6 against the only sure-fire NCAA Tournament teams in the conference beside itself. So, yes, this game is massive.
The Bruins clearly have the personnel and the offensive style to beat the Ducks. The Bruins are the only team to have truly outplayed Oregon even when the Ducks were statistically playing their best. More on that in a moment. The questions surrounding the Bruins have to do with offensive execution and defensive effort and whether they can perform at a high enough level in both areas to win the game.
Oregon is an interesting statistical team. The Ducks are clearly superior to their opposition in all overall statistical categories. They shoot better, rebound better, force more turnovers, block more shots and get to the free throw line more (and do more with those attempts) than their opponents. The obvious question, then, is: how are the Ducks 21-3 and not undefeated? Oregon has lost at Baylor, to Georgetown at the Maui Invitational, and at Colorado. The Baylor loss is totally, coming as it did on the road against one of the best teams in the country and without arguably Oregon’s best player, junior forward Dillon Brooks (6’7”, 225 lbs.). The Georgetown loss is tougher to explain, even though Brooks was just coming back into the line-up, because Georgetown is the very definition of mediocre team in 2017. Colorado is better than its record indicates, but the Buffaloes are also a mediocre squad. However, the loss was the second game in three days at altitude for the Ducks, which makes that loss more understandable.
Those losses saw the Ducks fall below their opposition in almost all of the categories cited above. That makes an analysis easy, right? The Bruins simply need to outrebound the Ducks, outshoot them, cause more turnovers, and get to the foul line more. Seriously, though, there is an underlying cause of Oregon’s poor play in its three losses that can’t really be measured by statistical impact. More than any other team in the nation, the Ducks can be a victim of their collective hubris. Simply stated, Oregon is an incredibly arrogant team, and while that arrogance can be a motivator (as it was this past weekend against Arizona), it can also be a massive detriment to the team. The Ducks have been supremely motivated against the better teams in the Pac-12 since conference play started. The Ducks played well against the Bruins in Eugene back in January, hammered USC and Cal (also both a home), and boat raced the Wildcats this past Saturday. It has been against lesser competition where the Ducks have played with an arrogance that probably contributed to closer victories than expected and the loss to Colorado.
That hubris has been present all season, but most commentators and writers have used terms like “chemistry issues” and “selfish play” to describe what is essentially the same overconfidence issue.
However, the first meeting between the Ducks and the Bruins is particularly instructive because the Ducks played well for much of the game…and the Bruins still should have won. The Ducks have heard from many commentators and reporters that the Bruins were the better team that January night and how the Ducks were lucky to escape with the win on their home court. That could serve as a bulletin-board type material for Oregon. The question is: will the Ducks be over-motivated? Will Oregon’s arrogance get the best of it?
Make no mistake; Oregon is a very talented team and one that can win the national title in April. The Ducks are athletic, deep enough to remain relatively fresh and are well coached. Brooks has been a monster in Pac-12 play and should be in the conversation for conference Player of the Year. He is averaging 16 PPG in the conference, including shooting 56% overall from the field and 41% from behind the arc. He’s actually been the second-best assist man in conference play, averaging 3.3 APG. He also has been active on defense, accounting for 15 steals. He has the most turnovers on the team in conference play but he is also touching the ball on virtually every possession, a statistic normally reserved for a team’s point guard. However, a number of his turnovers have come when he has let his own hubris get the best of him and he has tried an acrobatic play or pass that has little chance for success. If Oregon is indeed an arrogant team, Brooks is arguably the most arrogant.
Senior forward Christopher Boucher (6’10”, 200 lbs.) is arguably the next most talented player on the roster. However, since his return from an ankle injury he sustained against UNLV in December, Boucher has been coming off the bench. He is still playing starter’s minutes, but Dana Altman hasn’t messed with what was working. Another reason for his being the super-sub is that he can easily slide into Brooks’ spot at the ‘4’ or take the place of junior Jordan Bell (6’9”, 225 lbs.) in the post. Boucher is a tough match-up because he can shoot the three-pointer with high efficiency (although he is only 33% from distance in conference play) or play with his back to the basket. He is difficult to beat on the defensive end because of his athleticism. While he is a solid rebounder at 5.8 RPG in the Pac-12, he is an exceptional shot blocker when he’s engaged on the defensive end.
Brooks and Boucher provide some serious match-up issues for the Bruins because they are athletic and, in Brooks’ case, strong. Then add Bell to the mix and Oregon’s front line is truly imposing. He is averaging 11.5 PPG and a team-leading 6.7 RPG in conference. He is also a defensive presence and while not the shot blocker the caliber of Boucher, he is still quite good. He also has quick hands on defense and is athletic enough to stay with UCLA’s Thomas Welsh when the Bruin junior moves out to the elbow or the short corner for his mid-range jumper.
Because Altman starts Bell with Brooks at the ‘5’ and the ‘4’ respectively, the Bruins could have some real issues guarding them if Bruin head Coach Steve Alford decides to play a great deal of man defense. Welsh is going to struggle with the quickness of Bell and/or Boucher, and for all of T.J. Leaf’s abilities, he may struggle with Brooks’ strength and athleticism and Boucher’s length. One of the biggest tactical head-scratchers from this past weekend was why Arizona Head Coach Sean Miller had Lauri Markkanen try to play man defense on Brooks. Brooks was able to use his athleticism to great effect against the Wildcat frosh. Leaf is a better athlete than Markkanen, but he would still struggle in that area.
Ike Anigbogu can physically cause Bell some issues when the Bruins frosh is on defense, but UCLA would be sacrificing a chunk of its offensive options by having him on the floor rather than Welsh. This is also a game where Gyorgy Goloman probably shouldn’t be playing more than a few minutes.
The backcourt match-up is athletically less of a problem for the Bruins. UCLA’s talent at the three guard positions is conceivably better than what Oregon brings to the floor, especially when accounting for bench players.
Oregon’s three starting guards are senior point guard Dylan Ennis (6’2”, 195 lbs.), sophomore Tyler Dorsey (6’4”, 195 lbs.) and freshman Payton Pritchard (6’2”, 200 lbs.). All three players are very good three-point shooters, especially in Pac-12 play, with Ennis averaging 50%, Pritchard averaging 47% and Dorsey at 39%. Dorsey leads the triumvirate with 54 attempts from behind the arc, but Pritchard has 45 and Ennis 44. The three combined for 34 points in the earlier win against the Bruins in January. Pritchard was especially dangerous that game, going 5-8 from the floor including 3-5 from distance. That included a broken play three-pointer with less than 20 seconds to go in the game and the Bruins holding a four-point lead.
Ennis is the ostensible point guard but he has been muted as a passer this season. Pritchard actually leads the team with 88 assists on the season and averages 3.9 APG in conference play.
Junior Casey Benson (6’3”, 185 lbs.) provides depth off the bench and there is little drop-off when he is in. Remember that Benson started most of last season when Ennis was lost for the year with an injury. He isn’t a threat off the dribble like Ennis can be, but he has more of a true point guard’s mentality. Benson is another good outside shooter, averaging 45% for the season and 59% (17-29) from the three-point line in conference play.
The thing with the Oregon backcourt players is that only Ennis is really a threat off the dribble. Dorsey will occasionally look to drive, but Benson and Pritchard are almost exclusively spot-up shooters.
When these teams met in January, the four Oregon guards combined for 40 points. UCLA’s backcourt quartet of Bryce Alford, Lonzo Ball, Isaac Hamilton, and Aaron Holiday combined for 41. Hamilton and Holiday had poor games, with Hamilton in particular being a non-factor, scoring only 2 points. In that game in Eugene, the Ducks got about what they expected from their backcourt scoring. The Bruins, however, left a lot of points on the floor, with Hamilton quiet and Holiday scoring just 5. Had even one of those players hit for just 10 points, which would still be below their scoring averages, the Bruins would have won the game.
Still, there is a real concern about how UCLA is going to defend Oregon. Certainly a good defensive effort would help, and the game on Saturday at Washington was at least a step in the right direction. Even if UCLA brings good effort defensively, though, that still leaves Oregon with some significant advantages on the floor, particularly in terms of athleticism.
If UCLA decides to play man defense, then expect Welsh to take Bell, with Leaf on Brooks, Ball on Ennis, Hamilton on Dorsey, and Alford on Pritchard. When Holiday comes in, he would likely guard Ennis which would shift Ball to one of Dorsey or Pritchard.
However, even though it defies convention a bit, the Bruins would be better off playing their 1-2-2 zone with Ball at the top. Usually a zone is employed to stop an opponent with a superior inside game, but UCLA has actually been better against the perimeter when employing the zone. That’s because the length the Bruins employs, especially with Ball up top, can disrupt passing and allows the defense time to recover. The worry is that Oregon will exploit Welsh and Leaf on the baseline and look for jumpers from the corners when the UCLA bigs are too slow to get out and challenge the shooters. Really, though, it comes down to effort. A defense with less athleticism and a good deal of effort can frustrate Oregon — just ask Colorado.
From a team standpoint, the Bruins need to limit turnovers and hope that Oregon throws the ball away at its normal clip or worse (13 TO per game). That will allow Oregon fewer open floor baskets and allow UCLA more time to get its defense set.
There is a feeling, though, that this game is going to be one that comes down to intangibles, and that brings us back to Oregon’s main issue: its hubris. Additionally, Altman is a gifted bench coach in game situations, but Alford has also been pretty good most of this season.
UCLA’s offense is going to have to operate at a very high level, which is what fans saw on Saturday. The Bruins certainly know what this game means in terms of perception and in terms of going forward, and we have a sneaking suspicion that the Bruins feel like they let the game in Eugene get away from them. Expect the Bruins to be motivated for this one.
But really, the Bruins need the Ducks to be a bit ‘off’ in this one. Predictions are really just educated guesses, and this one is really going to be a shot in the dark because it is predicated on Oregon not being able to duplicate its shooting performance and effort from Saturday’s victory over Arizona. Keep in mind that Oregon looked fairly pedestrian on offense in the three games leading up to this past Saturday. In fact, the Ducks should have lost to Arizona State one week ago, but that was clearly a case of looking ahead. The question is whether Oregon, which was about as emotionally amped as it could be on Saturday, can summon another similar effort on Thursday. The Ducks certainly can, but don’t be surprised if they come back down to Earth a bit.
And UCLA has the potential offense to take advantage of that letdown.