Fresh off a dramatic come-from-behind victory over Oregon, the UCLA men’s basketball team returns to the court on Sunday afternoon when the Bruins host the Oregon State Beavers at Pauley Pavilion (2 PM PST: Fox Sports 1).
Depending on Saturday’s results, the Bruins could be playing for a second-place tie in the Pac-12 Conference, while the Beavers are probably feeling that the season can’t end soon enough. Since the Bruins are coming off the huge win over the Ducks and will be facing USC in a week, and with Oregon State currently leading the discussion for worst high-major conference team in the nation, the obvious question for UCLA is whether the Bruins will suffer a big letdown and allow the game to be competitive.
Oregon State, which began the season with muted expectations to begin with, has seen its season spiral into a disaster. The Beavers are currently 4-21 overall and 0-12 in the Pac-12. It all started coming apart with a loss in the third game of the season, at home to Lamar. The Beavers then lost their best player, sophomore forward Tres Tinkle (6’8”, 220 lbs.) to a season-ending injury in the sixth game. The non-conference season reached its nadir when the Beavers lost in Corvallis to Savannah State, one of the worst NCAA Division I teams in the land. If anything, the Beavers have been worse in the conference, The two losses to the mountain schools and the conference-opening defeat to USC were the only losses in the Pac-12 where OSU was within single-digits at the end. It really is difficult to describe just how bad the Beavers are unless viewed in person. UCLA beat the Beavers in Corvallis by 13 points on December 30 when the Bruins played one of their most lethargic games of the season. The Bruins were coming off a last-second defeat at Oregon two nights earlier.
Seriously, Oregon State has no reasonable chance in this game. The Bruins would literally have to collapse to a level unimaginable right now for them to lose to Oregon State.
It’s a bit of a shame, really. Oregon State Head Coach Wayne Tinkle, Tres’ father, is considered one of the better coaches in the conference. When there was speculation last year about the UCLA coaching position, there were more than a few people who brought up Tinkle’s name as a possible replacement had the Bruins decided to move in a different direction. The Beavers were coming off their first NCAA Tournament appearance in more than 20 years. Unfortunately, Tinkle is now facing some speculation about his future in Corvallis. His guidance of the team to last season’s NCAAs should have given him more cover than he’s probably received. Keep in mind that Oregon State lost several key components from last year’s squad, so there were reasonable thoughts that the team was going to come back to the bottom of the Pac-12 this season. Then there were the inexplicable early season home losses, which were obviously unforeseen, and then the younger Tinkle’s injury came and the bottom has fallen out. Oregon State is not an elite program and hasn’t been even in that discussion since Ralph Miller walked the sidelines. He’s been gone for 27 years, so Tinkle’s team accomplished a great deal last season. Some Oregon State fans are acting as if now the Beavers should be in the running for an NCAA berth every season.
The Beavers aren’t without some talent, despite the absence of Tinkle the Younger. However, much of that talent resides in one player, sophomore guard Stephen Thompson Jr. (6’4”, 175 lbs.). Thompson isn’t talented enough to put the team on his back and carry it to some success, but he certainly would be getting major minutes at any other Pac-12 school, and would probably be starting at most. The point is that he’d be a major contributor at any other conference school. It’s actually a bit stunning that’s he’s been as successful as he’s been this season because every opponent is absolutely keying on him as the only truly dangerous player on the Beaver roster, and rightfully so. He’s averaging 18 PPG in conference play and is shooting 43% from the field overall and 41% from behind the arc. Keep in mind that he often is facing double-teams and multiple defenders shaded towards his side of the floor. He’s averaging 4 RPG in Pac-12 play, which is second-best on the team (and that’s part of the problem) and leads the team in steals and assists in conference. He is more of a scoring lead guard, but he does take on traditional point guard duties about half of every game.
The other two guards in Oregon State’s small starting line-up are freshmen JaQuori McLaughlin (6’4”, 185 lbs.) and Kendal Manuel (6’4”, 185 lbs.). It is a testament to OSU’s lack of depth that both freshmen are counted on so heavily. McLaughlin averages 36 MPG in Pac-12 play and Manuel is averaging 32 MPG. Thompson leads at 37 MPG. Neither one is truly ready to be playing major minutes in a high-major conference., although they both should be solid Pac-12 players by their senior seasons.
Although they are built similarly, they are have different skill sets. McLaughlin is more of an offensive player, averaging 11 PPG for the season and 10 PPG in conference. He has been a poor shooter overall but fairly solid, at 36%, from behind the arc. He also runs the point when Thompson isn’t. Like many freshmen, he tends to play too fast at times on the offensive end so the key is to close out hard on him and get him to put the ball on the floor.
Manuel is much more of a defensive player. He is a poor shooter…from everywhere, including the free throw line, where he’s 40% on his foul shots in conference play. He will more than likely be matched-up on UCLA’s Lonzo Ball when OSU plays man. He has the makings of the kind of “glue guy” that every good team seems to have and need. Oddly enough, UCLA probably doesn’t have that kind of player, with Aaron Holiday probably being the closest. Of course, when you have the kind of leader that Ball has become, a ‘glue guy’ may not be necessary.
Oregon State has another Pac-12-level player in sophomore post Drew Eubanks (6’10”, 250 lbs.). He’s averaging 15 PPG overall and 16.4 PPG in conference play. He leads the team in rebounding at 8.5 RPG and in blocks, with 17. The problem is that Eubanks basically has no supporting cast in the frontcourt. The drop-off in talent after Eubanks in the low post is staggering. Further, Eubanks was supposed to be the third offensive option on this team behind Thompson and Tinkle. The fact that he’s shooting 60% from the field is a testament to how hard he works. He is a limited athlete, and that shows on the defensive end. He actually played well in OSU’s loss to the Bruins the first time they met, going for 18 points and 9 boards. In fact, Thompson, with 25 points, as well as McLaughlin accompanied Eubanks in having solid games against the Bruins. The problem was the rest of the team was offensively awful. Theoretically Eubanks should have some trouble guarding UCLA’s Thomas Welsh, as the UCLA junior tends to drag his man away from the paint. However, Welsh only had 2 points in the first meeting between these two squads.
Oregon State has simply been getting killed on the glass this season. As a result, and with the loss of Tres Tinkle really impacting Oregon State’s ability to rebound, Coach Tinkle has found it necessary to insert sophomore Gligorije Rakocevic (6’11”, 255 lbs.) into the starting line-up. He doesn’t shoot well (40% from the field) and doesn’t rebound well (3.8 RPG) for his size, at least not yet, but he does add height and bulk to the frontcourt, so conceivably Eubanks doesn’t have to carry the low post defensive burden by himself.
As Tinkle has sought solutions to many of the team’s woes, he’s actually shortened the bench. The only other players who’ve been getting any real minutes off the bench are junior guard Ronnie Stacy (6’4”, 195 lbs.) and freshman forward Ben Kone (6’8”, 235 lbs.). Stacy is a stopgap player who only plays so that the starters can get a breather. Kone is raw but the athleticism and desire are evident. He had 10 points against USC on Thursday night. Neither is particularly worrisome, in Kone’s case, at least not yet.
Tinkle has a dilemma most nights and Sunday’s game will be no different. The team struggles to rebound, resulting in many second chance opportunities for opponents. However, the team also struggles to defend teams when playing man-to-man defense, primarily because of the athletic limitations in the low post. Oregon State actually plays solid zone defense but that has caused the rebounding issue to be compounded.
Oregon State has other issues that it has to worry itself about. The Beavers turn the ball over at a much higher rate than its Pac-12 opposition. That’s probably a bad recipe ingredient when playing a team like UCLA, who would absolutely love to get into some transition opportunities. The Beavers allow opponents to shoot better than they do, both overall and from behind the three-point line. Again, this team really struggles.
This game is really about UCLA. Pauley Pavilion was a true home-court advantage to the Bruins on Thursday night. As the Bruins made their comeback, the arena was as loud as its been in some time. Playing a top-5 opponent will help to create that atmosphere. Of course, coming back from a 19-point deficit will also help. Still, the atmosphere on Sunday will probably be muted compared to Thursday night despite the fact that Sunday’s game will be nationally televised.
Probably all Bruin fans are anxiously waiting to see if UCLA’s defense from the final 10-12 minutes of Thursday’s game will translate to Sunday or if it was a defense that came about because of the situation and the opponent. Honestly, it was the best sequence of man-to-man defense I’ve seen UCLA employ since Ben Howland left Westwood. Good teams play with that kind of effort on most nights but definitely when they need to in order to try and win big games. Great teams play with that kind of defensive intensity virtually all the time.
Coach Tinkle will probably try and slow the game down a bit, much like the Beavers did when these teams played in December. If UCLA completely control the tempo, then the boat race will be on.
Oregon State will be a test in that it will be interesting to see of the Bruins come out with that kind of intensity to start the game. Honestly, this game could be relatively close for a while; figuring UCLA has a bit of a letdown after the Oregon game. However, if the Bruins come out from the opening tip with anything approaching the intensity they displayed the final quarter of Thursday’s game, they could jump out to a big lead early. Oregon State has little to play for and have shown little fight over the past few weeks. If they get down big early, this could turn into a 50-point rout.
Let’s see how much of a lesson has been learned and how mature this Bruin team has become.
Oregon State 72