UCLA faces Oregon State (8-2) tonight in Corvallis, and the two teams don't have a common opponent.
They do have a common opponent once-removed, in two different ways.
Oregon State also lost to East Carolina in Corvallis, 64-62. East Carolina routed Pepperdine 80-58.
So, Oregon State barely lost in Las Vegas to UNLV, which beat Pepperdine in Malibu, which barely lost to UCLA in Pauley Pavilion.
And, Oregon State barely lost in Corvallis to East Carolina, a team that routed Pepperdine, which barely lost to UCLA in Pauley Pavilion.
And since these common games once-removed, Oregon State has gotten back its best players and one of the best players in the conference, 6-7 senior forward David Lucas. Lucas had surgery to repair a damaged tendon in his toe in late October and missed the first ten games of the season. UCLA was hoping he'd miss the first twelve games of the season. Lucas is a returning all Pac-10 player from a year ago, when he averaged 17.2 points and 7 rebounds per game. And amazingly, he's a former walk-on, the son of former NBAer Maurice Lucas. In his first real game back earlier this week against Sacramento State, in 17 minutes of play he had 13 points and 3 rebounds. He probably still will be a little rusty for UCLA in this first Pac-10 go-round, but having him on the court is still a problem for the Bruins. He's a strong, agile post player who presents a considerable problem for UCLA defensively.
But that's not UCLA's only frontcourt defensive problem with the Beavers. 6-10, 240-pound freshman Sasha Cuic just came to the Beavers' program in September from Croatia. Talking about a great late addition, Cuic is a potential pro, with a big body and good skills. He leads the team so far this season in scoring (14.5) and rebounds (5.9).
Now, you'd think that'd be a big enough challenge for UCLA's thin and struggling frontcourt to handle, but it gets even worse. One of the better transfers a year ago in the west became eligible for OSU early this month, 6-8 Nick DeWitz. DeWitz originally went to a couple of JCs out of high school, and continued to grow and get better after high school graduation, before going to Iowa last season. After just eight games at Iowa, he left for OSU last January. He's averaging just 16 minutes per game in his first six games with the Beavers, but DeWitz has averaged 10.3 points and 4.7 rebounds. Since being eligible he's given the Beavers another inside presence, similar to Lucas in being big, strong and agile, with a decent ability to step out and shoot also.
These three have pushed the center who was anticipated to start for the Beavers, Kyle Jeffers, to the bench. The 6-9, 270-pound sophomore has been better off the bench, actually, providing big-bodied defense against bigger opponents, and being able to sustain his effort better in short spurts. The usual frontcourt enforcer off the bench has been Jim Hanchett, the 6-6, 250-pound senior. He took a couple of games off in the last couple of weeks to play with the OSU football team in the Insight Bowl. He will, though, probably lose considerable minutes with the return of Lucas.
OSU's backcourt doesn't present as big a challenge for UCLA as its frontcourt. 6-4 junior point guard Lamar Hurd hasn't started off the season well, having trouble in just about every aspect of the game. He's struggled the most with his turnovers, while he also hasn't done well in running the team, creating shots for his teammates or shooting. While OSU had always believed Hurd could be a big-time point because of his size and decent ball-handling, the rest of his game hasn't materialized, particularly his shooting. He's such an abysmal shooter that defenses can lag off of him.
With Hurd struggling, much of the point guard duties have fallen to New Mexico State transfer, 5-10 junior Jason Fontenet. Fontenet is one of those very quick, speedy types who also, very typically, can get out of control also. He is a good passer and has provided the Beavers some playmaking ability at the point. He'll also take the open shot if he gets it.
The responsibility for OSU's outside scoring falls greatly on the shoulders of 6-1 senior J.S. Nash. Without anyone else who can really shoot the ball consistently from the outside among OSU's starters, Nash plays the most minutes on the team (31), and averages 10.7 points. He's a lefty that will shoot from just about anywhere, while he tries to penetrate too much without the athleticism to pull it off. He is a decent defender, and it's the main reason why he plays so many minutes.
One of the biggest keys to OSU's offense, then, comes off the bench in the form of shooter Chris Stephens. The 6-2 junior is averaging 11 points per game, but is shooting just 32% from three, while he's still made the most threes on the team. He's a shooter and there aren't many shots he doesn't like.
The other shooter on OSU is 6-3 sophomore Angelo Tsagarakis, but he's been out since dislocating a shoulder in September. He's been practicing since the beginning of the December and it's believed he could play at anytime.
Also coming off the bench has been 6-6 freshman Marcel Jones, from Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei, 6-6 sophomore Kenny Hooks, and 6-5 senior Vic Remmers. Jones is averaging almost seven points per game off the bench, but he's wild and doesn't have a great feel for the game, isn't a very good athlete for his size, and not a great defender.
So, it's pretty clear what OSU represents for UCLA. The Beavers will be tough for UCLA to defend inside, especially with the plan being that Dijon Thompson will get most of the minutes at the four. If Matt McKinney can indeed now play more minutes, watch for him to get more playing time tonight. If not, expect to see Ryan Hollins play a good amount of minutes for the defense he can provide against OSU's frontline. If Lucas, though, is close to his actual self, he, DeWitz and Cuic are just plainly too much for UCLA's frontcourt to handle.
UCLA will have to make up for it with the advantage they have in the backcourt. The toughest element of OSU's backcourt for UCLA could be staying defensively with Fontenet and not allowing him to penetrate and create for his teammates.
On the other side of the court, OSU's backcourt will be challenged to stay with UCLA's perimeter scorers. If Brian Morrison can shoot out of his slump it would greatly enhance UCLA's chances.
But with UCLA's young backcourt going on its first Pac-10 road game, and the clear advantage inside to OSU, the Beavers should have enough on their home court to take the young Bruins.
Oregon State, with their frontcourt talent, has a chance to finish in the top five of the Pac-10 conference.
Oregon State 74