OSU Comes to Pauley

In another critical game for UCLA, the Bruins take on a good Oregon State team tonight at Pauley Pavilion. It's a game, again, with huge NCAA tournament implications, with a loss probably putting UCLA back up on that bubble...

The game against Oregon State tonight is vastly important -- more important that the Notre Dame game last Sunday. While winning against Notre Dame was significant, not losing to Oregon State is more.

UCLA is 9-7 in the Pac-10 (16-9 overall), while Oregon State is 8-8 (16-11). If UCLA loses to Oregon State, they'll both have 9-8 Pac-10 records, but OSU would move ahead of UCLA in a tiebreaker since it would have swept the series this year.

If that's the order it would finish, with Stanford holding on for third place, the loss would drop UCLA to fifth in the Pac-10.

If UCLA wins they can do no worse than fourth place with a chance at third, if Stanford stumbles twice against the visiting Washington schools this weekend.

In the eyes of the NCAA tournament committee, there is a significant difference between third or fourth in the conference and fifth. There is also a significant difference between 18-9, say, heading into the Pac-10 tournament and 17-10. There's also a difference with finishing the regular season with four straight wins.

A loss would put UCLA squarely back on the NCAA bubble. A win would come close to putting them over the bubble.

When looking at Oregon State against UCLA, there are two contrasting aspects. OSU beat UCLA December 31st in Corvallis, 85-80, in its first Pac-10 game of the season. So, they can obviously beat the Bruins.

On the other hand, there is quite a bit indicating that it will be a far tougher proposition for the Beavers this time. OSU is 2-8 on the road this season, and an eye-opening 0-7 on the road in the conference. Their two out-of-conference road wins were at Boise State and at Prairie View A&M, two teams that are 17-35 collectively for the season. They also have lost 10 straight Pac-10 games going back to last season, and have won only one of their last 19 conference games on the road.

To the Beavers' credit, they did lose some close games on the road, including at Stanford (69-65), and at Arizona State (75-73). But they also lost big on the road to Washington (108-68), Washington State (63-45), Arizona (91-70), and at Cal (91-66).

Last weekend, though, they did put together two strong wins against Stanford and Cal. But they were in Corvallis.

Also, when UCLA and OSU first met, this was a different Bruin team. UCLA has played 17 games since, which makes UCLA's freshmen practically sophomores now, especially given the amount of minutes per game they're playing.

In that game, UCLA played poorly and with a lack of experience. Jordan Farmar had a season-high 9 turnovers. Dijon Thompson was just beginning to get comfortable in his role as the four man. Josh Shipp was starting just his fourth game. It was only UCLA's second road game of the season and the first in conference, which is significant given UCLA was starting three inexperienced freshmen.

And UCLA played a "stupid zone," in the words of Head Coach Ben Howland, which they haven't since.

You could easily assert that this UCLA team, which has won 6 of its last 9 (with its only three losses coming against teams higher in the Pac-10 standings), is a much better team than it was New Year's Eve. You could say it is entirely a New Year.

Oregon State has, since then, gone 7-8. And it's easy to see a pattern in their schedule. They win at home and lose on the road.

Hopefully UCLA will keep that pattern alive.

It truly is a tale of two different Beaver teams – at home and on the road. They're averaging 48% shooting from the field at home, but just 39% on the road. They're scoring 80 points per game for the season at home, but just 64 points per road game. Their seven conference opponents have averaged 81 points a game, while shooting 50% from the field. The Beavers have been decisively out-rebounded on the road, too, in six of their seven Pac-10 road games. They are last in the conference in overall rebounding margin because of it, getting out-rebounded by 5.4 boards per game on the season, and over 9 rebounds per game on the road.

Their best player, 6-8 power forward David Lucas, has really been coming on lately, after missing the first several games of the season as a result of having surgery on his right toe. He's fifth in the conference in scoring, averaging 18.6 per game. He's a strong, quick, crafty scorer in the post, another "load" in a long line of loads that UCLA center Michael Fey has had to guard this season. It's pretty certain that UCLA will probably use its post-double strategy on Lucas, who doesn't tend to like to pass the ball much. Once it goes into him, the ball generally stays with him.

Oregon State, though, presents a challenge from the perimeter for UCLA's defense, being the best three-point shooting team in the conference. They are shooting 41% from three, with a variety of guys who can knock it down. 6-8 forward Nick DeWitz is shooting a fantastic 58% from three for the season (over 3% better than he's shooting from the field!), and just hit a career-high 7 three-pointers against Cal on Saturday. He tends to get open looks because most of the time a big, bulky defender is on him who doesn't like to step out to defend beyond the three-point line. It could be different if UCLA's Thompson gets the assignment of guarding DeWitz.

Along with DeWitz, Oregon State has two other very good three-point shooters, the ones actually who take most of their three pointers, in 6-2 senior lefty J.S. Nash (40% from three) and 6-2 junior Chris Stephens (41%) . Nash starts more often, but both are averaging 27-29 minutes per game. Throw in jet-quick 5-9 point guard Jason Fontenet (36%), who loves to shoot the three and can get hot, and you have a lot of outside threats.

UCLA's defense has been stellar as of late, especially at contesting opponents' outside shooting, but OSU presents a considerable challenge with all of these shooters. OSU also can dribble penetrate, with Fontenet's quickness, and Nash can sometimes get into the lane effectively.

Hopefully UCLA will play the same kind of defense it's play recently, and Oregon State will stay true to form and shoot 39% from the field on the road.

Oregon State, too, is probably one of the deepest teams in the conference. Starting in various games or coming off the bench have been 6-10 freshman Sasha Cuic, a skilled European; Lamar Hurd, 6-4 junior point guard, and Kyle Jeffers, a 6-9, 270-pound post. OSU will go 9 to 10 players deep.

Defensively, the Beavers aren't fantastic. They play both man and zone, and don't do either with much energy. They are particularly not good at defending inside, with Lucas really the only guy who has the talent, size and desire to defend in the middle.

As it has been for so many games for these Bruins, this one is a test. It's a test to see if UCLA can maintain its focus and sustain its recent level of play when it needs to most, when it's rounding the back stretch and heading for home.

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