UCLA, seeded fourth, faces Oregon State (16-13, 8-10), who have the 5th seed, at the Staples Center today in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament.
UCLA beat Oregon State last Thursday, 69-61, in a game that was vastly important for the Bruins. It was a key win for them in getting enough Ws to look good for the NCAA tournament committee, and it guaranteed them at least a tie of third place in the conference.
It also proved that UCLA could beat a pretty decent Oregon State team when they didn't play particularly well offensively.
UCLA's leading scorer, Dijon Thompson, finished with 18 points in that game but struggled most of the way on the offensive end. He shot 33% from the field and was 1-of-5 from three. UCLA's two backcourt freshmen, point guard Jordan Farmar and shooting guard Arron Afflalo, picked up the slack, scoring 23 and 12, respectively.
But if UCLA is going to make a serious run in the Pac-10 tournament Thompson will have to come out of the shooting slump that Head Coach Ben Howland says he's not in.
UCLA's defense, though, hasn't been in a slump. They've held their last four opponents to under and haven't allowed anyone to score over 70 points since Arizona did February 2nd. The tough defense has been key in UCLA's four-game winning streak – while it's offense has run hot and cold the defense has kept them in games and, really, won them.
As Howland said Tuesday in his press conference, a big key to UCLA's stellar defense has been the defensive play of Afflalo. He had always gotten the assignment of defending the opposition's best scoring wing, but now that role has expanded to include even point guards.
The problem with Oregon State is they don't necessarily have one standout perimeter scorer, but a fleet of small, quick guys who all have scoring capability. Perhaps the most dangerous is Chris Stephens, the 6-2 junior shooting guard, who is their leading three-point shooter. He can put it up quickly, and just needs a little room. The senior shooting guard J.S. Nash also has a pretty quickly lefty stroke, and he has a knack for getting in the lane. 5-9 guard Jason Fontenet's quickness also presents a challenge, and he can also shoot, making 40% of his threes for the season.
You combine those guys with OSU's good-shooting big men and you have the best outside shooting team in the conference. They're shooting over 40% from three in conference play.
Offensively, they love to penetrate and kick, to the point that they're continually committing that no-no of driving off a teammate's drive. It makes for an offense that flies around a lot, running it's opponents defense into the ground in the hope of getting an open shot.
The other way OSU's offense creates is by going inside-outside, since they have one of the best inside men in the Pac-10 in 6-7 senior David Lucas. He's very crafty on the block and has one of those quick, soft releases on his shot that always seems to go in, even if it bounces around a bit on the rim. He averages almost 19 points per game. UCLA's center Michael Fey didn't defend Lucas well early last week, but Ryan Hollins proved to be better and played 20 minutes. UCLA will probably double Lucas some, since the double team has been so effective this season, but it can't afford to leave its perimeter defense undermanned too much against OSU's shooters.
Nick DeWitz, the 6-8 forward, is also averaging close to 14 points a game, and he does it with his athleticism around the basket as well as being a very good three-point shooter. In last week's game, though, Thompson matched up really well against DeWitz defensively.
Oregon State, when they play defense, is a good team. They tend to lapse defensively, though, and it costs them. When they played it with intensity for spurts against UCLA last Thursday, they surged.
It's another challenge that UCLA's freshmen will have to face, playing in their first Pac-10 tournament. They've come so far and have been playing like such veterans in the last month you tend to forget that this is still all new to them. It wouldn't be unexpected if UCLA had some jitters or was really wound up for this game, and actually lost. Oregon State has clinched its first winning season since 1990, and is playing for an NIT berth. But more than likely, if it can calm down long enough to play the solid defense it has four the last four games, it more than likely will get enough offense to beat the Beavers.