At a time when the Bruins are reeling a bit, the best news of all is that the team currently playing the poorest in the conference, Oregon State, comes to Pauley Pavilion for a Thursday night match-up with the Bruins. So, the question is, how will the Bruins handle the pressure of the newest, "biggest game of the year?"
If there is a team in the PAC-10 that is reeling more than the Bruins right now, it's the Beavers of Oregon State. They just recently stopped a slide in which they lost 7 of 8 games (all of which happened with starting senior point guard Lamar Hurd out with a groin injury) by beating Washington State, but then promptly got hammered at home by Washington. In the process of slipping into last place in the conference, there has been in-fighting between players, between players and Coach Jay John, and there is now mounting talk that Coach John will be replaced at the end of the season. The player in-fighting is nothing new for a team that had NCAA aspirations as much as one month ago and has numerous seniors on the roster. But the in-fighting between the players and coach is something that I am sure is leading to the speculation about John's job security (or lack thereof). Evidently John is having issues with senior guard Jason Fontenet (5'10" 168 lbs.) over style of play and playing time and the arguments have become public. Recently, just to add to the team's woes, senior Chris Stephens (6'2" 195 lbs.) was benched as a starter against Washington for being late to a team meeting. Word is that Stephens also has issues with John and that the benching was the proverbial "shot across the bow." As much as Oregon State seems to be limping even more than the Bruins into Thursday's game, it can be worrisome. As UCLA of the Lavin years proved more than once, a wounded animal strikes back the hardest. It makes one wary of the wounded Beaver coming into Pauley.
It's not as if the Beavers don't have any talent. In fact, if you looked at their roster in October you would have been excused for thinking that they had a realistic chance of getting to the Big Dance and certainly challenging for conference honors. OSU actually looked pretty good (excepting the losses to Portland and Tennessee Tech) when beating Georgia, Washington and Cal. But then Hurd got hurt and the bottom has fallen out. It isn't difficult to assess the importance of the influence of a solid, starting senior point guard on a team and Hurd is a prime example. In his absence the Beavers have basically used a point by committee approach, with freshmen Wesley Washington (6'3" 175 lbs.) and Brett Casey (6'1" 170 lbs.) being the primary holders of the point position. When the Bruins played the Beavers in Corvallis, Washington was the starter. But he was and is erratic. Mostly because he is a natural two-guard and his lack of discipline at the point cost the team in the area of turnovers. Casey has started recently and generally makes better decisions than Washington, but he is very limited athletically. He averages only 12 MPG and he doesn't shoot much, instead looking to get the Beavers in their offense and going from there. Even with a gimpy ankle, playing against Casey is very advantageous for Jordan Farmar and Darren Collison. They will be able to turn Casey fairly easily, instead of the other way around as happened so much against USC. And with Casey not shooting much, the Bruins can defend off him. Of course I thought the same thing about Francis and Shackelford this past Sunday and that didn't really come to pass. Still, Casey isn't the player that either USC guard is, at least not athletically. The question is how much Fontenet will play, being in John's doghouse. He did burn the Bruins in the first half of the game in Corvallis with some off-balance threes and some nice passes off penetration.
At the two-guard, expect John to again start Stephens. He is the probably the 2nd best outside shooter for the Beavers at 40% from behind the arc and he can penetrate and create his own shot. Arron Afflalo did a very good job in the first meeting between the schools, limiting both Stephens' touches and, consequently, shots. The Beavers can also bring in three-point specialist, sophomore Angelo Tsagarakis (6'3" 195 lbs.), but he is hitting only 15% of his shots from behind the arc this season.
The Beavers have four options to choose from in the post, starting with sophomore Sasa Cuic (6'10" 253 lbs.). Cuic has really become the player that John thought he would be when he recruited him from Serbia last year. He is scoring a lot of points (now averaging a team high 13.5 PPG) and rebounding well (averaging almost 5 RPG). In the first meeting between the Bruins and the Beavers, Cuic went off for 24 points and 7 rebounds. Cuic represents the worst possible post match-up for the Bruins, one who can score from the low post, but is more comfortable stepping outside and drawing the Bruins posts, whether it be Luc Mbah a Moute or Alfred Aboya or Ryan Hollins or Ryan Wright. In short, he killed UCLA from the perimeter last time around and Ryan Hollins had his hands full defending him. He's the one player that could single-handedly win the game for the Beavers. But he has been playing well and scoring and the Beavers have still been losing.
The other post players are sophomore Marcel Jones (6'8" 215 lbs.), junior Kyle Jeffers (6'9" 258 lbs.) and senior Nick DeWitz (6'8" 230 lbs.). Jones has become a rebounding machine, averaging a team-leading 6.8 RPG. He's even scoring more now, averaging close to 9 PPG. Jones typically will come off the bench. Jeffers will start but probably not play much. He is starting to remind me of Michael Fey in that he can't seem to rebound well, and given his girth, that's surprising. DeWitz was the one Beaver that you felt sure would be an All-Conference selection at the beginning of the season, but he has been, quite frankly, a bit of a disappointment. In the first meeting, these three players combined for 13 points and 13 boards while the worst combination of three Bruins had 25 points and 15 rebounds. The Bruin bigs need to at least play these three Beavers to a "wash" on Thursday.
OSU may play better getting away from the increasingly hostile atmosphere of Gill Coliseum. If they believe that John may be gone at the end of the year, they may play with less pressure on themselves, or more. It seems that only the seniors have an issue with John. There is the chance that they will play with nothing to lose, because, honestly, they really don't.
Quite frankly, though, this game is more about the Bruins than about the Beavers. The Bruins need more offense out of Cedric Bozeman or Coach Howland might start thinking about playing Mike Roll more. The Bruin big men need to be more of a low-post force, at least to give the half-court offense a sense of balance and open things up for the guards. Arron Afflalo has got to become more diversified. It's pretty evident that he believes that he needs to carry the offense at times, and when he gets like that he becomes a one-dimensional, black-hole type of player (the ball goes to him and doesn't come out). Afflalo has become easier to defend because opposing defenders realize that he doesn't look to pass often. Farmar and Collison have to do a better job at denying the lane to the Beaver point guards than they did to the Trojan guards on Sunday. The Bruins as a team must start jamming cutters the way we've seen them do it all year…yada, yada, yada. I can say all I want about the tactics and Xs and Os that the Bruins must use to get a better result. But the bottom line is this game comes down to heart. How bad do the Bruins want it? It was pretty obvious that they were massively overconfident going into Sunday's game. They were probably like that all week. My guess is that won't happen here. I expect the Bruins to be angry. But after Sunday, who knows? How bad is the team's collective psyche? Is Coach Howland panicking by thinking of starting Michael Fey who hasn't really played in two months?
This is a young team that has suffered through many injuries. But there is only so long that excuses can be used without a collective roll of the eyes and a sigh from the crowd, however salient. It may be that time. It's put up or shut up time for the Bruins. They have to learn from Sunday's loss because if they don't, the game on Saturday against the Ducks will be much tougher than it already is…and the Ducks are playing pretty well right now. At that point, there is potential for the perception to be that the season is spiraling downward. And no matter how much good Howland has done winning with smoke and mirrors against some pretty good teams when the injuries were bad, the end of the season will leave a very bad taste in the collective mouths of Bruin fans. So, there we are…its time for the biggest game of the season.