Pac-10 Tourney Preview: Oregon State

UCLA has yet to win a post-season game under Ben Howland and Thursday in the Pac-10 Tournament's quarter-final round faces the team that bounced them from the same tournament in the first round a year ago. But things have changed in Bruin basketball land...

The UCLA Bruins enter the quarterfinal round of the PAC-10 Tournament on Thursday as the undisputed conference champions for the first time since 1997. In the quarterfinal match the Bruins will face the ninth-seeded Oregon State Beavers, who defeated the eight-seed, Arizona State, Wednesday night, 71-68.

The vast majority of the Bruins have only two games of postseason experience or none at all. And both of those games, both losses, came last year. UCLA has a chance to win its first postseason game in three years and beat the team that knocked them out of last year's conference tournament in the process. Will the inexperienced Bruins be up to their first postseason test, or will they look past Thursday's game with OSU to a possible match-up with either Arizona or Stanford?

UCLA has a great opportunity to capture their first PAC-10 Tournament crown since…well, you get the picture. The bracket couldn't have been more kind to the Bruins if any fan in the Den had drawn it up themselves. The Bruins avoid an early match-up with both California and Washington, the two conference teams that have given the Bruins the most trouble this season. With the elimination of Arizona State last night, there is not a single team on the Bruins' side of the bracket that really challenged UCLA this year. Arizona might have been tough, but with Hassan Adams now suspended for the entire tournament, the Wildcats are a shell of the team that many picked to win the conference title back in October.

Although the Bruins have won their past four games in relatively convincing fashion, they aren't the only team that comes into Thursday's contest on a bit of a roll. Oregon State has won two in a row, and when they defeated Arizona State Wednesday night, they defeated a team that beat the Beavers twice in the regular season. And the Beavers were able to do this without standout senior forward Nick DeWitz, who is out for the season with a shoulder injury. But clearly the Beavers have other weapons in their arsenal.

It's also a bit remarkable that OSU was able to win on Wednesday with their best player, sophomore post Sasa Cuic, only scoring 4 points because he was injured early in the game. Cuic is not expected to play against the Bruins.

Other Beavers certainly stepped up. Three Beavers finished in double figures, led by junior post Kyle Jeffers, who had 20. Senior guard Chris Stephens, who had been the Beavers' leading scorer for much of the season before a prolonged slump, finished with 14 and senior guard Jason Fontenet chipped in 11. The Beavers also received strong performances from sophomore forward Marcel Jones, who had 9 points, and freshman wing Jack McGillis, who had a surprising 8 points.

When you look at the game stats, the first thing that jumps out is the rebounding margin. The Beavers out-rebounded ASU by 10. The next thing you notice is that OSU shot 47% from the field while holding the Sun Devils to just under 40%. But the Beavers shot only 4-17 from behind the arc, (24%). The three-pointers they did hit, though, were very timely, especially two hit in quick succession in the second half by junior guard Angelo Tsgarakis and by Fontenet. So what does all this mean for the Bruins?

Two weeks ago, UCLA played one of their worst offensive halves of the year against OSU at Pauley and trailed at the half. But the Bruins played very well in the 2nd half to coast to an 18-point victory. The keys to that game were the defense played the entire game and the 2nd-half offensive execution. Based on the last 4 games and especially on the 2nd half of the Cal game and the entire drubbing of Stanford, the Bruins are really hitting their offensive stride. Sophomore guard Arron Afflalo has certainly regained his scoring touch and doesn't appear as if he'll lose it soon. Individually, the Beavers don't have anyone that can keep Afflalo off the scoreboard as he is too strong for Fontenet and Stephens and too quick for Tsagarakis and McGillis. Jordan Farmar and Darren Collison have been playing at a high level for two weeks, both in decision making on offense and timely shooting. Just based on these three Bruins alone, expect to see OSU run a lot of zone on defense. Add to the fact that OSU is coming off a night game before a 2:30 tip-off on Thursday, and Coach Jay John will run a zone just to try and keep his players from becoming tired quickly.

The game really comes down to which Bruin team shows up. If the Bruins from last Saturday in Palo Alto show up, then look for this to be over early. If the Bruins from the 2nd USC game show up, then all bets are off. Here's why fans should look for the former rather than the latter. The Bruins are a much better rebounding team than ASU. Expect Luc Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya to own the boards. Center Ryan Hollins is a much better defender than anyone that Arizona State has, and Hollins has rendered Jeffers ineffective in both regular season games. And without Sasa Cuic, if you're Jay John, hou have to ask yourself where any of the frontcourt scoring is really going to come from. Stephens, the Beavers' best outside threat, has been blanketed by Afflalo in both earlier match-ups. And Collison has been doing a good job of keeping opposing teams' quick point guards out of the lane. In short, this is a good match-up for the Bruins and a bad one for OSU, especially now that OSU is missing three starters. The only way that this game is close is if the Bruins have trouble against the inevitable zone defense (although that hasn't been a problem lately), and if the Bruins aren't focused. Don't count on either happening. You just can't see how OSU is going to be able to score.

Coach Ben Howland will be able to empty the bench early as the Bruins cruise into the semi-finals.

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