As of today, the PAC-10 Conference seems to be one of the two best conferences in the country. What is keeping the PAC-10 from assuming the mantle of best conference right now is the performance of the consensus bottom two teams in the league: Arizona State and Oregon State. Although the Beavers have returned some pretty good players, they sit at 8-6 and 0-1 in the conference. Among their six losses are Fresno State, Hawaii and Southeastern Louisiana. They've also lost to LSU, Nevada and Oregon.
This is another case of the match-ups overwhelmingly favoring UCLA.
The most complete player on the Beavers is probably junior forward Sasa Cuic (6'10", 255 lbs.). Cuic, who seemed very slender even last season, has filled out nicely. He is a good passer and has a nice inside-outside game with the ability to post up his man as well as step outside and hit a three-pointer. Cuic is second on the team in scoring at 12.8 PPG and is shooting 38% from behind the arc, however, Cuic only averages 3.2 RPG and tends to play softer than his size. Last season, Cuic actually had one pretty good game against the Bruins, but it seemed like he didn't really like the match-up against Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Cuic will again be matched-up against Luc again, and Luc is quicker, a better defender and a better rebounder. With the Bruins now looking to feed Luc in the low post it stands that Cuic may get into a bit of foul trouble. However, if Cuic finally decides to use his size in a physical manner than this match-up will be one to watch.
The leading scorer and best player on the Beavers so far this season has been junior forward Marcel Jones (6'8" 220 lbs.). Jones has really improved since his freshman season and he really has become one of the top two offensive options, along with Cuic. Jones has been pretty consistent this season, with his only truly poor outing against Nevada where he scored only 3 points on 1-12 shooting. He is averaging 15.9 PPG, is shooting 47% from the field and 34% from behind the arc. He is also the second leading rebounder on the team, averaging 5.9 RPG. In many ways Jones is like Josh Shipp in that Jones will shoot the outside jumper, but he will drive into traffic and he doesn't have the quickness to really create his own shot. That's part of the reason for Jones' 30 turnovers this season. This will be an interesting individual contest between Jones and Shipp. This will be the first time in a while that Jones will be matched-up with a guy who really is the #1 scoring option on his team at times. Conversely, Shipp will be matched up against a player who will like to take it to the basket for the first time in three weeks.
At the center position, Coach Jay John will start senior Kyle Jeffers (6'9" 258 lbs.), a player who stepped up last year in the Beavers' three meetings with the Bruins. Jeffers is the workman-like player that every team needs, much like Lorenzo Mata is for the Bruins. Jeffers averages a modest 6.5 PPG, but he does lead the team at 6.8 RPG. He is strictly a classic back-to-the-basket post player, which should suit Mata, Alfred Aboya and Ryan Wright. The Bruins post players have had their troubles this season when asked to guard posts who will occasionally step outside for the ball. On the other hand, the Bruin post players have done very well when facing traditional big men who like to stay in the paint. For example: last weekend against Spencer Hawes and Jon Brockman. At the end of the game they both had decent stat lines but if you watched the game you knew that UCLA's interior defense really did play well against them when it counted.
At the point guard position, the Beavers go with redshirt freshman Josh Tarver (6'3" 185 lbs.). Tarver's stats are pretty good for a freshman asked to be the floor general of a major college program. He averages 10.7 PPG, 2.6 RPG and leads the team with 53 assists against 46 turnovers. He is also shooting 30% from behind the arc. Now, for the real "in-depth" report. A friend of mine here in the Twin Cities used to work out both Tarver boys (his younger brother, Seth, is a true freshman wing on OSU. See below) when they were at Jesuit High School in Portland. He thinks the world of both kids, but did state that Josh's quickness, or lack thereof, will be his undoing against Darren Collison and, to a certain extent, Russell Westbrook. Also, he stated that Tarver likes to go to his right entirely too much, making him a bit too predictable. Don't think that Coach Howland hasn't noticed this, too. Tarver leads the team in minutes at 32 MPG, but that's indicative not only of his talent but also of the fact that the Beavers really don't have anyone else that John trusts running the team.
At the off-guard spot is sophomore Wesley Washington (6'3" 170 lbs.), who is on the floor strictly as a defensive player and because he seems to be a "glue guy." Washington is averaging 6.4 PPG and is second on the team with 32 assists (one of only three Beavers that has more assists than turnovers), but he is a very bad shooter. He is averaging 43% from the floor, while all but 9 of his shots this season have been inside the arc. Outside the arc he's 1-9 on the year. Because of Washington's offensive limitations, expect Arron Afflalo to be switched onto Tarver from time to time (making life even more difficult for the freshman). Washington tends to be the second point guard on the team, but he has trouble translating John's vision of what the offense should be onto the floor.
Off the bench the Beavers have four players who are averaging in double figures in minutes. Junior Angelo Tsagaraki (6'3" 195 lbs.) is averaging over 10 MPG and was supposed to have an increased role this season, but his shooting is still poor (27% from the floor and 26% from behind the arc), especially for a player who is supposed to be a zone-buster. He didn't play against Oregon last weekend and I haven't been able to find out if it was a coach's decision or if he was hurt. Sophomore Jack McGillis (6'6" 210 lbs.) and freshman Seth Tarver (6'5" 205 lbs.) essentially play the same position but have different roles. McGillis is the shooter while Tarver is the athlete. McGillis is averaging 45% on his threes this year and is the one real three-point threat that the Beavers possess. His floor time has been going up recently. The younger Tarver is a slasher and a solid defender. His minutes have been decreasing recently. It really will depend on what John thinks he needs in determining which get the significant back-up minutes at the wing. Finally, senior Michael Johnson (6'5" 230 lbs.) spells the players up front. He is an efficient rebounder, averaging 2.7 RPG in only 11 MPG, but offensively and at the line he is a liability.
The game really comes down to four facets. First, how will the Bruins respond to being in a truly hostile environment for the first time? Although the game against Kentucky in Maui was against a team that clearly had strong and vocal crowd support, this time the Bruins go into Gill Coliseum with a true bulls-eye on their backs because of the #1 ranking and the tradition that UCLA represents. The Bruins can count on getting the Beavers' best shot. Remember that OSU led Oregon 30-19 at one point in the first half.
Second is the style match-up. I am convinced that Oregon State will try to slow the tempo even though they were running quite a bit against Oregon. OSU isn't a slow down team and it doesn't have the personnel to run a methodical offense, but neither did Cal-Riverside and they gave the Bruins fits for a while.
Third is bench play. Both coaches really do rely on their benches for significant minutes. But when you look at the four main bench player for OSU and match them up against Mike Roll, Alfred Aboya, Ryan Wright, Russell Westbrook and James Keefe, it really is no contest. In fact there is an argument that can be made that all 5 Bruins just mentioned would merit a starting spot in OSU's line-up.
Finally comes the coaching. Let's be blunt; in the PAC-10, this is potentially one of the biggest coaching mismatches there is. Jay John does a decent job of teaching his kids what he wants on both ends of the floor, but he's been at OSU for 5 years now and the program that was once a PAC-10 power still hasn't turned the corner from the losing days of the ‘90s. On the other hand, Ben Howland has re-established UCLA as one of the true powers in the country. Advantage: UCLA.
In fact, the only facet in which UCLA doesn't have a clear advantage is the first one -- playing on the road for the first time. Other than that, UCLA is clearly better in all aspects of the game. And I have a suspicion that the hostile crowd is only going to get the Bruins that much more fired up on each possession. The only thing that might prevent a full-scale blow-out is the fact that the Bruins may be looking ahead to Saturday's match-up with Oregon.
Oregon State 59