But all of UCLA's games in the second half of the conference season are winnable. In fact, you could argue that the Bruins should be favored to win all of them. But that's why they play the games.
first things first; Thursday's opponent is the Oregon Ducks. The overriding question for this game is whether or not the Bruins can shake off the effects of what was surely a demoralizing loss on Sunday and regain focus quickly in order to win a game that now has national implications. A more specific question is whether or not the Bruins have learned enough from the Stanford loss to play close to 40 minutes of intense and focused basketball.
Oregon comes into Pauley Pavilion as the surprise of the PAC-10 season. The Ducks have had talent the past several seasons, but they haven't been able to put it together until now. The Ducks know that if they win the PAC-10 and look good doing it, they will be in line for a possible top seed when the NCAA Tournament bids come out in roughly six weeks. The good news is that the Bruins are playing at Pauley where the home cooking has been good to them this season. The bad news is that Oregon appears to be the worst possible match-up that the Bruins could face in the conference; the one team whose personnel and style make it difficult for the Bruin defense to neutralize.
The Oregon attack continues to be spearheaded by senior point guard Aaron Brooks (6' 165 lbs.). Brooks torched the Bruins for 25 points a few weeks ago in Eugene, including the game-winning jumper with about 13 seconds left on the clock. Brooks continues to lead the Ducks in scoring at 19.1 PPG and in assists at 4.5 APG. Brooks is shooting 48% from the floor and 41% from behind the arc, while also hitting 86% of his free throws. In the first game, Brooks clearly dominated Darren Collison on the offensive end. Coach Ben Howland was forced to move Arron Afflalo onto Brooks in the later stages of the contest. In fact, Howland stated in the post-game press conference that he should have left Afflalo on Brooks for the majority of the game. Expect that to happen this time. Afflalo must keep Brooks out of the lane and moving laterally. Once Brooks gets into the lane he becomes a triple threat as he can pull up, get to the hoop or dish outside to one of three players, all of whom are averaging over 40% from behind the arc, and another who is just under 40%. This is the key to the game, period. Brooks has been as good on the road as he has at home this season, so this personal match-up with Afflalo, especially considering how intense Afflalo is after a loss, bodes as a titanic struggle.
The second guard in Oregon's four-guard offense is junior Bryce Taylor (6'5" 205 lbs.). Taylor is the second-leading scorer on the team at 15.8 PPG and is hitting over 51% from the floor. He's shooting 40% from behind the arc and is third on the team in rebounding at 5.1 RPG. He's a slasher as well as a shooter and if Howland moves Afflalo onto Brooks then either Collison or Josh Shipp will have to take Taylor. Taylor is much bigger than Collison, and quicker than Shipp, so it's a tough match-up for either Bruin. Another option, one which I think Howland will use in this game, is going small to match Oregon and bring in Russell Westbrook and let him take Taylor. Taylor hasn't been shooting the ball as well the past several games and whichever Bruin is assigned Taylor may be getting him at the right time. A final option may be to move Luc Richard Mbah a Moute onto Taylor.
The third Oregon guard is freshman Tajuan Porter (5'6" 160 lbs.). Porter is starting again after coming off the bench midway through the season when his play became a bit erratic. His quickness could give the Bruins problems if Collison isn't up to the task. In short, Collison must be ready to bring it on the defensive end. Porter averages 13.1 PPG, good for third on the team, and shoots better from beyond the arc (43%) than he does from inside it (38%). It seems to make more sense to force Porter to put the ball on the floor and make him make a decision. Porter is second on the team in assists at 2.5 APG, but much like his teammates, he looks to create for himself first and pass second.
Junior Malik Hairston (6'6" 200 lbs.), wasn't available for the game in Eugene due to injury and it appears that he isn't 100% just yet. He is, however, considered the most talented player on the Ducks, so he could shake the rust off at any moment an go off. Hairston is averaging 13 PPG and 6.1 RPG, but his legs don't appear to be with him just yet and he isn't as explosive as he was last year when he was healthy. Still, he's a match-up problem if Howland decides to go with Shipp to defend him, being also quicker than Shipp and having a bit of a height/length/strength advantage. Since Hairston seems to be moving a bit slower and less explosively, Howland just may opt to go with Shipp on him and use Luc's length on Taylor. Hairston is averaging 44% from behind the arc.
The fifth starter is junior forward Maarty Leunen (6'8" 215 lbs.), who is averaging a team-leading 9.8 RPG and also 11.3 PPG. He is the setter of screens and the tough guy in the paint. He proved a tough match-up in Eugene because he can step outside and hit the 3, averaging 39% from behind the arc. Expect to see Alfred Aboya on the floor a lot as his athleticism and length can bother Leunen more than Lorenzo Mata can. Leunen is the type of player that has given Mata fits this season. He is sneaky-quick and Aboya or Mata must be vigilant at keeping him off the boards, especially on the offensive end.
The starters have been playing quite a few minutes for Coach Ernie Kent, but when he has gone to his bench the first player he finds is junior Chamberlain Oguchi (6'5" 195 lbs.). Oguchi's shot isn't falling that well this season, but he is a great player to have come off the bench. When he's on he provides instant offense and he is athletic. Also playing a lot recently has been freshman Joevan Catron (6'6" 225 lbs.). Catron's athleticism has made a believer of Kent that he can come in and spell Leunen. Senior center Ray Schafer (7'0" 235 lbs.) has also been seeing some minutes as senior Mitch Platt (6'10" 275 lbs.) has seen his time diminish to almost nothing. If there are foul issues Kent can also count on junior Churchill Odia (6'6" 205 lbs.), but he hasn't been seeing the floor much lately either.
In the game in Eugene the Bruins could never adjust to the Oregon strategy of taking their respective man off the dribble. UCLA was late with help and they found it very difficult to force their man laterally against the paint/basket. After seeing Stanford do the same thing to the Bruins in the second half of the game on Sunday, expect Oregon to try it again until UCLA proves they can stop it. The Bruin defense is the key. On Sunday, in the first half, they were able to score at will and with confidence because the turnovers they were forcing were leading to easy transition buckets. Those easy points all but dried up in the second half, and so did the Bruin offense. Let me reiterate; the Bruin offense was started by their defense. That's how the Bruins were able to jump out to a 17-point lead. The Bruins must also play smarter individually. Many posters on BRO have lamented the fact that three UCLA post players had four fouls with about 7 minutes left to go in the game. Of those three, Aboya and Luc (but especially Aboya) picked up some very stupid fouls earlier in the game. One that stands out is the pushing foul Aboya picked up late in the first half when he bumped into Stanford guard Mitch Johnson out by the center circle. Aboya was almost too aggressive. The Bruins need aggressiveness but it must be tempered and focused.
This is a huge game for UCLA. Now they get to see for themselves if they truly match-up emotionally. This team has proved me wrong before when I thought they weren't as tough mentally as, say, last year's squad. They proved me wrong against USC and against Arizona. I don't really think anyone, including the players themselves, truly thought they would go undefeated or only lose one game. Championship teams rise to the occasion, especially after a defeat like the one the Bruins suffered on Sunday. Championship players also rise to the occasion. I expect that Afflalo will take what happened on Sunday and earlier in the year in Eugene as a personal challenge to lead this team. That "heart," both within the team and Afflalo, coupled with the home crowd at Pauley, should be enough to put the Bruins over the top…barely.