With UCLA coming off the unexpected home loss to cross-town rival USC this past Saturday, the entire road trip to Oregon is now critical to UCLA's hopes of winning the Pac-10 title and earning a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The key game is Thursday night against the Ducks. The Bruins will face a reeling Oregon State team on Saturday, one that has just fired their head coach, Jay John.
Adding to the intrigue of the game against Oregon is the fact that, first, UCLA could be without Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and definitely Lorenzo Mata-Real. Both suffered concussions against USC and both were listed as doubtful to play tonight by Howland.
On top of that, McArthur Court is one of the toughest venues in the nation to play in as a visitor. Last season the Bruins suffered their first loss of the year against the Ducks at Mac Court. Even the 1994-95 championship team suffered one of their two losses on the season at Mac Court. It really is an inhospitable environment for any team not dressed in lime yellow and green.
Against USC the entire team played awfully. Even Coach Ben Howland was not at his best. But people need to keep in mind that as poorly as the Bruins played, they still had a very realistic chance to win the game with two minutes remaining and the score tied at 60. Over the past several days there has been much written on the BRO message board regarding what went wrong. The Bruins played poorly on defense; they didn't get Kevin Love enough touches, especially at the end; several players made multiple bad decisions, especially at the end. The list really is quite long. I have even posited that the Bruins lack a go-to player right now. So the question for the Oregon game is: Which Bruin team will show up, the one that was too pumped for the USC game, or the one that came out focused and hammered Washington State from the opening tip?
It seems that it was only a short time ago that Coach Ernie Kent was on the proverbial hot seat in Eugene. There were several players on the team that were expressing their displeasure. Those players, who were for the most part sophomores at the time, are now the senior leaders of the team and Kent is still in Eugene.
The Ducks have essentially played a six-man rotation since sophomore Joevan Catron (6'6" 235 lbs.), went down with an injury in the non-conference season. Since the injury there have been four starters who have started virtually every game: seniors Maarty Leunen (6'9" 220 lbs.), Bryce Taylor (6'4" 210 lbs.), Malik Hairston (6'6" 220 lbs.), and junior Churchill Odia (6'6" 210 lbs.). The fifth spot has gone to either sophomore Tajuan Porter (5'6" 150 lbs.) or freshman Kamyron Brown (6'2" 170 lbs.). If UCLA has depth issues, then Oregon is certainly in the same boat.
The strength of the Ducks clearly lies with their guard/wing players. Taylor and Hairston have both started since their freshmen years and Taylor, in particular, has had some strong games against the Bruins. Hairston has been Oregon's best player this season, averaging a team-leading 18.3 PPG as well as now being the second-leading rebounder at 4.8 RPG, now that Catron is out. Hairston is a complete offensive player, able to drive or shoot from outside. He is averaging 55% from the floor, 49% from behind the arc, and 70% from the free-throw line. He has also become much more aware of what is going on around him. Against Washington State on Sunday night, Hairston seemingly was able to get to the offensive glass at will. Watching him, he clearly understood where the gaps were in the team rebounding of the Cougars and he was able to exploit it. Washington State may not be the best rebounding team around, but Hairston did a better job of getting to the offensive boards against them than did anyone on UCLA not named Love. Hairston's issues still reside on the defensive end. When the Ducks play man Hairston still has moments when he simply doesn't pay attention. He is very similar to Josh Shipp in this way. While Hairston is the better offensive player, or at least has more athleticism than Shipp, Josh is the better defender. But he, like Hairston, has times when he falls asleep on defense, or at least plays like he is indifferent to defense. The difference here would be coaching. Watching both play, it's pretty clear that Shipp is more fundamentally sound than Hairston. The question is which Shipp will show up on the defensive end on Thursday? And with the status Mbah a Moute, Howland has a bit of a dilemma. Without Mbah a Moute, that would mean starting either Alfred Aboya or James Keefe, neither of whom is quick enough to stay with Hairston. Davon Jefferson gave Aboya a lot of trouble last Saturday and Hairston is better. So, if Aboya or Keefe won't work, then Howland puts Shipp or Russell Westbrook on Hairston, right? Well then, who do you put Aboya or Keefe on? Thus, the dilemma for Howland. In short, the Bruins will miss Mbah a Moute greatly if he, indeed, doesn't play. You'd have to think Howland would go with a tag team of Aboya and Keefe on Hairston and a lot of prayer.
Taylor has been a bit of an enigma this year. His numbers from last season were markedly better and he was more of a leader for the Ducks. Taylor is averaging 13.9 PPG and 4.5 RPG, but he isn't putting his stamp on very many contests. His statistics are getting worse by the game. Against Washington State he seemed invisible at times, and the Ducks simply can't survive as an upper division conference team if he continues to play that way. Taylor's problems may stem from the fact that he has essentially become a jump shooter. He has attempted 157 shots on the year and almost half have come from behind the arc. More telling is that he's only been to the free-throw line 41 times, which averages out to less than 3 free throws per game. In contrast, Hairston averages almost 6 attempts per game. Against Washington State Taylor only attempted 5 shots and only went to the free-throw line twice, which isn't what the Ducks want since Taylor is their best free-throw shooter at 83%. The good news for the Ducks is that Taylor is not letting his offensive problems affect him at the defensive end. He is probably Oregon's best on-ball defender and continues to look the part. It's a good bet that when Oregon plays man defense on Thursday that Taylor will be matched up with Westbrook or Darren Collison.
Because of Taylor's offensive issues, it makes sense for Howland to put Shipp on Taylor…unless, of course, there is an even less dangerous offensive option for the Ducks. And guess what? There is a less dangerous offensive player. Odia has been starting since the injury to Catron but his numbers are nowhere near what the Duck sophomore provided. Odia averages 1.6 PPG and has taken 19 of his 22 shot attempts from behind the arc. He hasn't attempted a free throw yet this year. He is the epitome of a one-dimensional player. He can hit the three if left open, is a decent passer and has court awareness, as evidence by his almost 7:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Odia starts because Kent really has no other options. If he started both Brown and Porter then he would have no one coming off the bench for the guard spots. Kent is doing what Howland has done since Mike Roll went down with an injury by bringing Westbrook off the bench in order to try and keep the guards fresh. Odia played some significant minutes last season and plays solid defense. Plus, Oregon's offense is at its best when it plays a 4-out/1-in system. Odia fits into that scheme better than other players on the team.
Because of Odia's offensive shortcomings, it makes sense for Shipp to guard him, leaving Westbrook to take Taylor. In that way the Bruins will have the best defensive match-up they can have in the backcourt and on the wings. But without Mbah a Moute to match up against Hairson it, gets, well hairy. Because Odia isn't a great offensive threat, Howland could use the option of putting Westbrook on Hairston, slipping Aboya/Keefe over on Odia and then have Shipp pick up Taylor.
If you haven't noticed, Mbah a Moute is a huge key to UCLA and its defense.
The other two backcourt players, Brown and Porter, couldn't be more different. Brown is much more of a prototypical point guard. He leads the team by a long way with 77 assists on the season. His shooting leaves something to be desired, at 43% from the floor and 31% from behind the arc, but he knows his role and does it relatively well. He is more of a slashing, penetrating point guard than a shooter. He's been to the charity stripe 56 times. His problem is that he has only made 32 of those attempts. The knock on him out of high school was his decision-making, and while he can still get out of control at times, he's definitely improved.
Porter, on the other hand, is a shooting machine. That doesn't mean that he is particularly consistent or good at it, only that he does it a lot. He leads the team in shot attempts (211), and three-point attempts (111). His shooting is mediocre to poor, averaging only 38% from the floor and less than 30% from behind the arc. While he is very quick, his diminutive size is a distinct disadvantage. Any guard in the UCLA line-up can shoot over him. The thing with Porter is his streakiness shooting the ball; when he gets his shooting stroke going, he can get unbelievably hot. Collison should be able to stay with Porter, and if Brown and Porter are on the floor at the same time then Westbrook should be matched up against one or the other, with Shipp sliding over to Taylor if necessary.
Up front, Kent will go with Leunen, the only real post presence on the Duck roster that plays. Leunen is a bit of a contradiction. On offense he tends to float outside, bringing his defender with him so that it clears the lane for a teammate to drive, while on defense he will bang with the best of them. Leunen averages 15.6 PPG and a team-leading 9.7 RPG. He shoots almost 60% from the floor and 50% from behind the arc. He may not be Oregon's best or most complete player, but he's Oregon's most important player. If he gets into foul trouble guarding Love, then Oregon will have a difficult time winning. Junior Frantz Dorsainvil (6'8" 260 lbs.), who is strictly an inside player, has gotten some minutes in Catron's absence, and senior Mitch Platt (6'10" 265 lbs.) sees a few minutes here and there. Expect both to log a few more than usual because of the match-up with Love. However, neither of these players presents anything close to the danger that Leunen does. Leunen will pull Love away from the hoop and will shoot the outside shot with the consistency that Love hasn't seen yet. Love can't back off of Leunen, and he can't go for Leunen's pump fakes, which Leunen used with success against Wazzu.
It's been reported that Catron practiced a bit this week and could play. While Catron is a good player, averaging 10.8 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, without Mbah a Moute, UCLA actually might match up better defensively with Catron in the game. Since he's more of a low-post player than Leunen, Love would pick him up defensively, Aboya/Keefe would get Leunen, which would leave UCLA's best perimeter defender, Westbrook, available to defend Hairston.
All in all, Oregon presents some significant match-up problems for the Bruins. Without much depth in the backcourt, UCLA will have a hard time defensively against the Oregon offense. However, the Ducks should have a great deal of difficulty dealing with the Bruins offense…if, and after the USC game, it's a big "if," the Bruins utilize their inside/out game and get Love touches. If that happens then Oregon can't play man against the Bruins or they will get beat handily.
Expect to see the Ducks in a zone most of the game. I am sure that Kent saw what USC did to the Bruins with the triangle-and-two they used. Assuming that Kent doesn't have that gimmick defense in his bag of tricks, he should at least know that his best chance at a victory is with Oregon playing zone defense. If he chooses to go with mostly man defense, then Kent should be run out of Eugene, unless, of course, the Bruins don't get the ball inside to Love.
Oregon is on a two game losing streak, but those games were on the road and they are a different team at home. Mac Court is going to be sold out and loud. This is going to be a new experience for Love, with the hometown, resentful Duck fans harrassing him in a way he's never experienced. However, the Bruins seem to almost relish being on the road now, and Love does have the Bay Area trip under his belt. While it will be louder at Mac Court, and a new level of harrassment for Love, it might be just the kind of us-against-the-world type of environment this UCLA team needs to pull them together.
UCLA has more talent and is the better-coached team. Their advantages on offense should outweigh the advantages that Oregon has when they are on offense. UCLA should own the rebounding advantage, and if the game comes down to coaching, Howland has the advantage over Kent.
Finally, I just can't see the Bruins playing two stinkers in a row. It will be tough, but the Bruins should know how critical this game has now become.