Although the Bruins have won their last two games they will be taking a step up in competition on Thursday. The Pilots are one of the best mid-major teams in the country. The Bruins have certainly looked better in their last two games than they did in their season-opening loss to Cal State Fullerton, but they've done so incrementally. The question for Ben Howland's young UCLA squad is whether it will be able to continue to improve and get the victory against a much tougher opponent.
Portland is coached by Eric Reveno, who is in his fourth year at the helm of the Pilots. Reveno, who came to Portland from being an assistant at Stanford (and was one of the best recruiting assistants in the Pac-10), has steadily built the program into one that should be able to legitimately challenge Gonzaga at the top of the West Coast Conference. The Pilots are built on the foundations of solid outside shooting and good rebounding. They aren't the quickest team that the Bruins will face or even have faced up to this point, but the players clearly know their roles and perform those roles well. Portland is 3-0 entering the UCLA game, having beaten Eastern Washington, Seattle (who is coached by former Bruin Cameron Dollar), and Pac-10 foe Oregon in their last game. In the win over the Ducks, the Pilots came back from an 8-point halftime deficit to win by 7. Granted Oregon played without their potent post player, Mike Dunigan, but it was still a good victory for the Pilots. There are many who are predicting a loss for the Bruins, and there are certainly some facts that would lead one to that conclusion, but there are some things about the match-up that clearly favor the Bruins.
Reveno legitimately uses an 8-man rotation, but his offense begins and ends with senior guard Nik Raivio (6"4", 205 lbs.), who is Portland's leading scorer at 19 PPG. He averages 9 RPG which, amazingly, is only good for second on the team. Raivio is very dangerous because he can score in multiple ways. He is good from the outside (55% from beyond the arc), he can drive to the hoop and get to the line when he misses and he's a very good mid-range shooter. He is strong but not particularly athletic or long. However, even though Portland runs a very efficient offense with many screens being set to loosen up Raivio, he can still create his own shot. Malcolm Lee, Mike Roll and Mike Moser will have their hands full guarding Raivio.
Raveno's floor general is senior T.J. Campbell (5'9", 190 lbs.), who is the team's #2 scorer at 17.3 PPG. Campbell is shooting 70% from the floor and 60% from the 3-point line. He is at his most effective, though, distributing the ball. He has 20 assists on the season against only 6 turnovers. Not only does he hold onto the ball, he is very quick. Essentially Campbell is the kind of guard that has traditionally given the Bruins trouble over the past few seasons. The one thing working in UCLA's favor is that Campbell isn't really a scoring point guard. Still, it will be imperative that Jerime Anderson, Mustafa Abdul-Hamid and Lee keep Campbell out of the lane. This will probably be the toughest individual match-up for UCLA.
The back-ups for Raivio and Campbell are junior Jason Stohl (6'1", 165 lbs.) and senior Taishi Ito (6'0", 180 lbs.). Stohl is the Pilots' biggest outside threat, having hit on 57% of his 14 deep shots and averaging 9 PPG. In fact, Stohl has only attempted 17 shots overall and only been to the line twice. Ito is a solid point guard who exclusively looks for his teammates. He averages 7 APG in only 11 MPG, but he's only taken four shots on the year. Both players are solid back-ups, but they are one-dimensional players who the Bruins will find much easier to defend than the players they will replace.
In the post, the Pilots start another senior, Robin Smeulders (6'10", 230 lbs.), who is third on the team in scoring at 14.3 PPG. He is strictly a low-post scorer, having attempted only 3 shots beyond 10 feet and none beyond the arc. Smeulders only averages 4.7 RPG and can be pushed around a bit on the inside. He isn't particularly athletic and he's not long for his size, having blocked only two shots in three games.
The other true low-post player comes off the bench is junior Luke Sikma (6'8", 235 lbs.), who may be the more dangerous player for the Pilots. Sikma, like Smeulders, does his damage inside, where he averages 8.7 PPG. He does his real work, though, on the boards, where he averages a team-leading 9.3 RPG. Sikma is a smart player, too, having more assists on the season than he does turnovers.
The other two starters are senior Ethan Niedermeyer (6'6", 200 lbs.) and junior Kramer Knutson (6'9", 220 lbs.). Niedermeyer is a solid scoring option for the Pilots, shooting 40% from the floor and from behind the arc. His size makes him a possible match-up problem for the Bruins as he's longer than Mike Roll. He is, however, typically only the fourth option in Portland's offense. Knutson may start but he gives up a lot of minutes in favor of Sikma. He's strictly a banger who gets the occasional bucket and rebound.
Portland is a senior-dominated squad with players that are truly comfortable in Reveno's system. That experience and comfort level will be a big advantage the Pilots have over the Bruins. They are a good shooting team, averaging a collective 53% from the floor, 52% from behind the arc and 75% from the charity stripe. They have are out-rebounding their opponents by more than 5 RPG and they don't turn over the ball.
There are several things that should work in the Bruins' favor, though. First, Portland is not a particularly athletic team outside of Campbell. UCLA's length and relative quickness to the Pilots should make it more difficult for Portland to run their offense compared to their previous opposition. Second, Portland isn't very deep. Although they do have an 8-man rotation they suffer a big drop-off when they go to the bench, especially in the backcourt.
This is the kind of team that Abdul-Hamid can play against and have success, as long as he plays within himself. Playing within themselves is going to be key for the Bruins. If they can win the battle of the boards and keep their turnovers down they should be in a position to win the game. Expect Portland to run a lot of zone at the Bruins, especially with the Bruin advantage in athleticism. Drew Gordon needs to establish himself down low and James Keefe must be more aggressive in looking for his shot against the zone when he catches the ball at the foul line. Finally, whoever is guarding Campbell has got to keep him out of the lane. Doing that will go a long way to helping the Bruins win.
This is a very tough game to call. This may be a tougher game for the Bruins than a possible second round match-up with Minnesota. Although Portland is senior-laden, they haven't blown away opponents that they probably should have, and that includes Oregon.
Let's believe the Bruins will continue to show improvement against a team that they can beat inside on both ends of the floor.