This is a critical game and weekend for the Bruins as they sit in second place in the Pac-10 Conference and are coming off of probably their best two games of the season. Clearly the Bruins played with high intensity and focus against both Washington and Washington State, but the Bruins played those games in the friendly confines of Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins seem to have a new test every week and this week it starts at Mac Court which has been a house of horrors for teams, including UCLA. The question for Thursday is whether or not the Bruins can continue to play with focus and intensity in a hostile environment where they know that the home team is going to get the benefit of the doubt from the officials.
Oregon is having a crazy season, but, quite frankly, what else is new when talking about Coach Ernie Kent's squad. The Ducks opened the Pac-10 season on the road where they swept the Washington schools. Since then, however, they have lost five games in a row and haven't been close in any of them. The Ducks started the losing streak by being somewhat embarrassed at home by in-state rival Oregon State. It's no secret that Kent is on the "hot seat" because of the Ducks' inconsistent play. Frankly, his teams have underachieved for years considering the talent he's had and he still has a job. That's because the Ducks have a way of winning games that they have no business winning and getting hot at the right time, like just before or during the Pac-10 Tournament.
Oregon certainly has some serious athleticism and that kind of thing has given UCLA some serious problems this season. UCLA is coming off the win over an athletic Washington squad, but Oregon already beat Washington in Seattle in a more impressive fashion, if less exciting, than UCLA.
Kent's team's play at a frenetic pace and no player better represents that "helter-skelter" style than senior guard Tajuan Porter (5'7" 155 lbs.). Porter is jitterbug-quick but he doesn't like to get into the lane. His game is predicated on the outside shot and he has the ability to shoot his team into games. His shot selection, however, has always been a major issue and he has the capability of shooting the Ducks right out of the game. It's almost like Porter is Fool's Gold because he hasn't been able to consistently carry the Ducks on his shoulders. He leads the team at 12.5 PPG but his three-point shooting percentage is only 36%. He has taken 105 out of 176 shots from beyond the arc. He is, however, an 82% free throw shooter. Porter isn't the point guard but he should have a better ratio than 33 assists to 33 turnovers. Finally, even though Porter is a senior, Kent hasn't started him in every game. In fact, none of the Ducks has started every game as Kent continues to tinker with his line-up.
After Porter, the Ducks rely on the inside presence of sophomore Michael Dunigan (6'10" 242lbs.). Dunigan truly has the ability to be the dominant post player in the Pac-10…when Kent plays him. Dunigan only logged 14 minutes in the loss at Stanford last Saturday and it wasn't because of foul trouble. Dunigan is 3rd on the squad at 11.1 PPG and second in rebounding at 5.2 RPG. However, he is the main inside force for the Ducks because senior forward Joevan Catron (6'6" 237 lbs.), who has hurt the Bruins in the past, appears to be out with a back injury. Dunigan has a nice back-to-the-basket game and can use his body well to both rebound and screen. Dunigan's issue is that he can be a bit undisciplined and that's probably not a good thing against UCLA's Reeves Nelson.
The point guard for the Ducks is sophomore Malcolm Armistead (6'0" 204 lbs.) who is built similarly to UCLA's Jerime Anderson. He takes better care of the ball than Porter (only 42 turnovers compared to 75 assists) and he's a better shooter than Porter (37% from behind the three-point line, although he's only shooting 19% in conference play). Armistead is a bit of a calming force, if the Ducks actually have one, but his scoring (11.4 PPG) may be the result of teams keying on Porter more than his own prowess.
After those three it's anybody's guess as to who Kent will play. He has a ten-player rotation with all ten players averaging more than 14 MPG, although with Catron out the rotation is down to nine. Junior LeKenderic Longmire (6'5" 200 lbs.) is a returning Duck who hasn't done much of what was expected of him this season. Longmire's problem is that he's only hitting on 13% of his long distance shots this season. Sophomore Jeremy Jacob (6'8" 225 lbs.) has been getting more minutes lately, but that's a result of Catron being out. Jacob will spell Dunigan, (unless Kent benches Dunigan again for long minutes), and he does rebound well for his time on the court. Freshmen E.J. Singler (6'6" 210 lbs.), Kyle's brother, and Jamil Wilson (6'7" 209 lbs.) have been playing around 20 MPG each with both averaging a little more than 5 PPG. Neither is shooting particularly well from the floor. Finally, sophomores Garrett Sims (6'1" 180 lbs.) and Teondre Williams (6'4" 199 lbs.) provide backcourt depth. Sims has 29 assists on the season wile Williams is the one Duck who is shooting better than 40% from long range.
Kent likes his team to get up and down the floor but his defenses have traditionally been sieves. In the offseason Kent added Mike Dunlap to his coaching staff and his defensive teaching has led to a better defense over the course of this season. However, over the past few games the Ducks have been giving points up in bunches. The threat to UCLA is the fact that Oregon is now playing a more high-pressure defense and doing so over more of the floor. This is the kind of defense that has given UCLA trouble this season. Although Bruin fans have vilified him at times, the fact of the matter is that Jerime Anderson will be missed in this game if he doesn't play. As great as Mustafa Abdul Hamid played last weekend, he is still lacking in playmaking ability and Oregon doesn't force you to shoot poorly, rather it forces the opposition into poor passes and turnovers. This is an area that isn't Abdul Hamid's strength.
This will be UCLA's second conference road trip this season and in many ways it will be like the Bruins' first road trip three weeks ago to the Bay Area. On that trip the Bruins had to go into one of the most hostile arenas in the country at Cal and play one of the better teams in the conference. The Bruins won that game by keeping their collective heads and being efficient on offense. The Bruins followed up that unlikely win with a bad loss at a relatively docile Maples Pavilion against a mediocre Stanford squad. Now the Bruins are going into perhaps the most hostile arena in the country against a team with its back against the wall and some talent to boot. The crowd at Mac Court is going to be loud; unlike anything the Bruins have faced this year. That crowd and UCLA's reaction to it may be the single biggest factor in how UCLA does in the game.
After the debacle that was the loss to USC the Bruins committed themselves to playing defense intensely for 40 minutes. It paid off in the wins over Washington and Washington State and the hope of Coach Ben Howland is that will continue on the road. The Bruins can be expected to play the 2-3 zone that worked so well against the Washington schools. Considering the quickness advantage that the Ducks have over the Bruins and the fact that Oregon hasn't been shooting well from the outside in the conference season, the zone is probably the best way to go.
As I stated earlier, the key factor here is the crowd and UCLA's reaction to it. Tracy Pierson has written several times that the youthful Bruins would be a case of two steps forward and one step back. The Bruins certainly took their two steps forward last weekend. It's time for their one step back. Even though Oregon is playing poorly they do have pride and they generally play well at home. The crowd will be too much for the Bruins, but don't be surprised if the Bruins crush the Ducks when the game is played at Pauley Pavilion in a few weeks.