Preview of the Oregon State Game

UCLA has struggled against teams this season that are capable of doing one thing defensively against them, and the Oregon State Beavers, who come to Pauley Thursday, don't have that one element...

It may be getting harder to watch UCLA basketball these days but it is getting easier to write previews of upcoming games. I have been doing this since UCLA's first Final Four season under Ben Howland and never have I been able to predict the outcome of games based on one facet of each game, and never has each game been so influenced by the same issue: ball handling against pressure.

The Bruins had a 50-point swing in fortune last week against the two Washington schools. Think about that -- a major Division I basketball team that had a 50-point swing in game outcomes less than 48 hours apart from each other. Tracy Pierson and I both looked at the victory over Washington State as a possible season-changing win but all it did was reinforce the idea that UCLA can look really good against certain teams and defensive philosophies and really poor against other squads. Just like the win against Wazzu probably didn't mean something new, the crushing loss to Washington also probably doesn't mean much in terms of showing Howland, the team or the fans something they hadn't seen before.

I am going to preface this by saying the idea that one single issue is the cause of such a down season for the Bruins is a simplification of what is truly going on. Obviously things are seen and done with different import and different impact on different people/players. However, when I look at this team it has become apparent that UCLA does well against teams that play a team-defensive concept, also known as lane denial, and the Bruins play poorly against on-ball pressure defense. Think about this: most people with knowledge of the program and even the nacho-eaters have stated that they firmly believe that had Jrue Holiday stayed at UCLA for this current season the Bruins would essentially be running away from the rest of the Pac-10 Conference. The question that raises is: why is that? Holiday would have been an upgrade defensively but he can't play all five spots on the floor. The players who "quit" in certain games would continue to be mentally soft, at least for this season. What Holiday would have brought was a superior ball handler, one who could have handled the pressure brought by Washington, USC and Arizona. Thankfully for the Bruins their next opponent doesn't bring that kind of pressure.

UCLA sits at 7-7 in the Pac-10 with a great opportunity to improve to 9-7 by the end of the weekend. That possibility begins when the Bruins host Oregon State on Thursday night. OSU is 6-8 in the conference and has made a habit of winning games that make fans scratch their heads. After defeating Pac-10 leader California last weekend, they now have victories over Cal, USC and Arizona. OSU is a team that is similar to UCLA in that the Beavers excel against run-and-gun teams that play with little "smarts." However, when the Beavers, who have several ball handlers that can handle pressure, face a team that forces their offense to stick outside shots, they struggle. That's why OSU is a good match-up for the Bruins.

Offensively the Beavers like to run a variation of the Princeton-style half-court offense that is predicated on the big man, in this case senior Roeland Schaftenaar (6'11" 240 lbs.), being able to pass to cutters looking to take their man backdoor after first spreading the defense. This offense really won't work against a 2-3 zone and OSU's zone offense is pretty poor. Start with the fact that the Beavers shoot 30% from the three-point line as a team. Not being able to shoot from the outside means teams like the Bruins can focus on stopping dribble penetration and pack the defense in against the post players. The one caveat is that OSU's leading scorer, junior Calvin Haynes (6'2" 185 lbs.), is shooting almost 40% from beyond the arc. In fact, if Haynes were on UCLA's roster it's a good bet the Bruins would be several games better in the win column. Hayne did burn the UCLA zone for several threes when the two teams met in Corvallis a couple of weeks ago. However, outside of Haynes, the Beavers don't possess anyone that has proven to be a true outside threat yet this season.

While the Bruins can obviously defend against the OSU offense, it is really on the other end of the floor where the game will be decided. In the Corvallis game the Bruins spent much of the first half turning over the ball. What allowed UCLA to stay in that game was the fact that the Bruins shot well when they did get shots off and their defense was able to stymie the Beaver offense. In the second half the Bruins were able to pull away from the Beavers and win handily. The final margin of 10 wasn't indicative of how much the Bruins dominated the second half.

The key, as I wrote earlier, is that OSU doesn't pressure the ball much, preferring to take away cutters and passing lanes. UCLA, however, is such a good passing team (when they aren't pressured at the point of attack) that they can simply pick apart that kind of a defense. Even if OSU decided to pressure the ball higher up the floor the Bruins would still have to like their chances. Outside of Haynes, the primary Beaver backcourt players are seniors Seth Tarver (6'5" 210 lbs.), Josh Tarver (6'3" 190 lbs.) and freshman Jared Cunnigham (6'3" 170 lbs.), who are long and tall rather than athletic. Cunnigham has a nice upside to him, as evidenced by his performance in the win against Cal and he did play well in the first UCLA game, but none of the three presents a defender that UCLA's guards can't get around. If Coach Craig Robinson does pressure higher on the ball all it will do is allow the Bruins dribble penetration and open up the passing lanes for the Bruins to exploit.

Perhaps the best bet for OSU is to get the ball inside where the Bruins are now very thin with the eye surgery to Reeves Nelson. Even if he plays, Nelson won't be 100%. J'mison Morgan should get extended minutes, especially because OSU can't take real advantage of Bobo's lack of quickness in the paint. If Nelson is down for the game, then Brendan Lane will have to play both the four and the five spots, but he also was injured in practice Tuesday and his status is unknown. Expect to see Tyler Honeycutt play some four and Mike Moser to get some minutes at the three.

I posted earlier this week that UCLA could make an improbable run to the conference tournament title that actually doesn't look that improbable when looking at match-ups. If the Bruins face three teams that don't pressure UCLA's primary ball handlers then UCLA stands a very good chance of winning. Oregon State provides just such an opponent.

This should be a low-scoring affair and, much like the first meeting, look for the Bruins to pull away in the second half to win relatively comfortably.

Oregon State 57

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