Make no bones about it: the Bruins face a daunting task just to get to 9-9 in the conference by the end of the day on Saturday. Considering the season that UCLA has had, the idea of them sweeping this weekend's games and getting to .500 overall is almost unimaginable. The Bruins first play the Arizona Wildcats at McKale Center on Thursday night and, with the way the Cats handled the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion in January, most observers won't give the Bruins much of a chance to even keep the game close. The keys to the game are the ability – or inability -- of UCLA's zone defense to actively contest Arizona's outside shots and cut off Arizona's dribble penetration, and the ability of UCLA's offense, especially at the point, to handle the inevitable pressure that Arizona will throw its way.
UCLA is coming off a disheartening Senior Day loss at Pauley to the Oregon Ducks. Quite frankly, the key to that game was UCLA's inability to muster any sort of inside presence on offense, which led to Oregon simply closing out hard on Mike Roll and daring other Bruins to beat them from outside. Reeves Nelson would have made a huge difference in that game, especially on the offensive end. He more than likely would have helped the Bruins on the boards, too. In all honesty, while Nikola Dragovic's performance was certainly one to forget, the reality was and is that no matter how well Dragovic plays on the offensive end he's not the low-post threat that Nelson provides. Further, as poorly as Nelson has looked at times on defense this season he certainly is an upgrade over Dragovic. Nelson should be good to go for Thursday night but it might not make any difference but he could very rusty, and it might not make a difference.
The game on Thursday is huge for UCLA's ever-so-slim chances of setting up a possible run to the conference tournament title. As of right now, the Bruins would be the fifth-seed in the Pac-10 Tournament, tied with Arizona who already hammered the Bruins. A win by the Bruins would go a long way to ensuring that they avoided Arizona, Washington and California in the first round of the tournament, and those three teams are nightmare match-ups for the Bruins. Losing on Thursday, coupled with a loss to ASU on Saturday, would almost guarantee that the Bruins would have to beat those three teams to win the title. I have a better chance of being declared King of America…but one can hope.
The Bruins face one foundational issue at both ends of the floor against the Cats. On defense Coach Ben Howland and the Bruins have hung heir collective hat on the 2-3 zone defense. While it worked very well for a while, it seems that teams have now found the holes in UCLA's zone and are fully exploiting those holes. The two biggest issues the Bruins have faced in losing to Washington and Oregon over the past two weekends have been the opposition's ability to penetrate and the opposition's ability to take advantage of whatever side of the floor that Dragovic is playing. The first issue has as much to do with UCLA's effort as it does with the opposition's quickness. When the Bruins have given effort on the defensive end, and that includes being physical with players, anticipating well and sliding to spots off that anticipation, and keeping their arms out and wide (thus taking advantage of their collective length), the Bruins have been able to slow down if not stifle the penetration of opposing guards and wings. So, the Bruins have the capacity to at least contest Arizona's ability to dribble into the paint.
Arizona has several players who should worry the Bruins when it comes to dribble penetration. Senior point guard Nic Wise (5'10" 180 lbs.) certainly can get into the lane. He's been the second-leading scorer for the Cats at 14.4 PPG. Wise is especially dangerous because he can get streaky-hot from the outside if the defense closes off his lanes to the hoop. He is arguably the most clutch outside shooter on the team and his shooting percentage goes way up at home.
If Wise weren't enough to deal with, he wasn't the one who buried the Bruins at Pauley. That was sophomore guard Kyle Fogg (6'3" 185 lbs.), and while Fogg is more of a shooter than Wise and less of a penetrator, he has shown this season that he can do both well. It will be interesting to see if the Bruins can cut off Fogg's lanes to the hoop and if Fogg can make the Bruins pay with his outside shooting.
Sophomore Brendon Lavender (6'5" 205 lbs.) and freshmen Lamont Jones (6'0" 200 lbs.) and Kevin Parrom (6'6" 205 lbs.) present the same dangers to the Bruins as Wise and Fogg, although with less effect. The bottom line is the Bruins have to pick their poison; allow the Cats to penetrate and try and force misses or cut off the driving lanes and hope the Cats aren't shooting well from outside. Neither way is a great prospect for the Bruins. Still, the possibility exists that Arizona will be cold from the outside.
The second fundamental issue is simpler but much more problematic. Dragovic is widely known as a defensive liability but Howland insists on playing him. He's not quick enough to guard certain players, even in a zone, and he's not physical enough to guard players like Arizona's freshman Derrick Williams (6'8" 235). However, what makes Dragovic go from a weak link to a defensive disaster is his propensity to show a lack of effort on the defensive end. This includes letting an opposing post get inside position on him, even in a zone, closing out too slowly on shooters on his side, especially those in the short corner, and making poor decisions on when to close out hard. The only way to rectify this is for Howland not to play Dragovic as many minutes, but we all know that's just not going to happen unless Dragovic is injured, and sometimes (like against Oregon) that isn't even the case.
Offensively there are things that UCLA can do to exploit weaknesses Arizona has, specifically the Cats' habit of overplaying their offensive counterparts and their relatively poor help-side defense. But in order to exploit this the Bruins have to be able to initiate their offense, and to say they've struggled with that this season would be an understatement. If Jerime Anderson can keep the turnovers to a minimum and sometimes drive his man further down in the halfcourt to start the offense, I would actually give the Bruins a decent chance to pull the upset. But Anderson just hasn't been able to do that this season. However, if he were to do it, he sees the floor well enough to take advantage of Arizona's defense. If Malcolm Lee has to become the primary ball handler for the Bruins then this game might turn into a replay of the Washington game. Lee doesn't lose the ball like Anderson but he just doesn't see the floor like a point guard and often his passes are stolen, tipped or put his teammates in such a position as to be the cause of a turnover that's attributed to another player.
Again, if they can initiate the offense then the rest of the Bruins can do some things. Roll will be the craftiest person on the floor and Tyler Honeycutt is the most talented. His ability to pass will be necessary in this game for the Bruins to even keep it close. Williams, who is Arizona's leading rebounder and scorer, can at least be slowed down, if not neutralized by the zone and the return of Nelson. Perhaps, especially is Nelson is not available, Howland will opt for Brendan Lane as the next guy at the five. Perhaps he'll use big-bodied J'mison Morgan more in order to keep Williams in check. Or maybe not. Bobo played zero minutes in the second half against Oregon when Dragovic was hurt. Even still, Williams is probably not the greatest threat to the Bruins in this game. That honor goes to the guards and wings.
The Oregon loss was the first one this season where I was totally deflated as a fan, and realized that it's not so much that the Bruins' opponents are so good but that UCLA continually finds ways to shoot themselves in the foot. That's the mark of a young team, especially at the point. Of course, there's the effort question and when the Bruins have answered that positively they've been able to beat Cal and Washington. However, this one is on the road and the Bruins aren't at full strength. Frankly, even if they were at full strength and the game was in Los Angeles, they'd probably still be in trouble. Arizona is just a bad match-up for the Bruins.
And the Bruins just may see the Cats again in a week.