After grinding out a win over Oregon on Thursday night, the UCLA Bruins return to the court on Saturday when they host the Oregon State Beavers at Pauley Pavilion.
With the win over the Ducks, the Bruins improved to 17-7 on the year and 8-3 in the Pac-10. To put that in perspective, the Bruins won 14 total games all of last year with 8 of those wins being in conference. With a win over Oregon State, the Bruins would consolidate their current hold on second place in the conference (perhaps even a tie for first if Arizona State can upset Arizona in Tempe) and move one step closer to a bid to the NCAA Tournament come March.
The Beavers are having another down year and there are rumblings out of Corvallis that Coach Craig Robinson is on a bit of a hot seat. Fans of the Beavers were expecting to see improvement from the squad in this, Robinson’s third year, but once again the Beavers have disappointed. With Thursday night’s loss at USC, the Beavers are now 9-14 on the season and just 4-8 in the Pac-10. Included in those are losses to five mid- to low-major teams, including Seattle, Utah Valley, George Washington and Texas Southern, teams with a combined record of 46-47. Granted, Texas Southern and Utah Valley lead their respective conferences by wide margins, but still, OSU, or any Pac-10 team for that matter, shouldn’t be losing to teams like those, let alone all four of them in the same season.
Oregon State’s problems have primarily stemmed from a lack of offensive firepower and running Robinson’s hybrid Princeton offense (Robinson is the former coach at Brown) doesn’t help, as it tends to slow down things and forces teams to defend for most, if not all, of each 35-second shot clock. Still, the Ducks are young in terms of the players they do have that are Pac-10 level and Robinson did inherit a pretty big mess from the Jay John era.
While the Beavers are simply trying to obtain some respectability, the goals of the Bruins are, in the short term, loftier. Obviously, getting to the Big Dance is goal number 1 or 1A, depending on where Coach Ben Howland and the team rank winning the Pac-10. Perhaps more importantly, the Bruins are looking for some consistency in their game at both ends of the floor. That’s why the win over Oregon was maddening on one hand an encouraging on another. It was a terrible offensive performance by the Bruins who simply clawed their way to enough points despite the lack of points from their inside game. In fact, it was a bit surprising that the Bruins scored 45 of their points from essentially the two guard positions when the Bruins enjoyed such a huge advantage on paper in the low post. On the other hand, Tracy Pierson has written several times this season that the Bruins will only go as far as their defense takes them and on Thursday, even though the Bruins suffered through some lulls, they used their team defense to grind out a victory when they found points hard to come by for long stretches. The Bruins held the Ducks to 39% shooting for the game and 34% for the second half.
With this being the second go-around through the conference schedule, typically little changes in terms of personnel. However, in an effort to spark his team, Robinson has tinkered with the starting line-up and chances are the team he starts on Saturday will be different than the one he put out on the floor to start the game in Corvallis.
The top player for the Beavers continues to be sophomore guard Jared Cunningham (6’4” 182 lbs.), who leads the team in several statistical categories. He is the team’s leading scorer at 13.7 PPG, the leading three-point shooter at 37% and is the runaway leader in free throws attempted and made, being 124-156 for 75%. However, the Beavers, the losers of five of their past six, can trace their recent lackluster play to the fact that Cunningham is just simply getting worn down. He’s only averaging 29 MPG so its not as if he’s out on the floor game-in and game-out with little rest. The problem for Cunningham is that teams are being terribly physical with him each night and it appears to be taking its toll. Against USC he looked a step slow and this was magnified by the fact that USC clearly made slowing him down a priority. When the teams first met in January, UCLA’s Malcolm Lee essentially shut down Cunningham, holding him to five points on 1-9 shooting from the floor.
The other guards who have been getting significant minutes are freshmen Ahmed Starks (5’8” 153 lbs.) and Roberto Nelson (6’3” 188 lbs.) and senior Calvin Haynes (also 6’3” 188 lbs.). Starks has had a solid initial campaign as the point guard for the Beavers and played 31 minutes against the Trojans. The role of the point guard in Robinson’s offense is different than in, say, a motion offense, so Starks’ assist numbers aren’t great, but he’s quick enough that he does a serviceable job handling the ball. His shooting from the floor has been terrible, both overall (34%) and from behind the arc (29%). However, his free throw shooting (85%) has been quite good.
Nelson has some talent, but is clearly in a slump. The announcers of Thursday night’s game with USC stated several times that Nelson is lacking offensive confidence right now and it shows. He is passing up numerous shots in games that he would have taken earlier in the year. Most fans remember the three-pointer he hit against UCLA last month during OSU’s furious second half comeback. Nelson won’t even attempt that shot right now, let alone make it. And if Nelson can’t hit his outside shot then he’s pretty much a liability on the court, because he’s a poor and lazy defender.
Haynes is a mystery. For his first three years in Corvallis he was probably the Beavers’ best offensive player, but this season he’s been a pretty big disappointment. His offensive stats are down across the board and it’s mostly due to his three-point shooting, where he’s only connecting on 26% of his three-point attempts. For most of Haynes’ career he’s come off the bench, and after starting most games for the Beavers this year Robinson has had him coming off the bench more recently in an effort to have Haynes rediscover his offensive touch.
On paper, the Beaver backcourt is stronger than Oregon’s, yet few can argue that OSU’s guards have been better as a unit than the Ducks. Remember that as recently as last Saturday Oregon’s backcourt completely dominated the guards of Washington. That’s why the way in which Malcolm Lee (25 points), Lazeric Jones (10 points) and Jerime Anderson (10 points) simply dominated the Duck guards on Thursday, outscoring them 45-25, was so surprising. If the three Bruins can bring the same kind of offensive firepower and focus on Saturday then they should be able to dominate the Beaver backcourt.
In the Oregon preview I wrote that UCLA should enjoy a tremendous advantage in the paint against the Ducks. That proved true as the Bruins outrebounded the Ducks 41-28. However, the Duck 1-2-2 pressure zone defense was clearly adjusted to try and take away UCLA’s inside game and they held the Bruin posts (Reeves Nelson, Josh Smith and Anthony Stover) to a combined 14 points. Add Tyler Honeycutt to that mix and the Bruin forward still only combined for 19 points.
On paper, the Bruins should enjoy even more of an advantage against the Beaver front line than they did against the Ducks. The Beavers gave up 26 points and 19 boards to USC’s two low-post players, Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson. If UCLA’s Smith doesn’t have another game where he picks up quick fouls then the Bruins really should dominate the paint.
OSU center Joe Burton (6’7” 280 lbs.) doesn’t represent as much of a match-up challenge as Oregon’s Joevan Catron. Because Burton is strictly a low-post player, expect Smith and Stover to be matched up against him. Smith got into foul trouble against the Ducks because their line-up is a bad match-up for him. Catron was able to pull him out of the paint and force Smith to guard on the perimeter consistently. When teams have done that to Smith this year, that’s when he’s gotten into foul trouble (That’s why playing some zone would help Smith and the Bruins with regard to fouls, but I digress). The point is Robinson isn’t Oregon’s Dana Altman, who clearly had a game plan to get Smith in foul trouble, and OSU doesn’t have the personnel to consistently put Smith in untenable defensive positions. Burton can’t draw fouls on Smith like Catron did. Expect Smith to not be in the kind of foul trouble he was in on Thursday. Burton, too, isn’t a guy who would be able to exploit those fouls, shooting a woeful 46% from the line, which has kept his scoring average at a modest 7.1 PPG.
Robinson has been mixing and matching his frontcourt players in order to get some kind of consistency from them, and although they all play hard, there just isn’t the talent in that group to win consistently in the conference -- yet. There are some freshmen in Chris Brown (6’11” 262 lbs.) and Devon Collier (6’7” 206 lbs.), who are starting to get more minutes as they understand Robinson’s offense. Collier has actually been a big part of Robinson’s rotation all season. Like Burton, if he ever figures it out from the free-throw line, then he’ll be a double-digit scorer.
The other three frontcourt players are senior Omari Johnson (6’9” 220 lbs.), the team’s leading rebounder at 6.5 RPG, junior Kevin McShane (6’9” 225 lbs.), who’s been getting more minutes recently, and sophomore Angus Brandt (6’10” 237 lbs.). Even though he can play with his back to the basket, the Australian Brandt is a European-style big man who is very comfortable playing facing the hoop and having more of a finesse game.
Although the personnel match-ups will have an impact on the outcome of the game, in reality that impact should be minimal. The Bruins have more talent at every position and on paper should win the game very easily. But as the Ducks showed on Thursday night, that’s why they play the games.
The key to defeating the Beavers is the way in which an offense attacks their 1-3-1 halfcourt, trapping defense and 2-3 zone. The Bruins did a very poor job of attacking Oregon’s zone for long stretches on Thursday night, instead settling for long-range jumpers after passing the ball around the perimeter. Even when Josh Smith entered the game, Oregon simply adjusted and triple-teamed him almost every time he touched the ball. The Ducks dared the Bruins to hit outside shots and, while UCLA did hit some, they really fell into the Ducks’ trap. It was only after UCLA went small with Nelson at the 5 and Honeycutt at the 4 did they finally move the ball crisply and get the ball into the most dangerous position against Oregon’s zone, the middle at the free throw line. Once the Bruins started getting the ball into that space they started getting good looks on virtually every possession, and they were able to make that entry pass. Remember, every zone falls into what is basically a 2-3 zone, especially on the weakside after a pass to a wing is made, so either quick passing, a screen to the weakside up-man or a simple seal of that same defender allows the ball to get to the middle. The same will be true against Oregon State. The Bruins dissected the OSU zone in the first half of the first game but then turned the ball over at an alarming rate in the second half, looking almost disinterested in the contest as if it was over. OSU plays the kind of defense that has to be constantly attacked with quick passing and quick dribble penetration. Against the 1-3-1, the baseline will especially be vulnerable to a quick passing offense, from the short corner out to the three-point line. Also, the Bruins will need to continue to get movement out of the weakside cutters (Malcolm Lee against Oregon), who should be open for easy bounce pass lay-ups. The ball moves faster than a defender and a quick passing team should be able to tear apart OSU’s zones.
Defensively, the Bruins will have to be wary of the backdoor cuts and cutters down the lane that are the staples of the Princeton-style offense that OSU runs. The key is shutting off the high-post pass. Now, in the first meeting of these two teams the Beavers had many open looks that they simply missed in the first half but started making in the second half. That offensive confidence coupled with UCLA’s seeming disinterest in the game is what caused a nailbiter that should have been over long before the final whistle. In that game, the Bruins got beat in the second half more with jump shots than anything else. On Thursday against Oregon, the one thing the Bruins weren’t consistently good at was closing out on shooters at the arc. What helped is the Bruins were very physical on defense in the second half and the same open shots that Oregon was making in the first half weren’t falling in the second. The reality is that Oregon got tired, which was at least in part to UCLA knocking them around a bit. That physical style that wears out teams is in some ways reminiscent of UCLA’s Final Four teams, except those teams were very good about closing out on outside shooters. This team is still a work in progress in those areas. It helps that OSU is just not shooting well from the outside right now and that’s not bound to change on an opponent’s court. However, the Beavers don’t quit. USC held a comfortable lead going into the second half but the Beavers kept fighting back. If UCLA doesn’t come to play they’ll be in for another dogfight as OSU most certainly will play with intensity and focus.
It was refreshing to see Honeycutt play more noticeable helpside defense against the Ducks. Hopefully that is an indication of things to come. It was also a pleasant surprise to see Nelson hustle back on defense on enough occasions that it was noticeable. However, it will behoove Nelson to not get caught up in histrionics when he was fouled hard by Jay-R Strowbridge of the Ducks late in the game. That’s the kind of emotion Nelson can leave at home.
Finally, even though it didn’t hurt them against the Ducks, the Bruins were only 11-of-20 from the free throw line. At some point that will hurt the Bruins. The Bruins also miss them at critical times. In the first half they missed four in a row and making them could have given the Bruins the confidence they needed to attack the Oregon defense and not be behind at the half. Other than Lazeric Jones, the Bruins look a bit nervous at the line late in games. Jerime Anderson looks more and more confident as he steps to the line each time, but the Bruins need more clutch free throw shooting or teams are going to attack that chink in the armor late in games.
But as was the case with Oregon, the Bruins shouldn’t need any late-game free throws to ice this one away.
Oregon State 53