Coach Ben Howland and the UCLA men's basketball team face arguably the most critical two games of the 2011-2012 season when the Bruins travel to the Oregon schools this week.
While the Bruins have seemingly played more consistent, better basketball as of late, there is the lingering sense that UCLA's apparent better play is more the result of poor competition and the fact that the Bruins have been playing "at home" (if you can call playing at the Honda Center home). The last time the Bruins went on the road they were swept by the Bay Area schools, with the loss at Cal being particularly depressing because of the way the Bruins seemed to give up in the second half. The Oregon games should provide Howland and the Bruins with a much better self-assessment and show whether the second half of the Cal game was an aberration or something that truly shows what these Bruins are: A poor team on the road.
Both Oregon programs are arguably better than either of those from Arizona and certainly better than USC. The first game of the road trip, this Thursday in Corvallis against the Beavers of Oregon State, is probably the more critical of the two games. Coach Craig Robinson's Beavers are arguably the weaker of the two Oregon teams and Gill Coliseum is certainly a less daunting place to play than Matt Court is in Eugene. Oregon State is coming off a lost weekend of its own, having been swept by the Arizona schools. However, Oregon State, much like the Bruins, is a much different team at home than on the road. Case in point: OSU defeated the same Cal team that embarrassed UCLA a few weeks ago relatively easily when the Bears came to Gill. However, OSU has been exhibiting some defensive issues the past few weeks that may just play right into the hands of UCLA.
In terms of personnel, OSU has one of the better starting line-ups in the conference simply because of the presence of arguably the Pac 12's top player, junior guard Jared Cunningham (6'4" 194 lbs.). Cunningham is OSU leader in several statistical categories and is near the top in several more. He is the team's leading scorer at 17.6 PPG and clearly the focal point that OSU's offense runs through. He "only" has 200 shot attempts, because he's been to the line 152 times, more than 31% of OSU's total free-throw attempts for the season. He rebounds well and is a solid-to-good defender. However, there is a chink in Cunningham's game: He is a poor outside shooter, averaging less that 30% from beyond the arc. Contrast that with his better than 53% from the floor inside the arc, which is remarkable for a two guard. Quite simply, the Bruins can't let him create off the dribble.
The second-leading scorer on the Beavers and the team's point guard is sophomore Ahmad Starks (5'9" 165 lbs.). He averages 13.7 PPG and leads the team with 218 shot attempts, including a whopping 122 from the three-point line. He has a 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio and is generally playing more under control than last season. Although he is primarily an outside shooter, he is the kind of quick, shifty guard that has given UCLA trouble in the past. The good news is that UCLA faced a similar guard last Sunday in USC's Maurice Jones and the Bruin guards did a good job in cutting off his driving lanes. Still, Starks has a better feel for the game as a point guard than Jones and he will be more apt to find an open teammate. When Starks does kick the ball out, he has teammates who are much better at hitting shots than USC does. Starks is also hitting better than 93% of his foul shots.
With teams starting to key on shutting down Cunningham and, to a certain extent, Starks, sophomore Devon Collier (6'8" 215 lbs.) has been stepping up. He's coming off a 21-point effort at Arizona State last weekend. Because of the size of the other two OSU starters in the post, Collier creates a massive match-up issue for the Bruins. Collier is strictly an inside player, which means that one of the Bruin posts is going to have to take him if Howland decides to play man-to-man defense. However, the Beavers start two 6'10" players and, although one of them is more of a perimeter player, asking one of the Bruin guards to take one of the 6'10" Beavers is a tall order (no pun intended). Collier shoots 63% from the floor and averages 5.1 RPG. He is also a good defender, with 25 blocks and 21 steals on the season.
The two 6'10" posts are junior Angus Brandt (242 lbs.) and freshman Eric Moreland (215 lbs.). Interestingly, Moreland is the inside threat while Brandt is a good outside threat (46% on threes). While it would seem that the roles should be reversed based on their respective weight, the reality is that OSU runs the Princeton-style offense and the center, in this case Brandt, handles the ball quite a bit in the high post looking for backdoor cutters and having open looks from the three-point line as the opposing defense sags to help on those cuts. Moreland deals with things in the low post and while he doesn't have the kind of girth to deal with UCLA's post players, he has become a relatively accomplished shot blocker, having 33 on the season. He's also shooting 53% from the floor.
If one of the two posts needs to be replaced by Robinson then he will certainly call on junior Joe Burton (6'7" 280 lbs.), who has given UCLA fits in the past when OSU has the ball. Burton leads the team in assists with 58 (again, because of the nature of the offense) and has been a solid 50% shooter, even going 3-6 on the season from behind the arc. He's also the leading rebounder for the Beavers at 6.2 RPG. He will play close to 30 minutes on Thursday, with Robinson inserting him for one of Brandt or Moreland, whoever isn't cutting it.
In terms of guard depth, Robinson primarily brings sophomore Roberto Nelson (6'3" 195) off the bench. He has become the best three-point shooter on the team (almost 40%) and has cut down considerably on his turnovers and questionable decision-making/shot selection from last year. Further, he is able to play any of the three guard/wing spots on the floor and has become a better defender.
OSU seemingly is a good to very good offensive team. The Beavers run an offense that can really boggle opponents. They have arguably the best player in the conference and they are a long/tall team. They've even sped up the offense, with Robinson looking for his charges to run much more than in the past. However, the Beavers are not a good outside shooting team. They were definitely bothered by ASU's match-up zone last weekend. The fact that OSU struggles against zone defenses and, because of their collective size, it would almost dictate that UCLA run primarily a zone defense on Thursday night. However, I thought much the same thing when the Bruins faced USC (that the Bruins should play zone) and Howland stayed in man defense all game. It worked but that have been because USC is, frankly, a very bad team. The decision to start the game in man versus a zone defense may be the difference in the game. Against USC Howland had the Bruins switching screens and that worked because of the relative lack of match-up issues the Bruins faced across the roster. Switching men simply won't work as well against the Beavers because one of the Bruin guards will be faced with guarding a player who has as much as an 8-inch height advantage.
Robinson has insisted on his Beavers playing much more man defense this season. Quite honestly, they aren't good at it. In fact, the Beavers have been so poor in their primary defense this season that they've been giving up an astonishing 57% shooting to opponents in the second half of conference games. The Beavers basically have had to outscore teams. In OSU's only conference win to date, against Cal, the Beavers shot 76% in the second half and 63% for the game…and only won by 7. Further, the Beavers take a lot of chances on defense looking for turnovers. The Bruins have been very good at holding on to the ball, with their 9 second half turnovers against the Trojans coming more because the game against USC was essentially over at the half. Simply put, if the Beavers can't force turnovers then opponents have been scoring on them almost at will.
Finally, for all their height and length, OSU is nothing more than a mediocre rebounding team. They are averaging less than one rebound more per game than their opponents. In conference games they've been getting outrebounded by almost 2 per game. If UCLA wins the battle of the boards then it bodes well for UCLA's chances.
Josh Smith is going to be an important factor in this game. USC was so bad that not having him on the floor Sunday arguably helped the Bruins. UCLA needs Smith to play closer to the way he played against ASU in order to be successful this weekend, especially if Robinson plays much more zone against the Bruins than he has against other opponents.
The fact that OSU defeated Texas, a team that beat the Bruins, earlier in the year counts for little at this point. OSU is 1-5 in the conference and they are on the cusp of being out of the conference race. They should come out fired up, especially since this group of Beavers has had very little success against the Bruins in the past. Still, OSU is on a three-game conference losing streak and they haven't played well in the last two games, although those were in Arizona, not Oregon. While the Bruins should be fired up, too, knowing this game represents a good chance at a road victory, OSU will be playing with its proverbial back against the wall.
The home court gives the Beavers an advantage. They certainly present issues for the Bruins when the Beavers have the ball. They can score in bunches and have Cunningham, who can be a game-changer. The Bruins should be able to win the rebounding game and they should be able to attack the Beaver defense, especially if Robinson insists on man defense as his primary D.
However, the game could very well come down to one decision: Whether or not Howland is going to play zone as the primary Bruin defense. If the Bruins go primarily man then they are going to quite simply have to outscore the Beavers and that's unlikely. A zone defense takes away OSU's length advantage and forces them to shoot outside as a team, where they haven't been good this season.
Howland is an incredibly stubborn coach, especially about the zone/man defense issue, and until we see differently expect the Bruins to play roughly the first 10 minutes of the game in a man defense.
That may be the difference in the game.
Oregon State 70