It’s fitting that UCLA’s quest for a 32nd conference championship begins in Mount Hood’s home state.
The first mountain is always the toughest to climb.
After finishing a perfect 13-0 in non-conference play, punctuated by dazzling wins in Lexington against Kentucky and 3 wins against the Big Ten, the Bruins now look to bring a Pac-12 championship back to Westwood for the first time since 2013.
It’s been a heck of a ride so far. The team, led by Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf and a whole litany of others, plays breathtaking offense. The Bruins are 2nd in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency rating, 1st in overall shooting percentage (55%), 1st in 2 point shooting (62%) and 4th in 3 point shooting (42%). They pass the ball better than anyone in America and can seemingly kick start 8 to 10 point runs in the blink of an eye. Poor shooting days for this team would be taken by at least 300 other teams in America.
This brand of rocket fuel offensive basketball has brought the fun back to Westwood after a dour last season, when many began to wonder about Steve Alford’s job. He’s done a great job this season assembling a versatile roster and managing it in each game so far.
The team hasn’t been perfect - Western Michigan fought hard against a team that looked sluggish and lackadaisical, and the team defense (66th in KenPom efficiency) still needs to improve for this team to fend off the likes of Oregon and Arizona for the conference crown and to make a deep tournament run.
But you knew that already if you’ve been watching. Champions aren’t crowned in early December.
So as the Bruins begin the Pac-12 gauntlet in a hostile environment in Eugene tomorrow and then take on Oregon State on Friday, here are a few of the finer points to watch for as the Bruins begin the conference grind.
1. Throughout the trip, how will Steve Alford juggle the rotation?
It’s been easy for me to forget that against Ohio State and Western Michigan, the Bruins played without starting center Thomas Welsh; he’s currently on the mend from a bone bruise in his leg. It therefore makes sense that the Bruins’ offense struggled in those two games, as GG Golomon can never replace Welsh’s shooting touch, and Ike Anigbogu is still a limited offensive player.
As Welsh works his way back into the lineup, watch to see how he moves. Is there any lingering side effects in his movement? When he shoots his money baseline jumper, is he getting lift, or does the shot look flat? How will he respond to physical battles inside against Oregon’s Kavell Bigby-Williams and Oregon State’s Drew Eubanks? It would have been nice to get Welsh worked in for the Western Michigan game, but a fully healthy Welsh is a key cog to the UCLA offense and allows it to be so lethal and versatile.
For the guards, will Prince Ali feature? His arrival has seemed imminent for awhile, but it seems more and more plausible that he will take his medical redshirt this season. If he does come back, what will his minutes look like? Will he be limited to a defensive stopper role?
And if he doesn’t, how will Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton hold up as they play 32+ minutes per game? My one quibble with Steve Alford this season has been his unwillingness to put Aaron Holiday in games sooner, thus naturally capping his playing time. The next 18 games, most of which occur within 3 nights of a week, are going to be a grind, and the guard rotation, as stellar as it’s been, is one bad injury away from wrecking this season.
2. Against Oregon, when do the Bruins deploy the zone defense?
On paper, Oregon and UCLA are very similar physically. Both teams feature 3 guard lineups that with only one inside banger forward coming off the bench (Ike Anigbogu for UCLA, Kavell Bigby-Williams for Oregon). While Oregon’s offense does not run at the pace of UCLA’s - to be fair, no one does, since the Bruins lead the country in adjusted tempo - Oregon is efficient on offense and shoots well from inside the arc and cleans up on offensive rebounds when they miss.
The one area UCLA can exploit defensively is Oregon’s poor three point shooting. The Ducks only hit 32% of their 3s, and although the Bruins cede a lot of three pointers to opponents, they can live with Oregon building bricks so as long as they clear the boards.
The best way for UCLA to force Oregon into threes is by deploying the 2-3 zone defense, especially with Aaron Holiday and Lonzo Ball at the front 2. The zone worked to near perfection against Ohio State, as the Buckeyes looked lost against it and were held to less than a point per possession in the second half as the Bruins suffocated them for the win. The zone will feature prominently tomorrow as a way to not only hide UCLA’s defensive woes in Bryce Alford and TJ Leaf but to also force Oregon out of driving lanes and into shots that they have not consistently made this season.
3. Against Oregon State, do the Bruins come out engaged for a full 40 minutes?
Oregon State is a wounded team, both physically - Tres Tinkle was averaging 20 points a game before he went out injured - and in the record books - the Beavers finished nonconference play 4-9. Of all the Pac-12 Conference games, this one and the Washington State matchup look to be as close to locks as one can get in high-level Division 1 basketball.
With that said, how do the Bruins start on Friday night? After what is sure to be a war against Oregon less than 50 hours prior, is the team locked in against an inferior opponent? Do they avoid careless turnovers and not play down to the Beavers? We will learn a lot about this team not only on Friday, but throughout the conference after the first 10 to 15 minutes of Friday night’s game.
Steve Alford has yet to earn a conference sweep on the road, and that includes blowing gimme games to the likes of Oregon State and Washington State. If they can get past the Ducks on Wednesday, there is no reason as to why that ignominious streak of no road sweeps should not end on Friday.
Starting the Pac-12 at 2-0 is crucial not only in the standings, but it will be a huge lift for the team the rest of the way. No one wants to start behind the 8-ball, and the Bruins can avoid that fate if they come out hard against a struggling Oregon State outfit.