Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Thursday, February 13, 2014

2013-14 UCLA Basketball Preview #2

Well, a fortnight can certainly change a few things.  Only two weeks ago, CU was down and out, sliding to 4-4 in conference play, and adrift in a sea of questions.  After a 3-0 home stand, suddenly the ship appears righted, and the Buffs actually find themselves only a half game out of second-place. Huzzah!

Of course, that's the key phrase - home stand.  All the gains over the last two weeks were made in the friendly confines of the CEC.  Considering that Colorado remains 1-3 away from Boulder in 2014, without a strong showing in the bunch, it's hard to take this team all that seriously without some substantial gains on the road.

Which is where tonight's game comes in.  The Buffs travel to Westwood to take on the UCLA Bruins in a matchup for 2nd place in the Pac-12.  We've left the post-injury phase behind now; it's all about the players on the court.  This is their opportunity to define the club that they want to be apart of. A win, coupled with a series completion over USC this weekend, silences critics, and flips the narrative on its head.  Wouldn't it be a hell of a thing if they could do whatever-it-takes this evening to redefine the 2013-14 basketball season?


Tip-off from the re-vamped Pauley Pavillion is set for 7pm this evening.  The fate of Western Civilization will hang in the balance, as the great Bill Walton has the color on ESPN2.  For those who hate fun, you can hide from the the Grateful Red-head with Mark Johnson on 850 KOA.

For reference, my preview from the first game can be found here.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Still in the throes of coping with the loss of Spencer Dinwiddie and Tre'Shaun Fletcher, CU last played the Bruins under a cloud of doubt.  My abiding memory of that night was the demure nature of the crowd as the Buffs took the court, which, at that point, had yet to be tainted by a loss.  The fans in attendance seemed to want someone to embrace them, and say 'everything is going to be alright.'  That comforting moment had to wait, as Colorado struggled to get their sea legs back against a very strong UCLA squad en route to a 69-56 loss.
What an awkward day in Boulder it was.  From: the BDC
The story of defeat was built by the inability of anyone outside of Askia Booker and Josh Scott to contribute a positive offensive performance.  While the stars dropped 40/13, the other seven Buffs who saw the court that night combined to excrete a woeful 16 point, 13 turnover, 22% shooting line.  It was clear that leadership roles were still being defined, and that basic things like lineup rotation and positioning were in flux. Even granting the implied injury excuse, it was still an ugly display, especially coming at home.

Accentuating the struggles was a dominant performance from UCLA's Jordan Adams.  Normally a pure scorer, Adams did the little things to beat the Buffs last month.  Shrugging off a slow night from the field (4-15, 1-6 from deep) he crashed the glass for 13 huge rebounds (six offensive), and pushed around shell-shocked Buffaloes.  Said Coach Boyle after the game, "(Adams) manhandled us . . . he was the difference in the second half. We didn't have an answer for him.”  Playing with Adam's inspiration, the Bruins crushed CU in 'hustle points,' playing +16 in the paint, +13 off turnovers, and +19 on second chances.  Just not what you would expect from this matchup; UCLA is supposed to be the slicker, glossier team, scoring freely while Colorado tries to muck it up and play in the margins.  Adams was, indeed, the difference.

The Bruins since then - 

For the most part, the Bruins have continued to live up to their billing as the lead of the 11 dwarves behind Arizona.  They ran into a few road blocks over the last month, losing to a feisty Utah squad and a quietly capable Oregon State team on the road, but still sit in second place headed into the home-stretch of Pac-12 play.  In spite of what BruinsNation would have you believe (If you want a laugh, check out their posts after the OSU loss: ohso very delicious. These guys must be great fun at parties), UCLA is a good team with decent post-season prospects.  A few odd road losses doesn't change that.
What?! A college basketball team lost a head-scratcher on the road?!  THIS IS ENTIRELY UNEXPECTED!
It's a shame that their fan base doesn't appreciate them, because I certainly do.  They play a fast, exciting brand of ball, combining high-possession, efficient offense with a ball-hawking defense that's second in the nation in steal rate.  If you can't get behind that, in year one of a coaching regime, I feel sorry for you.

Just look at their numbers.  In Pac-12 play, they're #1 in offensive efficiency, and #2 in defensive (well behind Arizona, but who isn't).  If that doesn't scream 'good team,' I don't know what does.  With Arizona's Brandon Ashley out for the rest of the season, it wouldn't even surprise me if they came from behind to challenge the Wildcats for the league crown.  At the very least, barring some unforeseen developments, they'll probably be my pick to win the championship in Vegas.

Why things could be different - 

Beyond the obvious, the game last month featured a few oddities.

In reality, CU played defense well enough to win. For the first time since joining the conference, they held the Bruins to under 40% shooting (almost 10 percentage points under their seasonal average), and under one point per possession.  It was a major departure from a typical UCLA offensive performance.  In fact, their win in Boulder was the only time all season that they've failed to top one point per possession and still win.

UCLA's dominance on the offensive glass was also an aberration.  CU remains the 5th-best team in the country in defensive rebounding rate, and the Bruins post a very mediocre offensive rebounding rate, overall. For CU to give up 15 offensive boards, which was converted into a ridiculous 20-1 advantage in second-chance scoring, is far outside of normal.
UCLA out-hustled CU in Boulder... I don't see that happening again.
Realistically, at least one of those bucked trends has to revert to form.

If I had to guess, Colorado isn't going to let UCLA out-hustle them tonight.  I just can't imagine a Coach Boyle team getting out-worked twice in a row against the same group.  Things like working Jordan Adams off the ball, boxing out, hustling to make those margin plays... we should see a different effort from Colorado this evening.

Which leads me to this: if CU can combine a repeat defensive performance with better play in the margins, a more confident offensive structure should enable Colorado to make the final much more competitive.  They were in scramble mode in the days after the injury, and that played a big role in the dismal showing from the team outside of Booker and Scott. CU has a realized plan in place now, and, as a result, I think the Buffs can push the Bruins farther than most have on their home court... if the defense holds.

It's a big 'if'.

Prediction - 

(My record on the season: 11-3.  Against the spread: 7-7.  Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +0.93 pts/gm)

Lines as of Thursday @ 11pm - CU +10.5

I want to talk myself into thinking the Buffs can win this evening. The reality is, it far more likely that UCLA's offense reverts to form, than a repeat performance from the Colorado defense.  While CU is far more comfortable offensively then they were in January, I fully expect the Bruins to score more than enough to keep the Buffs at arms length.

That said, BruinsNation is expecting an easy victory tonight. 'Anything else is a fail.'  Damn, you want to talk about delusions jackasses...  God forbid the great and powerful Bruins have to work at home against a talented team. Just to spite them, I'm taking CU to keep it to two or three possessions.

UCLA 75 - CU 68


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