Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Saturday, January 31, 2015

2014-15 UCLA Basketball Preview #2: Looking for a Quality Hollywood Sequel

There've been times this season where I've openly pondered "what has to happen for this team to get a road win?"  Thursday night's tilt with the USC Trojans answered that rhetorical question: Askia Booker has to get medieval, and drop a historic amount of points.

Playing in his home town, just minutes from the courts where the human jitterbug learned the game, Ski went off for 43 to almost single-handedly drag the Buffaloes across the finish line for their first road win in eight tries. Colorado needed every one of those points, as USC was holding on for dear life on their home floor.  Locked in a war of attrition, the two teams would battle on through three overtimes and six player disqualifications, stretching nerves and rosters thin.  CU, however, had the trump card - Booker - and kept playing it at just the right moments to secure a 98-94 win.  Finally, the sighs uttered across BuffNation were ones of satisfied exhaustion, rather than frustration.
Ski would not be denied on Thursday. From: the BDC
There's no possible way to overstate how brilliant Ski was on Thursday.  It took him until the 6:28 mark of the first half to find the scoresheet, but, having finally woken up, it was game on.  He scored 10 points in just under two minutes, helping to all but erase a 10-point deficit headed into halftime.  In total, he would score 24 in regulation, powering CU to an 11-pont lead midway through the second half.

About the only thing that could slow Booker down was a cheap shot from brutish USC center Nikola Jovanovic.  On a fast break with eight minutes to play in the second half, the galoot threw a shoulder and a leg into Ski, sending the point guard flying.  While he got up, and only sported a bruise after the game, the assault had its desired effect.  The spark plug was shaken, failing to score down the stretch, and committing a trio of turnovers in the immediate aftermath.  As a result, Colorado as a whole would go on a nearly 15-minute long drought without a made field goal. The refs, particularly clueless in a game marred by questionable officiating, only awarded a common foul.  Askia would have the final laugh, however.
Booker has never been better than he was in overtime.  From:
Once into overtime, Booker began to shake off the cobwebs.  By the time the game got to the second extra period, the Scrat was ready to fully flip the switch back to 'on.'  From then till the final horn, Ski would score 17 of CU's 25 points, all without committing a single turnover.  He was everywhere - off the bounce, at the rim, on the step-back.  Hell, he even posted up a defender at one point.  It was Ski Season, in all its ride-the-dragon glory, and the high has never been so good.  For the game, he finished 13-23 from the floor, 13-15 from the line, and even dished out three of Colorado's eight assists in 51 minutes of action. The performance marked the most points by a Buff in a single game since Donnie Boyce's 46 against Oklahoma State in 1994, and stands as the fourth-most ever.  We take him for granted far too often, but that was a perfect example of a player refusing to lose; it was Ski Booker in a nutshell.

It's a little unfair, but Ski's 43 overshadows some encouraging efforts from his teammates. Down two starters, with Jaron Hopkins joining Josh Scott on the inactive list with a bum ankle, the team needed others to step up. Xavier Johnson returned to the lineup for the first time in weeks to chip in 12/5, including the game-tying three pointer in the final minute of the first overtime.  Freshman forward Tory Miller, who has been performing exceptionally well over the last few weeks, submitted his first career double-double (11/13), which featured five huge points in the final frame of overtime to supplement the Ski-splosion.  Without them, and the little efforts chipped in by the other six Buffs who saw the court, the outcome would've been completely different.
Xavier Johnson returned to the court, and played a major role in extending the action.  From: the Post
For the Trojans, they boasted their own historic offensive outputs, as Jovanovic and shooting guard Katin Reinhardt combined for 65 points.  Jovanovic bullied his way to 30/9 on 17 shots, getting most of the CU front line in foul trouble in the process.  Reinhardt went for 35, mostly on 9-18 shooting from deep.  Without Jaron Hopkins to help with defense on the perimeter, he was consistently getting loose on the wing for wide open shots, and was approaching Scott the Dick territory.  Thankfully, both fouled out, and Booker's heroics put an end to that nightmare.

This has the potential to become a massive win.  Beyond just the cancellation of the road losing streak and Ski's bonkers night, the boost to overall team confidence cannot be denied.  The Buffs, as a team, showed more grit and determination on Thursday than I've seen from them all season.  I kept waiting for the shoe to drop, and the untimely the loss to follow, but, time after time, Colorado fought through it (even that damned 15-minute field goal drought).  If they can bring that same determination with them into tonight's meeting with UCLA, this road trip has the potential to become a season-saving moment.  Let's see what the Buffs have for an encore.


Tip-off from Pauley Pavilion, new court and all, is set for 8:30pm this evening.  Pac-12 Networks, complete with BILL WALTON, has the pictures.  850 KOA, complete with MARK JOHNSON, has the sound.

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

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

No Josh Scott, 16 allowed offensive rebounds, and as many turnovers (18) as made baskets.  If you would've handed me those facts before this season's first meeting with UCLA, I would've told you there was no chance that CU would win.  Instead, thanks to a series of intense efforts inside the paint (and a little luck), Colorado made the plays necessary to grab a statement 62-56 win over the Bruins in the conference opener.
A deservingly happy group of Buffaloes.  From: the BDC.
So how, given the numerous second chances and turnovers afforded to the visitors, did the Buffs manage to come away with a win over UCLA - a team they had never beaten in Pac-12 play?  It comes down to the Bruins' three point shooting (abysmal), and CU's free throw rate (superb).  UCLA was ice cold beyond the arc, only making six of 26 shots for the game.  It wasn't so much that Colorado's perimeter defense was that good (although Jaron Hopkins did a solid job on Bryce Alford - 0-9), the kids from Westwood were just blatantly missing open looks from the wing.  The performance struck me as more flukish than telling, which probably doesn't bode well for this evening.  From the line, at least, it was all about Colorado getting their shit together, as crunch time attempt after crunch time attempt went down.  The Buffs were 21-25 on Friday, salting the game away to stave off a series of frantic UCLA comeback attempts.

The lack of Scott was made known about a half hour before the tip.  This was the first game that Colorado's prized power forward was sidelined with back spasms, and he has not returned since.  It's a stretch that has now consumed the entire month of January. While we now know that the still-developing grouping of Wes Gordon, Dustin Thomas, and Tory Miller is capable of stepping up in their leader's absence, it was a little concerning, back on the second of this month, to see them going toe-to-toe with one of the better forward corps in the West. The thing is, forced to dig deep, the trio answered the bell with a ferocious defense of the rim that really helped CU cover up the loss of Jelly.  Keyed by a career performance for Gordon, who finished three blocks shy of a triple-double with an 11/14/7 line, the Buffs more than held their own in the paint.  More importantly, they got their counterparts embroiled in foul trouble to open up the lane, keeping options open for the offense.
Wes Gordon stepped up on defense in Scott's absence.  From: the BDC
The three young forwards were helped by the energetic presence of Xavier Johnson.  The fiery Californian played significant minutes in the four-slot, showing a tenacity down the stretch that UCLA had no chance of countering.  The lefty would finish with 14/6 and three steals, but his contagious exuberance in the final minutes ended all doubt of a CU win.

On the perimeter, the tandem of Askia Booker and Jaron Hopkins continued to develop, with both proving able to push the pace and break down the defense.  That pairing has blossomed since, as the team has had to rely on their play to generate offense while dealing with a series of injuries, but this was the first time I really began to see them as an effective entity, rather than individuals.  They combined for 27/9/5/4 against UCLA, and, while there were still mistakes, played very well.
Great win, Coach, but are you sure about that color of shirt when playing UCLA?  From: the BDC
There's a lot about this win, as good as it was, that strikes me as fleeting.  While the Buffs played well, this game was won in the margins -- #TadBall, to put a name to it.  Overall, the teams combined for .82 ppp, essentially an offensive trainwreck.  Coincidentally, the first time since joining the Pac-12 that Colorado had managed to hold UCLA and their traveling band of recruiting all-stars under one point per possession.  I wouldn't expect a repeat performance this evening, especially as this one will be played in West LA.  If the Buffs are going to win tonight, they're going to have to score.

The Bruins since then - 

In the immediate aftermath of the game in Boulder, UCLA was whacked on the head by Utah in a fashion not all that dissimilar to their infamous December performance against Kentucky.  Throughout the 71-39 loss in Salt Lake City, the Bruins continued to exhibit many of the calling cards of their five-game losing streak.  Three point shooting was abysmal (1-11), they were getting roughed up on the defensive glass (18 defensive boards to Utah's 10 offensive), and foul trouble was an issue (Tony Parker fouled out after only 18 minutes played).  For all intents and purposes, UCLA was broken...
The Utes pushed around the Bruins earlier this month.  From: the SL Trib
Then they came home, and had their own gut-check game against Staford. UCLA was down 14 points mid-way through the second half, and looked to be in position to extend that losing streak to six games.  But a 19-4 run, sparked by the forward combo of Parker and Kevon Looney, got them back into the game, and helped push the tilt to overtime.  It took two periods of extra basketball, but the Bruins prevailed 86-81, flipping the narrative of a season that had been jumping the tracks.  They would follow that up with solid wins over Cal and USC in LA. 

While their most recent road trip, to the Oregons, was far less fruitful, they turned some heads with a shocking dismantling of Utah on Thursday.  About the same time Ski was lighting up the Galen Center, the Bruins were heating up Westwood, stunning the Utes throughout a 69-59 win.  It was the Norman Powell show in this one, as the senior guard dropped 23 to help his swuad grab their first win over a top-25 team this season.  The result was keyed by an eight minute stretch to start the second half where the Bruins went on a 12-0 run, erasing all doubt. Much like the Buffs, UCLA will be looking to capitalize on a headline-making win this evening.
Norm Powell was on fire Thursday.  From: ESPN
Don't look at this team the same way you did in early January, when their heads were completely screwed on backwards. Statistically, at least, they're playing a different style of ball.  They've slowed down a bit offensively (down about six possessions per game in conference play from where they were in non-conference), and are much more focused up front.  Overall, shooting remains an issue, but they're the best team in the Pac-12 in securing second chances - the Kobe assist has been serving them well.  The Bruins are also one of the best group of ball thieves in the land, and have been getting about seven steals per game since the flip of the calendar (11% steal rate).

Some other numbers to keep an eye on: free throws, from UCLA, and three pointers, from CU.  The Bruins have been the worst team in the league at making from the line (64%; additionally, 11th in FTA/FGA ratio) and stopping outside threats (allowing 44% shooting from beyond the arc in Pac-12 play).  Those are trends that would need to continue for Colorado to be able to win this one.

Why things could be different - 

As I said, the Buffs got a little lucky in Boulder. UCLA isn't going to finish nearly as poorly from three as they shot in the first game. While the 6-26 night earlier this month wasn't an isolated incident (23% from three on conference road trips), in Pac-12 games played in the greater Los Angeles area, the Bruins have been much better (42%). No one on the team strikes me as a burner, but players like Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton won't continue to miss wide open looks in this one.
Alford and #DaddyBall won't go away so quietly in LA.
Foul trouble also played a key factor last time.  As we saw on Thursday, the crap-shoot that is Pac-12 officiating can turn on you in a second, so I don't think you can expect the Buffs to be able to chip through the UCLA front line as efficiently as they did a month ago.  While the Bruins aren't a team to put their opponents in uncomfortable foul counts too often, the home whistle could be a huge factor.

On the inactives front, the Bruins are missing key reserve forward Wannah Bail, who was ruled academically ineligible for the semester.  That, however, doesn't come close to what CU will be missing up front, as Josh Scott is still out (didn't even make the trip).  Beyond Scott, who hasn't been a factor since before the Hawai'i tournament, I haven't heard one way or the other about Jaron Hopkins, who missed Thursday's game against USC with an ankle injury. If he's out, it becomes a major problem on the perimeter. The Trojans were able to take significant advantage of the defense (or lack there of) being played in his absence.  UCLA would only be able to extenuate that issue, as I don't think any of the remaining guards could stop Norm Powell on dribble-drive.

Prediction - 

(My record on the season: 7-3. Against the spread: 6-4. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -4.2 pts/gm)

Lines as of Friday @ 7pm - CU +4

I really don't like this matchup.  While the Buffs won the conference opener, it's not a trend you can really bank on.  The Bruins do a lot of things that will frustrate Colorado - from steals, to zone defense, and offensive rebounds - and, as much as I like Ski, he's not going to play super hero twice in one road trip (... could he?).  If Hopkins is still out, the numbers look even worse.

The potential path to victory would come from the line, with the accompanying foul trouble on the UCLA front court, but I just can't expect that happening on the road.  Since I don't see a repeat of the #TadBall defensive numbers in Pauley, that'll be decisive

UCLA 75 - CU 60


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