UCLA has played 15 games and has a seven game win streak. UCLA is ranked #39 in RPI and is picked by braketology as in the tournament as an 8 seed in the South. But UCLA has not played a single road game this season. Half the regular season gone and UCLA has not played in front of a completely hostile crowd. None, zero zip. Great scheduling.
(I guess Dan Guerrero can say the Wooden Classic at the Honda Center in Anaheim was a road game considering that the crowd was 98% San Diego and zero UCLA students thanks to Dan but I was talking about official road games.)
So UCLA travels to the mountains to play the two new additions to the PAC 12 conference Utah and Colorado. If the Bruins are going to be something special they need to sweep these games, if they are going to the tournament they need to split these games, and if they lose both the good times of the six game home win streak will be completely erased.
Fortunately for UCLA the first of these pair of games is against Utah. Utah and UCLA have one common opponent this year, Cal State Northridge. UCLA spanked Northridge 82-56 and held them to 32.9% shooting. Northridge beat the home team Utah 76-71 and shot 53% percent against them.
Of course, Utah fans will likely point out that Utah just played very well on the road in the opening weak of the PAC 12 and almost beat Arizona and Arizona State. From the Utah game notes:
Utah dropped its first two Pac-12 games in gut-wrenching fashion, falling 55-54 in overtime at Arizona State and 60-57 at No. 3 Arizona. Utah's six losses this season have been by a combined 22 points (3.7 per game margin).
The Arizona game (although Sean Miller always says his team is going to run and they never do) had this comment UCLA fans should take notice of:
Arizona let the opposing team dictate the pace on its home court, struggled defensively in the second half and watched as yet another last-second shot ping-ponged off the rim and the backboard.
"It's extremely frustrating because we came so close the past two games," [Utah's]Washburn said. "When our team plays well enough to win on the road against the No. 3 team in the country and it's taken away from you, I have no words for that."
But, just like it did against Arizona State, Utah couldn't get the right shot to fall at the right time and left with another agonizingly-close loss.
"We have to make shots," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "That's what we are not doing."
Now we just played Stanford so don't get too excited. No team, not even O'Neil's Trogans shoot as bad as Stanford. Utah is actually middle of the road shooting 46% (to UCLA's conference leading 48%).
But the first part of the Arizona story is the worry. This will be a real clash of styles. Utah is number 2 in the conference in scoring defense (UCLA is last) and number one in field goal percentage defense, with opponents shooting only 35% against the Utes (UCLA is tenth). So we will have the conference best shooting and highest scoring team (UCLA) against arguably, statistically at least, the best defensive team. Stanford stymied UCLA's running offense by getting back before the Bruins could run for that game, Utah does it every game.
Statistics with Utah may be a bit deceiving though. Utah is ranked #107 in RPI and has not played a tough schedule. Utah had its best defense games against teams like Williamette, Idaho State and Central Michigan.
So basically this game will come down to whether the grind it out team can control the tempo and frustrate the running team. Sound familiar?
But Utah is not devoid of talent as they were last year with three new players in key positions.
Utah is led by point guard Jared Dubois who is sixth in the conference in Three point % (42.6%, Shabazz leads the conference at 48.6%) and has been forced to take some point guard duties.. Dubious is a fifth year senior who beat UCLA last year as the starting shooting guard at LMU (he actually logged the most minutes in that game). According to the Utah basketball website:
Stamped his name all over the LMU record books, reaching the Top 25 in several statistical categories despite playing only three full seasons...in 96 career games, scored 1,139 points to rank 23rd all-time...also ranks fourth in career 3-pointers made (148), fifth in free throw percentage (.844), 15th in 3-point FG percentage (.365), 15th in steals (117), 17th in assists (233), 21st in assists average (2.4) and 22nd in free throws made (259).
Jordan Loveridge is the four for Utah. Loveridge is a freshman and was Utah high school player of the year and ranked by ESPN as a top small forward. He can go outside and won the state three point contest in high school and also went 3-5 from three against Arizona. He also leads Utah with 7.6 rebounds a game despite only being 6'6".
The other big for Utah is Jason Washburn who was the leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker last year for the Utes. Washburn is very good in close and has been hot recently shooting 16-29 and grabbing 29 rebounds in the two Arizona games. Travis Wear will have his hands full with Washburn inside.
Glen Dean helps with the point guard duties. He transferred from Eastern Washington and plays a lot of minutes. He is 5'10" and leads Utah in three pointers made shooting a very good 42.1%.
Senior Cedric Martin does not always start but always plays a log of minutes. He is more or less the small forward and is one of the leading returning players for the Utes. He rarely shoots (just 3 times a game and 3 total in 53 minutes against the Arizona schools) but is 9-21 for the season from three.
The last starter is Aaron Dotson who transferred from LSU and like Martin does not shoot a lot but like Martin can hit a three and shot 37% on 56 attempts a few years back for LSU.
So what this basically means is Utah will try to stop the Bruins from running and then make the Bruins play defense for much of the shot clock on offense. While Utah (outside Washburn) is not particularly an athletic they can hit the open three and lead the conference in free throw percentage.
Will the young Bruins get frustrated by the slowdown tactics of Utah in their first true road game? Was Utah's close game on the road against Arizona a fluke?
What I do know for sure is UCLA must win this game over a team picked last in almost every pre-conference season poll.