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UCLA Basketball Season Preview Part 3: Scouting the Opposition

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We've looked at the Bruin players, answered the Big Questions, now we scout the main PAC-12 opponents.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona may be primed for a Final Four appearance with its strongest lineup in the Sean Miller era, but the rest of the PAC-12 is decidedly at its weakest point in at least three years. UCLA lost three first round draft picks plus two other starters (Travis Wear made the New York Knicks roster), Stanford graduated Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis and Oregon lost everyone, including their marquis recruits, except Joseph Young.

PAC-12 places two through five are up for grabs. The PAC-12 media poll has 1. Arizona 2. Utah 3. Colorado 4. UCLA  5. Stanford. In today's edition of the Bruins Season Preview, we'll take a look inside those rankings.

Before we get to those four main opponents, let's acknowledge that we're curious about USC. They hauled in two recruits we wanted:  point guard Jordan McLaughlin and shooting guard Elijah Stewart, both local high school players. USC Coach Andy Enfield chose two SoCal specialists, Jason Hart and Tony Bland, as his top recruiters. I don't expect them to challenge UCLA, and it seems like everyone already recruits Southern California, but I am concerned that while UCLA swings away at elite national recruits, our ability to build a foundation of local 3.5 - 4-stars will continue to erode.

Check the links for last year's detailed  PAC-12 standings and statistics.  Below are the high-level summaries:

SCORING OFFENSE

## Team                  G   W-L   Pts Avg/G

--------------------------------------------

1.Oregon.............. 34  24-10 2783  81.9

2.UCLA................ 37  28-9  3003  81.2

3.Oregon State........ 32  16-16 2425  75.8

4.Arizona State....... 33  21-12 2486  75.3

5.Utah................ 33  21-12 2479  75.1

6.Washington.......... 32  17-15 2384  74.5

7.Arizona............. 38  33-5  2769  72.9

8.Stanford............ 36  23-13 2616  72.7

9.California.......... 35  21-14 2533  72.4

10.USC................. 32  11-21 2258  70.6

11.Colorado............ 35  23-12 2457  70.2

12.Washington State.... 31  10-21 1934  62.4

SCORING DEFENSE
## Team                  G   Pts Avg/G
--------------------------------------
 1.Arizona............. 38  2225  58.6
 2.Utah................ 33  2122  64.3
 3.Washington State.... 31  2081  67.1
 4.Colorado............ 35  2387  68.2
 5.Stanford............ 36  2457  68.2
 6.California.......... 35  2419  69.1
 7.Arizona State....... 33  2291  69.4
 8.UCLA................ 37  2604  70.4
 9.Oregon.............. 34  2521  74.1
10.Washington.......... 32  2390  74.7
11.USC................. 32  2410  75.3
12.Oregon State........ 32  2420  75.6

247 Sports ranks UCLA's 2014 class #1 (before Bolden was declared ineligible), Arizona #2, Stanford #4, Utah #6 and Colorado #9.

Arizona

Perhaps the most important fact to note about our matchup with Arizona is that we play them once and Utah, Colorado and Stanford play them twice.

I've posted about Arizona's roster and our matchup with them here and here.  Bottom line: with Jordan Adams and Jonah Bolden we had a shot (7'0" incoming center Dusan Ristic was not on my radar at the time), without them we don't. In the best case scenario, our bigs can keep them off the boards and whatever defense we play, we'd pack it in and let them shoot from the perimeter (perhaps their only weakness), but there is no answer for Stanley Johnson.  At 6'7" and 245 lbs., Johnson is too big, strong and talented for Norman Powell to cover.  Even in a (working) zone, they would crash the boards, even though it might open up the transition if we can rebound, with four players until the Bruins wore down.  I frankly can't see how to play most of the game with a three-guard lineup.  I have to hope, as I said in Preview Part 2, that an alternative big lineup emerges.

Utah

The media ranks the Utes second because they bring back the whole starting lineup from last year including POY candidate Delon Wright and add freshman 4-star power forward Brekkot Chapman. This year, the media emphasized experience in their poll particularly since the talent drop-off is steep after Arizona. The Utes were 9-9, eighth place, in the conference and 21-12 overall.

Coach Larry Krystkowiak has given UCLA fits for two years.  The Bruins narrowly escaped with a 57-53 victory at Utah in 2013, lost at Utah 74-69 in 2014 but then came back to win 80-66 in Pauley. Krystkowiak always seems to come up with a frustrating strategy.  Last year, he decided he would let Kyle Anderson score at will but shut down his play-making  by closing out the perimeter shooters and sending bodies back to stop the transition.The year before he again dared the point guard, Larry Drew, to shoot and locked down Adams and Muhammad.

The team stats indicate that Utah is a great defensive team and a mid-pack offensive team. Individually, 6'5" shooting guard Delon Wright and 6'6" forward Justin Loveridge were the leaders in almost every category last season. Brandon Taylor is a good point guard, but only 5'10". The starting center is 6'10" Jeremy Olsen and his back up is 7'0" Dalin Bachinski (brother of Jordan), neither of them are scorers, or rebounders for that matter. 6'5" guard/forward Dakari Tucker rounds out the starting lineup -- good beyond the arc and automatic at the free throw line.

 

Player GP MIN PPG RPG APG SPG BPG TPG FG% FT% 3P%
Delon Wright 33 36.4 15.5 6.8 5.3 2.5 1.3 2.5 0.561 0.793 0.222
Jordan Loveridge 33 34.4 14.7 7.0 2.3 0.8 0.5 2.0 0.420 0.804 0.306
Brandon Taylor 33 31.4 10.6 2.1 3.5 0.9 0.1 2.2 0.425 0.806 0.398
Dallin Bachynski 30 18.0 6.8 4.9 0.6 0.6 0.9 0.9 0.619 0.784 -
Dakarai Tucker 33 20.0 6.8 1.8 0.8 0.3 0.1 0.4 0.435 0.850 0.392
Jeremy Olsen 32 13.8 5.2 2.7 0.3 0.2 0.6 1.1 0.563 0.706 -
Princeton Onwas 31 17.9 4.8 2.6 0.8 0.8 0.3 1.0 0.514 0.420 0.200
Renan Lenz 30 11.3 4.6 2.2 0.4 0.3 0.9 0.5 0.551 0.738 -
Ahmad Fields 19 7.5 3.3 2.1 0.5 0.2 0.1 0.5 0.475 0.600 0.400
Kenneth Ogbe 30 9.3 2.9 1.1 0.5 0.2 - 0.4 0.426 0.760 0.471
Parker Van Dyke 23 9.8 2.5 0.7 1.0 0.2 0.1 0.4 0.447 1.000 0.333
Marko Kovacevic 14 4.9 1.7 0.7 0.2 - 0.1 0.5 0.600 0.750 -
Connor Van Brocklin 7 2.6 1.6 0.1 0.1 0.1 - - 0.600 1.000 0.750
Xan Ricketts 9 2.8 0.7 0.8 - - - 0.2 0.750 - -
Austin Eastman 3 1.7 0.3 0.3 - - - - - 0.500 -
Totals 33 -- 75.0 35.0 15.0 7.0 5.0 12.0 0.488 0.743 0.351

I wish the season didn't open with a trip to Utah in January. Playing at home with same team that's been together for more than one season will be a difficult win for a Bruin team with four new starters.  I would normally expect Coach Krystkowiak to employ the same tactics: dare Bryce and Isaac to shoot and send two or three men back to guard against the transition. Norman and Delon Wright should cancel each other out, but Justin Loveridge and Utah's perimeter game, though not impressive statistically, should have the advantage over the Bruins' perimeter defense. I talked about the big lineup and the inside game as an x-factor this year. Looney (plus Parker, Welsh and Bail) should make the difference. This game, as will several of the key PAC-12 games, screams out for post-oriented tactics.

If Bryce and Isaac have trouble bringing the ball up, then I would expect Utah (then whole league) to harass them full-court relentlessly.

The first Utah game might come too soon and on the road for the Bruins, but the Bruin bigs should dominate Utah's weak centers and smallish forwards by the second game.

Colorado

The Buffs were the fourth place team in the PAC-12 last year at 10-8 and 23-12 overall, and were a bubble team that made the NCAA's. The Bruins beat them twice handily, but again, the Bruins lost five players and Colorado brings the whole post-Dinwiddie injury starting lineup back. Coach Tad Boyle did an amazing job to keep this team competitive after start guard Spencer Dinwiddie went down with an ACL. Again, the media chose an experienced and very well coached team to finish ahead of Bruins in third.

Colorado's likely starting five is 6'2" point guard Askia Booker, 6'3" shooting guard Xavier Talton, 6'7" small forward Xavier Johnson, 6'9" power forward Wesley Gordon and 6'10 center Josh Scott.

To my surprise, the box score from last's year's road game shows UCLA with a slight rebounding edge. Colorado is a big team that can rebound. Our wings, Powell and Adams had 19 and 14 points respectively, but the Buffs Askia Booker and Josh Scott had 21 and 19. The rest of the Buffs virtually had nothing.

Player GP MIN PPG RPG APG SPG BPG TPG FG% FT% 3P%
Spencer Dinwiddie 17 31.1 14.7 3.1 3.8 1.5 0.2 1.8 0.466 0.857 0.413
Josh Scott 35 31.6 14.1 8.4 0.6 0.8 1.1 1.5 0.511 0.810 -
Askia Booker 35 30.5 13.7 3.7 3.3 1.3 0.1 2.5 0.389 0.818 0.272
Xavier Johnson 33 30.1 12.0 5.9 0.8 0.8 0.3 1.8 0.464 0.613 0.363
Wesley Gordon 31 25.1 5.9 6.0 0.9 0.4 1.3 1.6 0.475 0.603 0.364
Xavier Talton 35 20.7 4.9 2.2 1.6 0.6 0.2 1.3 0.406 0.667 0.373
Jaron Hopkins 35 18.2 4.8 2.5 1.0 0.8 0.1 1.1 0.382 0.500 0.310
Dustin Thomas 35 15.1 3.6 2.5 0.5 0.2 0.1 1.4 0.414 0.547 0.182
Tre'Shaun Fletcher 20 9.7 2.9 1.6 0.3 0.2 0.2 0.5 0.400 0.684 0.185
Eli Stalzer 27 8.4 1.6 0.8 0.3 0.3 - 0.4 0.406 0.611 0.333
George King 27 5.5 1.5 1.5 0.2 0.1 - 0.4 0.282 0.652 0.200
Brett Brady 4 2.5 1.5 0.3 0.3 - - 0.3 0.500 - 0.500
Ben Mills 25 4.0 1.2 0.8 0.2 - - 0.2 0.478 0.800 1.000
Beau Gamble 9 1.8 1.0 0.6 0.7 - - 0.3 0.429 - 0.429
Kevin Nelson 9 1.9 0.3 0.4 - - - - 0.500 - 0.500
Totals 35 -- 70.0 37.0 11.0 6.0 3.0 13.0 0.435 0.718 0.318

 

I'm tempted to put Colorado ahead of Utah, but the drop-off after the first two, who are all-world for both teams, is too steep for the Buffs.

In a man-to-man, Powell has to cover Booker, but Josh Scott will be tough.  He's too mobile for Parker and Welsh -- expect Looney to get the assignment despite the big weight disadvantage. The Buffs and Arizona are the only two teams (Stanford may surprise with its freshman) that may neutralize the Bruins' (potential) inside game. The good news is that they only have two guys to worry about on offense. I expect the Buffs to attack the boards at the expense of guarding against the transition game -- the opposite of Utah.

Again, I wish this didn't game didn't come happen on the road on January 2, but the Bruins should be competitive there and win at Pauley on January 31. Though very well-coached and experience, after the first two, the talent drop-off is too steep making them easy to defend.

Stanford

The media placed Stanford fifth behind UCLA. The theme is the same:  Stanford brings in a talented class, but graduated drafted starters. They too are unknown compared to Utah and Colorado. The Cardinal finished fifth in the league last season at 10-8 and 23-13, bubbling their way into the tournament and saving Johnny Dawkins' job  -- who then proceeded to land two strong classes for 2014 and 2015.The Cardinal beat the Bruins at Stanford 83-74 despite getting bombed at Pauley behind Tony Parker's 22 points. The road loss was a letdown game after trouncing Cal and having a shot at winning the regular season league title.  The Bruins went on to lose to Oregon (Anderson and Adams sat out) and Washington State.

Stanford had the third-ranked recruiting class behind UCLA and Arizona.  They bring in forwards Reid Travis and Michael Humphrey and point guard Robert Cartwright.

Stanford is led by point guard Chasson Randle.  Guard Anthony Brown and Center Stefan Nastic also return. Freshmen Travis and Humphrey likely start and give The Cardinal a good a rebounding and interior defensive profile. If the freshmen perform as expected, this team should place ahead of Utah and Colorado as they did in the USA Today national poll.

Player GP MIN PPG RPG APG SPG BPG TPG FG% FT% 3P%
Chasson Randle 36 35.1 18.8 3.6 2.1 1.0 0.1 2.4 0.474 0.767 0.389
Dwight Powell 36 32.4 14.0 6.9 3.1 1.3 0.8 2.9 0.462 0.687 0.256
Anthony Brown 36 33.5 12.3 5.0 2.1 0.9 0.1 1.9 0.475 0.785 0.453
Josh Huestis 36 35.2 11.2 8.2 1.2 0.6 1.9 1.2 0.451 0.627 0.338
Stefan Nastic 36 19.7 7.4 2.8 1.1 0.2 0.9 1.3 0.580 0.640 -
Aaron Bright 7 19.3 5.9 1.1 2.3 0.3 - 1.0 0.357 0.737 0.389
John Gage 34 11.5 3.3 1.6 0.3 0.4 0.3 0.4 0.357 0.941 0.338
Robbie Lemons 35 12.5 2.0 1.1 0.3 0.4 - 0.2 0.348 0.643 0.311
Marcus Allen 33 8.7 1.7 1.1 0.5 0.4 0.1 0.3 0.365 0.375 0.176
Malcolm Allen 16 4.6 0.8 0.2 0.1 0.1 - 0.1 0.556 0.600 -
Grant Verhoeven 32 5.7 0.7 1.1 0.2 0.1 - 0.2 0.375 0.692 -
Jack Ryan 6 3.2 0.5 0.7 0.3 0.2 - 0.3 0.500 - 0.500
Schuyler Rimmer 14 4.9 0.5 0.6 - - 0.1 0.4 0.333 0.143 -
Wade Morgan 8 1.6 0.1 0.4 0.1 0.3 - - - 0.250 -
Rosco Allen 1 7.0 - - - 1.0 - - - - -
Totals 36 -- 73.0 35.0 12.0 5.0 4.0 11.0 0.459 0.702 0.364

 

Parker dominated Stanford twice on a team with Dwight Powell and Josh Heustis.  It's hard to see why it should be different this year.  Stanford-UCLA should be a straight-up match.  If the bigs neutralize each other, then it becomes a question of whether Norman Powell can control Chasson Randle.  There doesn't appear to be any Tree scoring after him.

Summary

Of the four teams competing for second through fifth place in the PAC-12, two are very well-known:  Utah and Colorado bring back their entire starting lineups.  The other two, Stanford and UCLA, had significant turnover in their lineups, but bring in good to great freshman talent, and so are somewhat unknown.

These are the themes that emerge for me:

  • Norman Powell has to control the opposing stars defensively: Stanford's Chasson Randle, Utah's Delon Wright and Colorado's Askia Booker.
  • Bryce and Isaac have to deal with potentially relentless presssure bringing the ball up.
  • The Bruins have to be able to emotionally absorb a rough opening weekend on the road against their critical opponents in the race for second place: Utah and Colorado. That is the long weekend that screams implosion. Those teams come back to Pauley at the end of the month. The Bruins need to keep it together to make it into February and March still in the hunt for second place and a trip to the Tournament.
  • The Bruins alternative big lineup needs to emerge as a viable rotation whether it includes Bail or Parker at the 4. Powell and the bigs can neutralize Colorado and Stanford's offensive strength at point guard and rebounding. Utah will again try to neutralize UCLA's transition game, but they are weak at center and small at forward so they wouldn't have an answer to a Bruin post game.