UCLA vs. Gonzaga
It's game day! UCLA and #20 Gonzaga tip off tonight at 7:00 PM PST in Spokane in a game that will have a national television audience (ESPN2). It's the third meeting between the two teams in the last 12 months. Gonzaga won last year's nonconference game in Pauley Pavilion 87-74 behind 24 points by Kyle Wiltjer, and then defeated the Bruins by a similar margin (74-62) when the teams met in the NCAA Tournament regional semifinals. In the second meeting, UCLA kept Wiltjer in check, holding him to just 8 points, but the Zags' big man Przemek Karnowski went 8 for 11 from the field to lead all scorers with 18 points.
Fortunately for the Bruins, Karnowski is expected to miss today's contest with a back injury, and the Bulldogs' three best backcourt players from last year's team are gone. As gbruin notes in his preview, there's a pretty significant drop-off between Karnowski and his backup, Ryan Edwards, and the Bulldogs' guard play this season has been inconsistent.
Over at tWWL, Eamonn Brennan lists the UCLA-Gonzaga matchup as the second most important nonconference game of the weekend (behind Utah vs. Wichita State). Brennan notes Gonzaga's recent scoring woes in which they've averaged less than a point per possession and lays the blame at the feet of the Bulldogs' starting backcourt. Also, he argues that "UCLA's frontcourt of Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh ... matches up fairly well with Wiltjer and forward Domantas Sabonis." Brennan may be right about that when UCLA has the ball, but there's no way that it's a favorable matchup for the Bruins when the Zags have the ball. Parker and Welsh simply don't have the foot speed or defensive instincts to guard Wiltjer and Sabonis away from the rim.
CBS Sports offers a preview that focuses on the importance of Karnowski to Gonzaga. According to Coach Mark Few,
"[Karnowski]'s a huge, huge part of who we are. I think these guys are performing admirably without one of their best, most important players out there on the floor."
On the flip side, Steve Alford was apparently impressed by his team's performance against Long Beach State:
"We can't be a team of excuses; we need to be one of growth. And we did grow. We did a good job of valuing the ball in a game that went up and down."
I'm quite a bit more skeptical than Alford about the win against Long Beach State representing progress, but on the other hand, I'm delighted to hear that we won't be hearing any more excuses. The "young and inexperienced" excuse has expired. Alford and the Bruins need to be judged on performances and results, not potential.
Mark Rutherford, a college basketball editor with SB Nation, writes about the importance of Bulldogs' guard Josh Perkins if Gonzaga is going to better than just a good team this season. Rutherford concludes his article with this:
Fairly or unfairly, the pressure is on Perkins to emerge as an always reliable and sometimes lethal point guard. Gonzaga can still be good without that revelation occurring, but good hasn't been the standard in Spokane for a long time.
Over at The Slipper Still Fits, Peter Woodbury has an amusing opposition preview of the Bruins-Bulldogs game, including a less than flattering photo of Bryce Alford.
Woodburn is fairly brutal in his assessment of BAlford as well:
The Bruins are led by the coach's son, Bryce Alford. Alford leads the team with 16.2 points per game, and is one of five UCLA players to average double digit points this season. He Isn't a particularly good three point threat, hitting only 34 percent on the season, but that hasn't stopped him from hucking the ball up whenever he can.
The Bruins as a team don't fare well in his evaluation either:
The hallmarks of UCLA are as follows: fantastic offense, not fantastic defense. The Bruins rank No. 26 in Ken Pomeroy's ratings in offensive efficiency, but defensively, the team leads a lot to be desired with a rating of No. 116 ... Here is what the Bruins do well offensively: shoot the ball a lot. Other than that, nothing stands out too dramatically.
For what it's worth, in spite of slamming the Bruins and acknowledging the Zags' home court advantage, Woodburn predicts a narrow 65-63 win for Gonzaga.
Steve Alford addressed the media on Thursday and shared his thoughts on Gonzaga, and in particular, the matchup of Parker and Welsh with the Bulldogs' bigs. Alford discusses the challenges of guarding Wiltjer on the perimeter with Parker and Welsh, but never mentions the option of using Jonah Bolden. It seems to me that Bolden is a much better fit in terms of guarding Wiltjer.
As usual, a few of the players were made available to the media too. This week it was Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford, and Jonah Bolden. Among other things, they discuss the challenge of playing in a hostile environment.
The highlight is hearing Bryce rank the athleticism of Zach LaVine, Norman Powell, and Prince Ali. However, it's revealing that Jonah Bolden identifies his greatest challenge so far as learning the details of all of the roles that Steve Alford wants him to fill. In terms of Bolden's development and his value to this season's team, it strikes me that it might have been better to keep things as simple as possible at the start, especially given the versatility of this team that Alford has previously touted.
The Bruins are catching the Bulldogs at a good time. Gonzaga is missing a key player in the frontcourt, and UCLA should have the edge in the backcourt. This is a winnable game for the Bruins. No excuses.
And with that, I give you "No Excuses" by Alice In Chains.
Pregame guesses for UCLA vs. Gonzaga:
1. Which pair will score more points: Parker and Welsh, or Wiltjer and Sabonis?
2. How many Bruins will foul out?
3. Which team will have more turnovers?