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What Strategy Can UCLA Basketball Employ to Beat Gonzaga?

Playing Gonzaga straight-up probably won't get it done. What can UCLA do to tilt the odds in its favor?

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

1. The Indirect Strategic Approach

A famous military historian, Liddell Hart, wrote a book called Strategy. (Ok, he was not very imaginative.) He reviewed about 2,500 years of military history and concluded that if you do what the enemy expects you to, if you do the strategy that is expected your chances of winning are greatly diminished. The better approach is not to do the obvious thing that the enemy expects you to, but to do what they don't expect you to do. Well, you're probably thinking "that is bloody well obvious"...but generals (and coaches) have a tendency to go with conventional thinking, perhaps what the textbooks says to do in a given situation. But the other side has the same (or similar) textbooks so textbook thinking may not win wars.

Examples of the indirect approach would be the German advance through terrain in the Ardennes forest supposably impassable to tanks in WWII to beat France, Stonewall Jackson's march around the Union Army to hit them unexpectedly in the flank at Chancellorsville, or the landing at Normandy instead of the closer Calais on D-Day. Examples of the direct approach would be WWI trench warfare and Pickett's charge at Gettysburg.

2. Successful Use of the Indirect Approach Against UAB

And I think part of our strategy against UAB was an example of an indirect approach. UAB was clearly concerned about Bryce's shooting and was jumping out to prevent it. But we anticipated that and instead of trying to have Bryce shoot anyway after an incredible shooting performance, we had him dribble-drive around UAB defenders who were over-committed to stopping the three. Isaac Hamilton also had bigger lanes to drive through as well; Isaac Hamilton driving in a clogged lane is a turnover waiting to happen; Isaac Hamilton dribbling against one defender in a lane clear of other defenders is likely going to end in a good result.

So we took what was perceived to be a strength (Bryce's outside shooting), anticipated that the opponent would over-commit to stop that strength, and did something unexpected in response. That is an example of an indirect approach to strategy. I would also point out that we have given the ball to Norman Powell at the end of games a couple of times this year (because he is our best player, it makes sense)and the defense knew he was going to be the guy to take the shot and we wound up not getting a good shot. And Bryce's last shot against SMU was heavily contested because they were very aware that he had made 8 threes at that point. I remember LeBron James being criticized because he was double-teamed and he passed to an open teammate that took the last shot, the idea being that stars take the last shot as if they were  mythical beings that can somehow make last-second shots no matter how difficult.

Now of course no strategy is infallible and we just had an example of an indirect approach not working in the Super Bowl. Seattle's OC undoubtedly thought that since Marshawn Lynch was running so well that New England would sell out against the run and a pass play would work. Well, we know how that ended...

3. How Can We Use the Indirect Approach Against Gonzaga?

Anyway, with our match-up with Gonzaga, how could an indirect approach help us win? The incredible performances of both Parker and Bryce are likely to have an effect on Gonzaga's coaching staff and players. They are likely going to be geared up to stop both Bryce and Parker. How do we take advantage of that?

Of course we have to see what Gonzaga does, but I think it is better to use Bryce Alford and Tony Parker as decoys early on in the game. You can run Bryce through screens but expect that Gonzaga is going to be very aggressive in fighting through those screens or playing too tightly on defense and have Bryce get into the lane. And again I like stretching the defense with Bryce and having Hamilton get into lane if there is space there. I also think having Parker post up early may not be such a great idea. Parker and Hamilton are similar in one respect - when they start off a game hot they have a good game and when they start off cold they generally do not recover. So put them in positions to succeed early that will give them confidence so that they will have a good game. Bryce driving and kicking out to Hamilton for an open three is probably a good way to get his confidence going (that worked extremely well in the SC game, whereas early drives into a clogged lane in the SMU game led to a bad game offensively). Getting back to Parker, don't post him early against Gonzaga's bigs, they have decent size. He is going to feel too much pressure early in the game. Let him get fed from dribble penetration or get a put-back on a drive. After that, THEN you can post him up. And getting back to an indirect approach, it might be better if he is anticipating a double team because of his 28-point performance so when he does touch it down low he is ready to pass or maybe he can screen for Looney to get him open because they will be more worried about Parker.

4. What Gonzaga Offensive Strengths Should We Focus on Stopping?

Defensively, Gonzaga is tough because they are well-balanced with five players averaging in double figures (well four with Sabonis averaging 9.7 points). But in my mind it was Kyle Wiltjer that killed us last time , schooling Kevon Looney in the low- post and then hitting threes as well. I would think we would concentrate on stopping him and not allowing Kevin Pangos to take threes (he is 80 for 178 shooting threes or 45%) and of course not allow lay-ups or dunks to the other players. Maybe they will anticipate this and use their own indirect approach to take advantage of us trying to stop Wiltjer and Pangos, but I would risk that happening. Stop Wiltjer and Pangos - let someone else beat us.

We actually did a good job on Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy, SMU 's only real offensive threats, in the second half against us. We just let Moore get open a few times, he hit those 3s and the 19-0 run was on. But we did a pretty good job for the most part of identifying SMU's offensive threats and slowing them down in the second-half. We also did a good job of slowing down UAB's best two offensive players in the second half, Robert Brown and William Lee. Of course, we knew that before those games - maybe we can start the Gonzaga game with a strategy to stop their best offensive players. Such a strategy can and does work. UAB in their game against Iowa State focused on stopping George Niang and he played into their hands by forcing things and going 4-15.

Gonzaga was clearly the much better team when we played them the first time. We may have gotten a lot better but if we try to play them straight-up I think it's likely we lose. I am hoping that Alford has some tricks up his sleeve.