Gonzaga fans think they have it bad, with two losses on the season to the likes of Texas A&M and Arizona. Look no further than the UCLA Bruins for a fanbase having to deal with a rather polarizing team.
The Bruins opened up with a loss, in overtime, at home to Monmouth. At the time, the loss was rather embarrassing. They followed that up with a narrow home win over Cal Poly, a clubbing of Pepperdine, and another nail biter against UNLV. Then Kansas delivered a bludgeoning with a 20 point with a 19 point win over the Bruins. UCLA, and coach Steve Alford, were in disarray.
Then, of course, UCLA beat then No. 1 Kentucky, and now everyone is high on the Bruins again. Should we be, however? That, I'm not so sure.
Meet the opponent
UCLA Bruins, 6-3, KenPom #44
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.
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.
Perhaps his biggest complement is senior forward Tony Parker, who averages 14.0 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. Tony Parker is a beast on the offensive glass, with 41 of his 98 total rebounds coming on the offensive end. Combined with center Thomas Welsh, and the Bruins are probably one of the more aggressively rebounding teams the Zags have seen so far.
Aaron Holiday is the three-point shoot specialist for the Bruins. He is currently shooting 48 percent from beyond the arc, but interestingly enough, also takes many less three point shots than Alford and Issac Hamilton, despite the fact he has had a much, much better look this season. Here is what the bruins do well offensively: shoot the ball a lot. Other than that, nothing is stands out too dramatically.
What to watch out for
Be aggressive, be be aggressive.
As we wrote earlier, Gonzaga's defense is what is keeping it in games, and the Zags need to keep that defensive focus up while the offense gets rolling. That said, there are some specific players they can key in on. Holiday has a nasty turnover problem while running the point and has had some real sloppy games this season, with a six turnover effort against Monmouth and two five-turnover efforts against Kentucky and Wake Forest. Also, just like Gonzaga, way too many of UCLA's offensive possessions result in a steal. This has the potential for two sloppy teams just slipping and sliding all over the floor without the benefit of playing in Okinawa.
UCLA is going to lob up a lot of shots, but the Zags have been great on defensive rotations and keeping hands in the face, for the most part. If that continues, Gonzaga has a good shot at pulling this one out.
Stay patient, and take smart shots.
We started to see more of that from Josh Perkins and Eric McClellan in the second half against Montana, and that attitude needs to continue. UCLA's defense isn't abysmal by any means, but it also isn't going to plague you like some other schools will. Gonzaga needs to just run their offense, make the extra pass, and find the open man. UCLA does not force a lot of turnovers, and outside of Holiday, they aren't aggressive on defense. The Zags, particularly Kyle WIltjer and Perkins, don't need to force the issue, otherwise they are just shooting themselves in the foot.
Can Silas Melson get his shot going?
An already thin bench got thinner the moment Przemek Karnowski went down with a back injury. That thinner bench got even more thin the moment Silas Melson's shot completely disappeared. Against Mount St. Mary's, and to a certain degree against UConn, we saw the Melson that is the x-factor. He can be a huge scoring threat in the backcourt, if he is hitting his shots. Unfortunately, Melson has done anything but that. On the season, he is shooting 32.8 percent from the floor, and only 26.3 percent from beyond the arc. As much as everyone wants to see Bryan Alberts and Dustin Triano get more minutes, which by all accounts you can argue they deserve, Melson is the player with the highest ceiling in this backcourt.
When good, he is fearless on his drives and the open shot. When good, he is exactly what the backcourt needs to keep the opposing defenses from just ignoring the outside shot and keying in on the defense. Montana just held up the middle finger to the Gonzaga backcourt and said, "Knock yourselves out. We only care about these two guys," and pointed at Domantas Sabonis and Wiltjer. Overall, the backcourt (of course) needs to get going, but Melson is the one that needs a kick in the rear the most.
It is impossible to predict how this Gonzaga team is going to show up, and after the effort against Montana, I don't have too much faith in them. UCLA is rolling into town with some great wins, but they've also had some pretty rough losses. Not to mention, sure, they beat Kentucky, but Kentucky starts 1,000 freshmen and isn't necessarily the powerhouse beast, especially early on, that everyone thinks they are (seriously, look at Kentucky's schedule: UCLA, Duke, and then absolutely no one).
I think the home edge is going to give the Zags just enough of the boost the team needs, but this one is a game they are going to have to earn. I'm sure the Bruins can smell blood, and it is up to the Zags to stop the bleeding.
Gonzaga 65, UCLA 63