The question this whole week leading up to tonight's game against UCLA is "how has this team changed since the two programs faced off in December?" The fine folks over at Bruins Nation helped us in this quest for information and also answered questions about the state of the program under Steve Alford and gave us some predictions. Thanks to Matt, Bruinette88, and JoeBruin15 for their great thoughts! Enjoy!
Slipper Still Fits: We wrote about what has changed about UCLA since the Zags played them in December and concluded that their overall offensive efficiency was much improved led by featuring Tony Parker more as well as improved three-point shooting from Bryce Alford. Is this a fair assessment or are there other things to note?
Matt Garrido: Both of those things have helped the offense, but I would say that the improved play of Issac Hamilton has made an arguably a bigger difference. While Hamilton is not a great ball handler, he has become a rather good half-court facilitator. While Alford generally still brings the ball up, Hamilton will be the one to initiate the offense. This has keyed many of the improvements for the team, including Alford's better three point shooting and Parker's inside play.
Bruinette88: I agree that having Bryce Alford play more without the ball has improved his shot selection. I'd also include the evolution of Norman Powell as an offensive leader as one of the reasons we've been somewhat less prone to scoring droughts.
JoeBruin15: I have to agree with Bruinette about Norman Powell. Powell and Parker make up a deadly duo. If they are both on, whomever UCLA is playing could be in big trouble.
Slipper Still Fits: While Parker and Alford seem to get a lot of the publicity, the guy that keeps getting mentioned as someone that can drive this UCLA team past Gonzaga is Kevon Looney. What do you see Looney's role being in this game and can he be that x-factor?
Matt Garrido: For UCLA to win this game, Looney is going to have to be the answer to Wiltjer. Wiltjer absolutely killed us last time we faced Gonzaga, seemingly hitting a shot anytime UCLA started to get a little momentum. While we will likely run a lot of zone, Looney is going ot have to be able to extend his defense when he is guarding Wiltjer in man defense, while still being able to help us not get beat on the boards. On the offensive end, Looney's improved perimeter shooting can pull Wiltjer away from the hoop, allowing Parker room to work. His slashing ability could draw early fouls on Wiltjer, which would likely be the best case scenario for the Bruins.
Bruinette88: I don't see how UCLA can win this game without a strong game from Looney, especially on the defensive end. The main reason we lost the first game against Gonzaga is that we couldn't slow down the Bulldogs' offense. The priority for Looney needs to be tough defense and rebounding; he'll contribute on offense with his usual assortment of putbacks, slashing to the basket, and a three-pointer or two.
JoeBruin15: Looney can be a beast. If he gets in foul trouble early, UCLA could be in big trouble. He needs to play solid defense and take what the Gonzaga defense is willing to give him, but he MUST stay out of foul trouble.
Slipper Still Fits: Over the past couple months, it seems like UCLA has slowed the pace down considerably in order to utilize some of its size advantage - mainly Tony Parker. With Gonzaga thriving in a slow paced system, do you think the Bruins will have to speed things up a bit and get early shots and create second chances to pull the upset?
Matt Garrido: Gonzaga is leading the country in effective FG% on the season (58.8%), while UCLA finds itself 124th (49.9%), nearly 9 points worse. UCLA will face an uphill battle in a slow-down, half court game, so the Bruins are going to have to create some offense outside of the half court. Norman Powell looks to push the ball nearly everytime he comes up with it on the defensive end and there are not many in college basketball who can stop him if he has room to run. Both teams have rebounded the ball well this season, so whichever team does a better job getting on the offensive boards is going to have a huge advantage.
Bruinette88: One of the key benefits to UCLA in slowing down the pace is that the starters have been less foul-prone. UCLA's starters play heavy minutes, so while it's true that the Bruins have the right players to go uptempo, they don't have the depth to play uptempo. If I were the coach of an opposing team, I'd put a lot of pressure on the UCLA guards as they bring the ball upcourt, and I'd have my players push the ball whenever possible. I don't think the Bruins can win a game where they have to rely on their bench.
JoeBruin15: I agree that I don't think UCLA can win a track meet. Playing a fast-paced game will wear down the starters, especially in the second half where UCLA has been known to give up rather large runs while running out of gas on offense. A slow-paced game will definitely benefit the Bruins.
Slipper Still Fits: The 2006 game. I have to bring it up. In the past 20 years of incredible success for Gonzaga, that game is the largest of black eyes. What is the UCLA perspective of this game - is it merely a blip on the radar or is it still discussed as an incredible moment?
Matt Garrido: The game is definitely still being discussed among UCLA fans. Gus Johnson's call of the final 40 seconds of that game is about as good as it comes, though I am sure that the opinion differs on the Gonzaga side. That was really the coming out party for UCLA basketball under Howland, which was followed up with the 3 consecutive Final Fours. For most Bruin fans, it is one of those games where you can remember where you were when you watched it.
Bruinette88: Matt's right--we still talk about that game. That game--or more precisely, the second half of that game--epitomizes what we loved about the early Howland years. It was a joy to watch the early Howland teams, especially after suffering through the end of the Lavin era. It wasn't just a matter of celebrating a winning team either; we are proud of the student-athletes that represented the program during those years.
JoeBruin15: It was a turning point for UCLA Basketball under Ben Howland and the members of that team are still remembered for their overall toughness and the 2006 Gonzaga game is a great example of that.
Slipper Still Fits: Focusing in a bit more on Bryce Alford. I will admit that I was all over Bruins Nation during the hiring of Steve Alford and subsequent 'recruitment' of Bryce. What is the current attitude towards the Alford family and has their stock increased as of late with this tournament run?
Matt Garrido: In general, the opinions on Bryce have softened as his play has improved this season. The opinions towards Steve Alford have not moved as much. While there are wildly varying opinions through the Bruin fanbase, many feel the Steve Alford has been trying to fit a square peg into a round hole in playing Bryce at the point. Whether through design or poor recruiting, Bryce was the only option to open up the year at the position. Hamilton's improved play of late has given the team more options and the offense has flourished. Without even going into the past issues at Iowa, many fans are not sold on Alford's game management or recruiting abilities. So far nothing in this tournament has changed that opinion, but on the other hand, back to back Sweet 16s in his first 2 seasons has started to win over other fans.
Bruinette88: I think that a lot of people misunderstand criticism related to Bryce Alford. For example, I've criticized Steve Alford for his failure to recruit a true point guard and his decision to feature his son in a position that doesn't suit his skills. From my point of view, that's a criticism of the coach, not the player. But I'm frequently frustrated by Bryce Alford's effort on the defensive end, and I suspect that many coaches wouldn't tolerate it. Overall, I think that most of us would be happy to have Bryce Alford stay if Steve Alford were to leave, and many of us would like Steve Alford to find another employer. He's not an elite coach.
JoeBruin15: Bryce is certainly starting to develop and he deserves credit for that, but he's not a true point guard and that's on his coach for failing to recruit one and continuing to play Bryce at the point. His coach who happens to be his dad is deserving of a lot of criticism. Where should I start? Last weekend, I was asked if a National Championship would satisfy Bruin fans and I said "No. Not all of them." There is a large portion of the fan base which believes very strongly that the elder Alford's actions in the Pierre Pierce incident while he was the coach at Iowa should have disqualified him from running Coach Wooden's program on character grounds and that's absolutely correct.
But, AD Dan Guerrero gave the guy a sweetheart deal with a humongous buyout clause if UCLA should fire him. It was a joke.
Alford hasn't proven that he's worthy of the trust of Bruin fans. He left this year's team dangerously short on the bench when three of his recruits had issues preventing them from playing for UCLA. Jon Octeus couldn't get admitted. Wanaah Bail has had academic problems and Jonah Bolden had eligibility issues that have kept him from playing this year. That's on Alford. He should have known better. If someone else wants him, they can have him.
Slipper Still Fits: Lastly, what are a couple keys to this game for UCLA to pull the upset and what is your prediction?
Matt Garrido: I think that the guards are going to have to carry the scoring load in this game. While I would love to see Parker put up big numbers, he typically struggles against teams with strong interior play. Gonzaga absolutely has that. Powell is going to need to continue to play as aggressively as he did late in the season and either Alford or Hamilton will need to be knocking down outside shots. The post defense will be other big key to the game. All of UCLA's bigs are prone to foul trouble, so playing good defense without piling up the fouls will be a key. With a shallow bench, early foul trouble would be nearly impossible to overcome.
Predicition- Since this is a fan site, I get to be a homer. UCLA by 2 with no goaltending calls. I see it as a close game regardless of who wins.
Bruinette88: UCLA's starters have to stay out of early foul trouble. Parker has to score early; he gets frustrated if he doesn't get early touches. Also, UCLA has to avoid anything that feels like a scoring drought. I don't think that this UCLA team has the mental toughness of the 2006 team, so we can't afford to fall behind early. Prediction: Gonzaga will win by 10.
JoeBruin15: UCLA needs to stay out of foul trouble and avoid running out of gas at the end of the game. I don't think that's possible against Gonzaga. Gonzaga by 6.