Sweet Sixteen Preview: Pittsburgh/UCLA
by Robert Ferringo - 03/22/2007
All week all we've heard is how similar UCLA and Pittsburgh are. "They both play similar styles. They both have similar coaches. They both have similar players." That's what the bobbleheads are pimping this week because they're lame and they don't really watch much college hoops. But to be honest with you, I don't think that it's entirely appropriate for bettors to approach these teams as "mirror images" of one another, as several columnists have indicated.
When Jaime Dixon's Panthers tangle with Ben Howland's Bruins tonight at 9:40 p.m. in San Jose for a West Region semifinal I wouldn't expect some kind of Spiderman vs. Venom matchup. Instead, the difference in the game will be which team is most likely to impose its unique approach at both the offensive and defensive end of the court on the other.
Yes, both teams like to play defense. I know that's a revolutionary concept for teams that hail from the Pac-10 but it's become the calling card of both Howland and Dixon's teams. However, they both apply pressure a bit differently. Pittsburgh likes to funnel opposing players toward the center of the court and into the paint to meet 7-foot center Aaron Gray. They will also utilize a zone at times, while the Bruins are exclusively man-to-man. UCLA would prefer to force its opposition toward the sidelines and baseline, where its trapping and superior help defense can create turnovers and ignite the fast break.
The difference seems trivial, but the defense-to-offense facet of UCLA's game is actually an integral part of what makes them a great team. Also, it helps explain why even though UCLA is No. 18 in the nation in scoring defense (to Pitt's No. 49) they are just No. 128 in field goal defense (to Pitt's No. 38). Because of UCLA's help-and-recover style teams will get open looks. It's simply that those looks are usually for the wrong players in the wrong spots on the floor.
Offensively, both teams do like to take a deliberate pace. However, these two clubs also have very distinct objectives when they have the rock. Both are excellent passing teams, but Pitt tries to work through it's big men much more than the Bruins do. They try to play angles and work the medium-range game, while also putting a premium on crashing the offensive boards. Their leading scorer is Gray (14.0 ppg) and they have six other players notching between six and 10 points per outing. And with the exception of Mike Cook their guards aren't going to beat many people off the bounce. Instead, they dump it down to Gray and then spot up for open threes.
Conversely, UCLA's offense is nearly totally dependant on their guards' creativity both with the ball and coming off screens. Aaron Afflalo and Josh Shipp are both straight-up scorers, while point guard Darren Collison is a lethal penetrator. Big men Luc Mbah a Moute and Lorenzo Mata feed off the attention that those three demand and take advantage by scoring on dunks, dump-offs and put backs. The three guards each score between 13-17 points per game and if two of them aren't shooting well from the field the entire offense seems to break down.
Another difference is that UCLA is a more athletic team than the Panthers. Besides Sam Young.
These two schools run some of the same sets, have comparable approaches to the game, and have coaches that are very familiar with one another. Obviously, there are some similarities. But one of the more underplayed likenesses that these teams share is the fact that their Marquee Player can sometimes come unglued in big-time spots.
Aaron Gray has to be considered one of the biggest disappointments in the country this year. A third-team All-American and preseason Naismith candidate, Gray has looked dominant at certain times and disinterested at others. Sometimes the fluctuations occur in the same game, and if he isn't overpowering other teams' frontcourts then the Panthers are very beatable.
On the other hand there's Afflalo, who some consider the best shooting guard in the country. But his dirty little secret is that his 2-for-11 performance in an ugly win over Indiana last week and his 1-for-7 mail-in job against Cal in the Pac-10 Tournament are becoming all too familiar sites for Bruin backers when it comes to big games. With the exception of a pair of 22-point games at West Virginia and at Stanford, Afflalo has shot just 27.7 percent in UCLA's last four losses. That includes a horrendous 3-for-10 night in last year's NCAA title game.
Though I think the comparisons are a bit simple-minded and exaggerated, I will concede that Pitt and UCLA play similar styles of basketball. Even with the home-state advantage I believe that this will be a two-possession game and will come down to the final five minutes. As a result, I think the determining factor will be which of the two key players - Gray or Afflalo - can take the reigns and lead his team.
UCLA is the most decorated program in the history of college basketball, while Pitt in the Sweet 16 has been a bit like Custer at Little Bighorn. If you throw in superior guard play and a favorable home court then I think it's clear that the Bruins have an edge. But there's still something that bothers me about this matchup. UCLA has played just four games in the past 19 days and are just 2-2 in those contests. They've shot over 50 percent just once in the past month. Pitt - if you toss out that debacle against Georgetown, their third game in three nights - has been slightly more impressive, shooting better and proving itself more diligent on the boards. However, I think the night will again belong to the Bruins and the small number is clearly enticing.
One interesting trend to consider though before you go too wild on the Bruins: teams returning to the Sweet 16 from the previous season that are instilled as a favorite or underdog of 6.0 or less are just 14-34-1 ATS. Currently the Bruins are 3.0-point favorites.
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