With Alabama's most recent heart-breaking loss, the Crimson Tide now find themselves in the rough position of having a losing record, 5-6 to be exact. After a short holiday break, the team will now head out west to one of the most historic arenas in college basketball, Pauley Pavilion. Alabama's opponent there will, of course, be the UCLA Bruins (10-2). UCLA is in their first year under coach Steve Alford, who took over after Ben Howland was dismissed at the end of last season. So far under Alford, UCLA has been fantastic on offense. The Bruins rank 7th in PPG, 3rd in APG, 2nd in FG%, and 8th in Offensive Rating. This will be a tough test for Anthony Grant's squad, who is looking for any kind of win to get back to .500 on the season.
UCLA is led by their Sophomore sensation, G Jordan Adams (18.9 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 2.6 APG, 3.3 SPG). Adams is just a tremendous basketball player. He is shooting 50.7% from the field, as he is phenomenal at creating good shots. He plays very good defense as well. Simply put, to beat UCLA, you have to contain Adams. He will be a lottery pick in this year's draft. He isn't a huge three point threat, so Bama needs to stay in front of him and prevent him from creating dribble penetration. Alongside Adams in the backcourt is a trio of quick, athletic guards who are all very adept at stealing the basketball. Freshman G Zach LaVine (12.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.0 SPG) is as efficient as a scorer as they come. LaVine shoots 55% from the floor, including 42.9% from three. His lack of experience may be hurting him at the free throw line, however, as he only shoot 60% from the charity stripe. Junior G Norman Powell (11.0 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.5 SPG) is a slasher, and is very dangerous inside of the three point line. Powell shoots 69.1% from inside the three point line, which is extremely good for a guard. He does only shoot 15.8% from beyond that arc, so Alabama would be advised to force him to keep his shots away from the basket. Finally, Freshman G Bryce Alford (7.4 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.3 SPG), the coach's son, has shown that he isn't on the team simply because of his last name. Alford shoots 49.2% from the floor, 47.1% from three. He also has a nice 3.5-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, pretty solid for a freshman Point Guard.
In the UCLA frontcourt, the Bruins don't lack for size or athleticism. Sophomore F Kyle Anderson (14.7 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 6.7 APG, 1.8 SPG, 0.8 BPG) is just an all-around stud. At 6'9 he is always one of the biggest guys on the court, but he also has tremendous quickness and athleticism. His defense is great, his court vision and passing is even better, and he averages nearly a double-double a game. Adams gets most of the publicity on the team, but Anderson is a monster. Alabama will have their hands full with both of these guys on the court. Oh, and he also shoots 60% from three. Anderson is joined by a pair of 6'10 twins David Wear (8.1 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 0.8 SPG) and Travis Wear (5.7 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 0.9 BPG). The Wear twins originally played at North Carolina before transferring to UCLA. David is the superior shooter, as he shoots 55.6% from the field and a ridiculous 66.7% from three. Travis isn't as skilled or athletic as David, but he is a real scrapper. Finally, 6'9 Sophomore F Tony Parker (7.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 0.8 BPG) rounds up the regular rotation. He is your typical post player, he doesn't stretch the floor or anything like that. He is terrible from the free throw line (43.5%), so if Alabama is fouling anyone, it might as well be him.
What To Watch For
1. Must Win Game. It feels way too early to be making this harsh of a statement, but it really might be true. With a loss, Alabama will likely finish non conference play 6-7, with nothing but a bunch of close losses against good teams on the resume. That's just not a good look. Sure, a 14-4 SEC record would probably be enough to ignore the lack of out-of-conference wins, but that isn't something that Alabama fans want to be looking at when conference play begins. However, if Alabama can go on the road and beat one of the PAC-12's best, things look drastically different. Alabama would most likely be 7-6 going into conference play, and most importantly, will have shown that they can beat one of the big boys, not just hang with them.
2. Adams and Anderson. This is arguably the best pair of players (including Duke's Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood) that Alabama will play all year. UCLA's offense is electric, and you better believe that Alabama will have to limit these two to have any chance.
3. Road Woes. Four games away from home, four losses. Simple math.The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee hates teams that can't win on the road or at neutral sites, by the way.
Three Keys to Victory
1. Keep Playing that Stingy Defense. Say what you want about Anthony Grant, the guy can flat out coach an excellent defense. With the exception of too many fouls, Alabama's defensive unit has been very good all year (the end of the Xavier game notwithstanding). It will be very critical for Alabama to make plenty of stops against this beast of an offense.
2. Limit Turnovers and Prevent Transition Baskets. UCLA thrives off of forcing a steal and then running the court for an easy basket. Alabama, coincidentally, is turnover prone. Alabama will turn the ball over in this game, but the Crimson Tide has to limit their turnovers. And when they DO turn the ball over, they have to get back on defense and prevent the Bruins from getting easy baskets. I can't stress this enough. If Alabama wants to pull off the upset, they will have to take care of the basketball. I know many of you will not want to hear this, but it will benefit Alabama to play a slow tempo on offense. Because Alabama just doesn't pass or protect the ball very well.
3. FINISH. Alabama is not a bad basketball team. A bad basketball team wouldn't have led a top ten team with only a few minutes left in the game. A bad basketball team would not have led multiple likely NCAA Tournament bound teams by double digits for large portions of the game. Alabama just doesn't seem to be able to finish. Nick Saban would be livid if he saw these guys play. If Alabama is able to lead in this game, something has to change. No more forcing shots early in the shot clock. No more driving into multiple defenders while the rest of the offense stands still. No more relaxing on defense just because you are up by a few possessions. No more. If Alabama gets a lead in this game, they HAVE TO FINISH.
As I said above, this has the feel of a must win game, and it's not even 2014 yet. The difference between a win and a loss in this one is nearly as big as the Florida game in last season's SEC Semifinal. With a win, Alabama could probably get in the NCAA Tournament with a 12-6 conference record. With a loss, the Crimson TIde is looking at needing 14 wins in SEC play in order to get it done. Unfortunately, this is not a good match up for Alabama. UCLA is very good, and their strengths and weaknesses don't favor ours very well. Alabama will have to play by far and away its best game of the season Saturday night. Anthony Grant needs to coach as if his job depends on it, because if they can't pull this off, it might just be true.