As well as No. 2 UCLA (10-0) is playing, coach Steve Alford is glad his Bruins have three more games to tune up for Pac-12 play, which starts with a road matchup against returning Pac-12 champion and Elite Eight team, Oregon.
“We’ll take as many as we can get before we get into conference,” Alford said Tuesday. “We need these 120 minutes to gain not just momentum but (to learn) ideas and concepts.”
UCLA gets a prime opportunity for learning Wednesday night when it hosts a UC Santa Barbara (1-6) squad that has struggled to start the season but will present the Bruins with a couple of challenges they’ve rarely faced thus far: zone defense and post-up play.
With two of the Pac-12’s more zone-heavy teams looming at the start of its conference schedule in Oregon and Oregon State, UCLA will face its first zone-oriented opponent Wednesday night. And UCSB, with 6-foot-8, 276-pound forward Jalen Canty on the block, will also test the Bruins’ post defense in ways most opponents thus far have not.
The Gauchos employed a zone 74 percent of the time, per Synergy Sports, almost exclusively going with a 3-2 scheme that has produced far more respectable results than their man-to-man defense, which has been as porous as all but four teams in the nation.
“We’re going to get a heavy dose of zone,” Alford said. “And we haven’t had a lot of zone thrown at us so that will help prepare us for league play.”
UCLA did deal with a zone during its game against Texas A&M, when the Aggies looked to disrupt the Bruins’ fast-flowing motion offense by using a 2-3 zone. UCLA produced mixed results, shooting 10-for-23 and turning the ball over four times.
UCSB’s offense could also provide a helpful test for UCLA, as the Gauchos often spend entire possessions looking to toss the ball inside to Canty or 6-foot-10 forward Alex Hart in good position, something the Bruins have rarely been forced to defend.
“We haven’t played a lot of teams that throw the ball inside as much as Santa Barbara does,” Alford said. “We’ve played a lot of dribble-drive teams and pick-and-roll teams, a Michigan team that plays five-out that wants to shoot a lot of threes. Now here comes a team that’s almost the flip of that – they want to attack you at the basket, they want to post you a lot.”
The Bruins will present a taller frontcourt than many of the Gauchos’ previous opponents, but even in a matchup with USC, UCSB looked to attack the basket, outscoring the Trojans 44-30 in the paint.
Alford spent the early part of practice Tuesday working on defending the post-up, focusing on the perimeter players’ responsibility to “dig,” or collapse down and swipe at the ball in hopes that the post player will turn it over or pass the ball out.
The coach cautioned his players, though, about helping off of UCSB’s talented guard Gabe Vincent, a high-usage player who averages 17.3 points per game for the Gauchos.
One other challenge for the Bruins may be whether they can keep the Gauchos off the offensive glass.
As good as UCLA has been, it is the 10th-worst team in the nation in defensive rebounding rate, a weakness that could be exposed by a UCSB team that grabs 34.7 percent of its own misses.