More than halfway through the conference schedule, UCLA men’s basketball is fighting to stay relevant in the Pac-12 race.
The Bruins are currently tied for third place, and if they want to claw back into contention for the regular season title, they have to start with a rematch of their closest loss this season.
No. 10 UCLA (21-3, 8-3 Pac-12) hosts No. 5 Oregon (21-3, 10-1) on Thursday night, six weeks after the Ducks’ junior forward Dillon Brooks sunk a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to hand the Bruins their first loss of the year.
“This is probably our biggest game to date as far as trying to stay in the Pac-12 race,” said senior guard Bryce Alford. “They’re two games ahead of us, tied with Arizona. Obviously we’ve got to have some stuff fall our way, but if we continue to win games and take care of what we can take care of, I think we have a legit shot.”
Oregon is 12th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to statistician Ken Pomeroy, holding opponents to only 63.5 points per game and shooting from deep 30.7 percent of the time. Last time out, the Ducks shut down senior guard Isaac Hamilton and sophomore guard Aaron Holiday, who combined to make 3 of 16 shots for a total of seven points.
UCLA’s defense, however, is coming off one of its best performances of the season in its own right.
The Bruins limited the Huskies to under 40 percent overall shooting, including 25.9 percent from long range. Forcing misses, getting rebounds and starting the fast break are key for UCLA, which takes more than 30 percent of its shots in transition, according to Hoop-Math.
“If we get more stops, it’s going to help these guys get out and run,” said coach Steve Alford. “Twenty-three of the 24 teams we’ve played we beat in transition, so that is a big key to what we do. Our guys are starting to understand that if we’re getting more stops, that means we’ll be even better offensively.”
One challenge for Steve Alford’s squad will be to close out the Ducks’ streaky 3-point shooting. Despite only hitting 37.5 percent of their 3s in this season, Oregon shot 7 of 14 from long distance in the first half in December’s matchup. Saturday, the Ducks set an arena record with 16 3-pointers at a 64 percent clip against the then-No. 5 Arizona Wildcats.
With a win, UCLA would also boost its NCAA Tournament resume. The Bruins are only 2-3 against RPI top-50 teams, with their wins coming at Kentucky and versus Cal.
“We’re trying to get a win for ourselves,” Bryce Alford said. “We know the importance of the game and how much impact it’ll have not only in the Pac-12 race but also NCAA seeding.”