College basketball is a sport where any given team can beat any other team on any given day. Ohio State is no stranger to this phenomena. One of the most illogical instances would be when four-loss OSU beat then-No. 4 Kentucky last season in the CBS Sports Classic in Brooklyn. On Saturday, the Buckeyes will attempt to upset No. 2 UCLA in Las Vegas in the third season of the event.
The victory over the Wildcats last year was one reason OSU stayed around the NCAA tournament talk until the Big Ten tournament in March. An inexperienced Buckeye team that had underachieved all year was suddenly making any open shot, locking down on interior defense and rebounding the basketball. A win against the second-ranked Bruins (11-0) for the Buckeyes (8-2) might not be as surprising as the Kentucky win, but it would be a shock nonetheless.
“It’s a completely different team that we have this year from last year. But one of the key points facing UCLA is we’re going to have to have that same mentality,” junior forward Jae’Sean Tate said. “Everybody is going to have to be on the same page and we’re going to have to play our hardest for 40 minutes.”
UCLA has six scorers averaging 10-plus points per game and coach Steve Alford’s team ranks first in the country averaging 97.9 points per game, 100.3 in the last three games. The Bruins are led by do-it-all guard Lonzo Ball, who reminds OSU coach Thad Matta of a point guard he had a few years ago.
“Someone asked me about him in comparison to D’Angelo (Russell) and there are some similarities there,” Matta said. “He can beat you by scoring, he can beat you by passing. As we did with D’Angelo, they move him around to a lot of different spots. He does a great job of making that team go.”
Listed at 6-foot-6, 190 pounds, Ball is averaging 14.8 points, 8.6 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game. He ranks second in the country in assists.
In the Bruins’ win over Kentucky earlier this year, Ball was one of five players who had at least 14 points. Ball is without question the straw that stirs the drink, but the bread and butter of UCLA’s high-powered offense is its ability to score in transition and get open looks from 3-point territory.
The Bruins attempt nearly 25 3s per game compared to OSU’s 19.4. UCLA also ranks first in 3-point percentage, shooting over 45 percent from distance, and first in the country in offensive efficiency. KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency, which measures offensive efficiency per 100 possessions, ranks UCLA third.
OSU has had trouble with turnovers in several games this year. In its two-point loss to then-No. 6 Virginia, the Buckeyes had 20 turnovers. In its last game against Connecticut, OSU had only six turnovers compared to its average of more than 13 per game. Junior forward Keita Bates-Diop said that maximizing possessions versus the Bruins is one of several factors needed to pull an upset.
“Basketball is a mistake game,” he said. “You’re going to have turnovers. It’s going to happen. It’s just focusing on the bad ones like throwing them into traffic. We try not to have a lot of them.”
Since injuring his ankle in the Providence game in mid-November, Bates-Diop has played in just the last two games, averaging 18 minutes. Matta said that he doesn’t think the junior from Normal, Illinois is 100 percent not just because of his ankle injury, but because of how much time he has missed which hasn’t allowed him to get into the shape other players are in.
Bates-Diop had a stress fracture in his left shin before the season, which sidelined him for a few weeks. For now, he will likely continue playing around half the game and coming off the bench while redshirt junior guard Kam Williams starts in his place.
Prediction: OSU is in a bit of a funk shooting the ball lately. The Buckeyes shoot only 34 percent from the perimeter, but in its last three games, OSU is shooting at a clip of just over 19 percent. Only eight other teams, currently, have shot a worse percentage over that span.
That being said, UCLA is not one of the most stellar defensive teams. Its opponents are shooting over 36 percent from 3 and allow 74.6 points per game. Expect OSU to get out of its shooting slump with Williams leading the charge and finding his stroke from deep again.
However, UCLA is going to continue its strategy of relying on its offense to outscore the opposition without locking down on the defensive end. Don’t be surprised if OSU can lock down UCLA on a few possession, but the Buckeyes might struggle turning the ball over which allows UCLA to execute in transition.
Final score: UCLA 94, OSU 80