Things are not as they seem
Because UCLA’s Ben Howland coached at Pittsburgh, and because Jamie Dixon, Howland’s young assistant, replaced Howland as coach at Pittsburgh, and because Howland has been mentoring Dixon for almost 25 years, and because the Bruins play the Panthers tonight in an NCAA West Regional semifinal, here’s what we should get:
Two coaches shouting “Kansas” on an offensive set, two coaches yelling “hands up” on defense. Identical teams. Mirror images maybe.
Except we won’t.
Second-seeded UCLA (28-5) and third-seeded Pittsburgh (29-7) have different players, different strengths, different ways to execute a similar plan.
On the one hand, UCLA center Lorenzo Mata said, “This has been the easiest scouting report we’ve ever had to learn.”
Yes, Bruins guard Arron Afflalo said, some of the plays run by both teams have the same name, some of the ways players cut on offense or where passes go first are the same.
A big difference: Pittsburgh’s major offensive objective is to get the ball into 7-foot center Aaron Gray.
“They run everything through him,” UCLA backup center Alfred Aboya said. “He’s big, he’s tough, he’s a really good passer.”
Added Afflalo: “He’s big and he’s skilled.”
Mata said the 270-pound Gray’s best move is “just being so big. I watched the film and sometimes he scores just because he swallows you. He just blocks you out.”
Gray isn’t the most agile player on the court, though, and he is only a 54% free-throw shooter. So the Bruins will practice their well-choreographed double team of the post. They will make Gray pass the ball, try to force Gray to move with the ball, and try to make sure Gray doesn’t, as Mata said, swallow them.
“We’re quicker,” Aboya said, “so maybe he can’t catch us.”
UCLA’s major offensive weapons are on the perimeter.
Panthers guard Antonio Graves says he considers Bruins guards Afflalo and Darren Collison “maybe the best guard duo in the country.”
Graves sees how UCLA usually tries to get Afflalo into an early shooting rhythm and how Collison, Afflalo and Josh Shipp will be the zone busters.
Yes, Pittsburgh occasionally utilizes a zone defense. There’s another difference.
While Pittsburgh forward Levon Kendall, a fifth-year senior who was recruited to the Panthers by Howland, said UCLA’s coach actually had the Panthers practice a zone defense, the Howland way at UCLA is man-to-man only.
“I’m sure we’ll see some of their zone,” Collison said. “We’ll be ready for it.”
Pittsburgh starts three seniors. That’s another difference.
UCLA has no seniors, so motivations are different.
The Bruins played in the national championship game last year and have more titles (11) than any team in the country. This is Pittsburgh’s fourth Sweet 16 since 2002, but the Panthers have never gone further in the tournament.
Kendall said there was a sense of pride having helped Pittsburgh become a perennial national power, but he acknowledged UCLA’s players have a different set of expectations. “I think over there they expect national championships,” he said. “We don’t have that. But for me and the seniors, it would be special to be the first to go to the Elite Eight, the Final Four.”
One thing can certainly be said about both teams.
“Physical defense,” Collison said.
Said Pittsburgh forward Mike Cook: “Looking at the film, they don’t want to let the other team score at all. Neither do we.”
UCLA’s opponents average 59 points; Pittsburgh’s 62. UCLA opponents shoot only 42%; Pittsburgh’s 41%.
Collison says it has been “pretty interesting” watching and listening to the analysis of the matchup between Howland and Dixon, teacher and pupil.
“It’s been a really good story for everybody to latch onto,” Collison said. “But when you look at the players, each team has different things they do well and different players to focus on.
“At the end, it’s just going to be two teams doing their own things.”