Oregon-UCLA Preview: Bruins looking for validation, Ducks seeking case for No. 1

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On the other side of the country, one of the oldest and most storied college basketball rivalries will likely dominate the evening. When Duke and North Carolina get together, it grabs eyeballs and sucks a lot of oxygen out of the room.

Don’t forget about tonight’s nightcap, though.

UCLA and Oregon may not have the rivalry bonafides of their Tobacco Road counterparts, but they do lay claim to one of the best games of this season. The rematch tonight in Pauley Pavilion promises to be just as intriguing.

It wasn’t so long ago the Bruins were the darlings of college basketball, with Lonzo Ball’s play at point guard reinvigorating the program thanks to an offensive style that’s both beautiful and devastating as they won their first 13 games of the season.

That loss to the Ducks to end December didn’t do much to take the shine off, especially after UCLA ripped off six-straight wins after it, but back-to-back losses to Arizona and USC at the end of January pushed the Bruins’ fatal flaw to the forefront.

They can’t defend.

Oregon doesn’t bring an intimidating offense to the table, but with a defense that borders on elite, it’s an easier issue to hide. UCLA has to be brilliant on offense to beat good teams. The Ducks just have to do their thing on defense and keep things from breaking down on the other end.

The hardest cover for UCLA is, of course, Dillon Brooks. The junior had 23 points and four assists and a game-winning 3-pointer in the first matchup of the season, and, since an injury scare last month, has looked as solid as ever. He’s 16 of 24 combined in the last two games in which he’s averaged 22.5 points.

This is a game in which really UCLA has anything to prove.

Any doubts about the Ducks after they got pounded by Colorado went away when they thrashed Arizona last weekend. Oregon is exactly as good as we think they are, which is to say very, very good.

The Bruins, though? We know they can fill it up. We know Ball and T.J. Leath are dynamic freshmen and that the rest of the roster has a ton of talented offensive players. We don’t know how well the one-sided formula can work against top-tier teams, however.

UCLA has two options going forward. Either its offense has to operate at the extreme high level of its capability, with its output at capacity every night, or it has to find a way to defend a little. They don’t have to be great. Being average when your offense is awesome can be good enough.

Of course, the Pac-12 race is going to be greatly impacted by tonight’s result. If UCLA wants any chance of sticking in the thick of things, it’s a must-win. The Bruins are already two games back of the Ducks and Wildcats, and can’t fall another game back and expect to make it up before the Pac-12 tournament.

It’s paramount for Oregon, too, as it still has trips to USC and Cal on the docket while Arizona has a much more forgiving schedule. Its most difficult road game is at Arizona State to finish the regular season and the Wildcats get UCLA at home.

Gonzaga has the inside track to the No. 1 seed in the west, but Oregon could lay claim to No. 1 elsewhere if things break right throughout the rest of the country. To those ends, a win in Westwood would be a nice addition to the resume. For UCLA, though, a win over Oregon could be a signal that, despite their deficiencies, the game’s about getting buckets and there’s few who get them like the Bruins.

Prediction: Other than the blip in Boulder, Oregon has spent the last two-plus months playing really good basketball. The fact that they can do that on both ends of the floor means they’re the pick here (+4.5).