dec 16, 2016 | clay fowler | Inland Valley Daily Bulletin - la daily news | ARTICLE LINK
UCLA would prefer to play Ohio State on the football field in December, but it will be no small affair when they meet on the basketball court Saturday afternoon.
The Bruins are the No. 2 team in the country and Ohio State is two plays from being undefeated, according to UCLA coach Steve Alford.
They will play the first game of a doubleheader at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the site of this year’s Pac-12 tournament in March, the second game of which pits North Carolina against Kentucky.
Ohio State is the only team of the four in the CBS Sports Classic not ranked among the top seven in the nation, but Alford isn’t convinced the Buckeyes (8-2) don’t deserve it.
“They’re only two possessions and about 10 seconds from being 10-0,” Alford said. “Florida Atlantic they lost I think in overtime, last play of the game. And they had Virginia beat at Virginia. They’re closer to a 10-0 record than an 8-2 record.”
Ohio State led Virginia by 16 before losing by two Nov. 30 and lost to lowly Florida Atlantic on Dec. 6 in Columbus, Ohio on a last-second shot in overtime.
There is no debating UCLA’s record. The Bruins (11-0) have played just three games decided by less than 15 points. The closest of those was a five-point win at then-No. 1 Kentucky.
Both UCLA and Ohio State are bouncing back from sub-par seasons a year ago, but they’re doing it with vastly different personnel.
Ohio State starts three juniors and a senior with only one freshman among its top eight players. UCLA starts two freshmen with a third in the regular rotation.
Bruins freshman point guard Lonzo Ball is making an early case to be the Naismith College Player of the Year. Classmate TJ Leaf has been on a tear, peaking with a near triple-double in Wednesday’s 40-point win over UC Santa Barbara that included a season-high 25 points and eight assists to go along with 10 rebounds.
It was an earlier matchup with a Big Ten team, UCLA’s Nov. 25 win over Nebraska, where the 6-foot-10, 225-pound power forward felt like he turned a corner.
“Nebraska I kind of got beat up a little bit and I’ve really never played against multiple guys that big,” Leaf said. “So I really realized how to get rebounds against guys like that and I think I’m doing a better job of it.”
Ohio State has size, athleticism and experience in its front court to throw at Leaf. Trevor Thompson is a 7-foot junior who averages a team-high 8.6 rebounds. Marc Loving, the lone senior in Ohio State’s rotation, is two inches shorter than Leaf and will present challenges on the perimeter with his athleticism, as will 6-7 junior Keita Bates-Diop.
Opponents have yet to solve Leaf, who was UCLA’s best player in its biggest game with 17 points and 13 rebounds against Kentucky.
“I thought he gained a lot of momentum coming out of the Nebraska game,” Alford said. “He saw what he can do and I remember him saying ‘I get this.’”
Ohio State is the Bruins’ last significant test before opening Pac-12 play Dec. 28 at defending conference champion Oregon, where they could equal the 14-0 start of the 2006-07 team that went to the first of UCLA’s three consecutive Final Fours.