UCLA Basketball: Potential Trap Games for Bruins in 2013-2014
In looking over UCLA's schedule there were not many true trap games around to isolate, assuming a "trap game" is defined as the scheduling of a weaker opponent, either preceding, succeeding, or sandwiched between games against teams that are either your equals, superiors or a definite rival.
The danger of the trap is that a good team overlooks the easy game in preparation for the truer challenge, and in so doing loses or gets a mighty scare from a squad that in a more just world would not be forced onto the same basketball court with them.
Being 8-0 to start the season, the Bruins have already blown through most games that could have been considered early-season traps.
In honesty, much of the preseason is a trap for power conference schools who scheduled softly. It is the fattest opportunity for a hungry underdog covetous of padding a resume for the NCAA tournament to bite-off a piece of a top-tier school. Such victories can provide an underdog fuel for an entire season.
But UCLA has beaten all of the Drexels, Morehead States, Nevadas and, for good measure, Northwesterns of the world; many of them with ease and decent style. With the Pac-12 conference schedule set to begin there are few opportunities left for the Bruins to get trapped in the snares of a diminutive but wily team, though I have uncovered at least three.
Without further preliminaries, let's identify the remaining trap games.
At Home Against the Prairie View A&M Panthers, December 14
I look at a game like Prairie View A&M on Dec. 14 in Los Angeles—preceding the all-out brawl against Duke at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 19—and am certain the Panthers will be clubbed.
But while there is essentially a zero chance, both statistically and physically, that Prairie View wins the game, UCLA could be affected one way or the other by the interaction.
The Bruins could either play badly or they could play exceptionally well. Of the two I prefer badly; at least semi-badly. I've learned it can be emotionally dangerous to trust a college team coming off a drubbing of a decidedly inferior opponent. The reason being a win like that inspires overconfidence and an inflated sense of potency.
So while Prairie View is not a trap game in the traditional sense—a place to lose in humiliating, demoralizing fashion—it is a game that could send UCLA into a low-energy, complacent week of practice leading into the trip to New York City.
If UCLA did play badly against Prairie View, I think they would win by anywhere from 12-15 points in the end. In that case, I would know they would arrive under the bright, Broadway lights ready to scrap with the Blue Devils. In my experience there is nothing better for improving the performance of high-end competitive athletes than being embarrassed at what they are supposed to do best.
On the other hand, if the Bruins played well against Prairie View, winning by anywhere from 20-40 points, there could be two outcomes depending on how early coach Steve Alford dipped deep into the bench.
In one scenario, UCLA would take the floor at the Mecca and play sluggishly, like a hungover West Coast team that could not get its bearings out East and felt it was better than it had any right to feel. Being the stiffest preseason test on the schedule, and tipped at a reasonable enough hour for all college basketball fans to watch, this would be a discouraging step back.
The fan base would turn putrid and begin throwing ugly sobriquets and descriptions across social media. The lads over at Bruins Nation would psychoanalyze the roster from tip-to-tail in a desperate search for answers. The coach would be called the wrong coach, the program described as set back a generation at the very least, this year described as probably a "lost season" despite it being only December.
But in the second scenario, with UCLA playing moderate-to-poor basketball against Prairie View, it would set off the poison pill dominoes a week early. The lads at Bruins Nation would psychoanalyze the roster from tip-to-tail, and wonder if anyone there—including the coaches they never wanted in the first place—had any business at all even looking at the four letters, let alone wearing them across their chests.
It would be called the worst performance in anyone's lifetime and a new low for a proud program once again let down by its coaches and athletics administration. Morale in certain quarters would fall into deep trenches.
Following that debacle though, I would expect the team, with solid leadership beginning with Kyle Anderson and broadcasting downward, to practice with the focus of a special forces unit being sent cross country to engage the enemy in a non-lethal but graded scrimmage. As I said prior to this, of these options I prefer the second.
At Home Against the Alabama Crimson Tide, December 28
The Crimson Tide come—I'm guessing reluctantly—to Los Angeles on Dec. 28. On the basketball court UCLA should beat the tribe from Tuscaloosa 10 out of 10 tries. But this game sets up as the most "classic" trap remaining on the Bruin's schedule.
The reason is that Alabama follows UCLA's Dec. 22 game against Weber State, and precedes the home game against USC on Jan. 5.
UCLA ought to be ready to play Weber State. The Wildcats are slow out of the blocks this season, at 1-3 through Dec. 6, but it is a respectable, even venerable Big Sky Conference basketball school that has played its way into 14 NCAA tournaments.
Weber State is a name in college basketball. It has a proud tradition. But UCLA is too good for Weber State. The Bruins should blow them out of Pauley Pavilion with time to relax and crack jokes on the bench before the night is out. Tony Parker will be cracking them either way.
But just six days later Alabama, a power school with a less-than-mediocre basketball history, comes out of the SEC—a mysterious and generally unimpressive thing outside of Kentucky and Florida when it switches over from football—to visit Westwood.
The Crimson Tide has its own southern pride that it carries everywhere like the rest of us pack luggage for a trip. I believe Alabama will show up ready to play. For them, anything not in the Deep South might as well be the North, and there is nothing that makes a Southerner feel better than beating one of them "uppity" teams from out there, over there somewhere.
Following Alabama is USC—the deadly and most hated rival. UCLA lost an embarrassing game last year at home to the Trojans before clobbering them later at the Galen Center.
The players were embarrassed after that game, more so because the Bruins put on alternate uniforms for one of the few times in the history of the program. It makes a person feel rather dumb to put on a new and different set of clothes for the first time ever and then get beat up while wearing them.
A good game against Alabama, a power conference team despite the weakness of the Western Division of the SEC, would be a good thing for UCLA. It would send them into practice for USC with the right kind of edge.
Road Game at Corvallis, Oregon Against the Beavers, Feb. 2
The last trap game is the rare, interconference iteration of the concept. For the second time it precedes the game against USC.
The Bruins go to Corvallis on Feb. 2 for the infrequent Pac-12 Sunday game before playing the Trojans the following Saturday at the Galen Center.
The Pac-12 generally plays a Thursday-Saturday schedule, so the Bruins will go a long six days without a game before playing their rival. That is a lot of practice days late in the season, a lot of days to get bored and sapped, to lose focus on the present moment and start dreaming of what tournaments lie ahead.
It is hard to imagine UCLA thinking so much about USC the following Saturday that they lose to the Beavers because of distraction, but the game in Corvallis is difficult to get up for in its own right.
It is strange country up there in north, near-coastal Oregon, and teams are wont to play in unusual ways. But the mysticism of the place is much more effective during the outdoor football season than it is during the indoor basketball season. The Bruins have generally made pelts out of the Beavers on the hardwood, going 90-34 all time and 7-1 in the preceding five seasons.
It is a strange game late in the year, and Oregon State will likely be eliminated from the conference championship while UCLA has a goal to be stride-for-stride coming down the home stretch.
A loss to Oregon State this late in the season preceding the USC game could eliminate the Bruins from winning a close, regular-season conference championship.