CU men's basketball preview: UCLA Bruins

TIPOFF: Thursday, 7 p.m., CU Events Center.

BROADCAST: TV — ESPN2; Radio — 850 AM.

RECORDS: UCLA 16-13, 9-7 Pac-12 Conference; Colorado 17-11, 8-8.

COACHES: UCLA — Murry Bartow, 1st season (9-7, 337-221); Colorado — Tad Boyle, 9th season (183-121, 239-187 overall).

KEY PLAYERS: UCLA — G Kris Wilkes, So., 17.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg; G Jaylen Hands, So., 13.8 ppg, 6.5 apg, 3.5 rpg; C Moses Brown, Fr., 10.5 ppg, 8.7 rpg. Colorado — G McKinley Wright, So., 13.0 ppg, 5.0 apg, 4.7 rpg; F Tyler Bey, So., 12.8 ppg, 9.5 rpg; F Lucas Siewert, Jr., 10.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg.

NOTES: CU junior guard Shane Gatling enjoyed his best game of the season in last month's win at UCLA, going 7-for-9 on 3-pointers while scoring a season-best 28 points with five assists. Gatling led CU to a season-best .542 mark (13-for-24) on 3-pointers at UCLA...Boyle's next win will be No. 184 at CU, moving him into a tie with Ricardo Patton for second all-time. Sox Walseth is the program's all-time leader with 261 wins...Bey has recorded double-doubles in the past three games as well as in six of the past eight. Bey's 265 total rebounds this season is tied for 18th among CU's all-time single-season leaders, matching David Harrison's 2002-03 total...The Buffs rank second in Pac-12 games in free throw percentage (.750)...


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CU hosts USC Saturday in the regular-season finale (3 p.m., Pac-12 Network).

The Colorado Buffaloes should be able to score points.

Yet that's what UCLA is good at, too. So not only can CU fans brace for a game with bigger late-season ramifications than the faithful at the CU Events Center have witnessed in several years on Thursday, but it should be an entertaining one as well.

With the race for the final two spots among the Pac-12 Conference's top four coming down to the wire, a key matchup in how those standings will be resolved will occur on the Buffs' home floor as the Bruins visit Thursday night.

In conference games, UCLA leads the Pac-12 in points per game (80.4) while CU ranks third in points allowed (68.6).

"We're never comfortable. With a team like this, they've probably got the most overall talent in the league, from the starters to the end of their bench," CU sophomore point guard McKinley Wright said. "When they're rolling, they're rolling. And right now they're rolling. We've got to do a good job of keeping them from coming into our house and stealing one here. We've got to take our matchups personal and be ready to guard."

Although the Buffs have had the Bruins' number of late, winning the past three meetings, UCLA comes to town playing some of its best basketball of the season under interim head coach Murry Bartow, who took over for the fired Steve Alford Dec. 31.

Three days after UCLA's home loss against CU on Feb. 6, the Bruins also dropped a home match against Utah on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by the Utes' Parker Van Dyke. Since then, though, UCLA has won four of five games, including the past three in a row. The Bruins arrive in Boulder with a 9-7 league record, one game ahead of the Buffs, and on Wednesday CU head coach Tad Boyle credited much of UCLA's recent surge to the play of sophomore point guard Jaylen Hands.

The reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week, Hands has averaged 21.3 points and 6.8 assists in the six games since UCLA's home loss against the Buffs. Hands has shot .457 overall (37-for-81) during that span with a 3-point percentage of .500 (21-for-42).

"They're still playing zone, but man, Jaylen Hands is playing really, really well," Boyle said. "He's shooting the ball well. He's playing with a lot of confidence. (Kris) Wilkes, those two guys are good players. They were highly recruited out of high school, and they're playing like it now.

"(Hands) is so fast, so athletic. That's one of the things we worked on (Wednesday), just trying to corral him."

While UCLA's league-leading scoring average can partially be attributed to the fast pace the Bruins prefer to play at, they also rank second in league games in field goal percentage (.470) and fifth in 3-point percentage (.366).

The Buffs will counter with a defense that ranks sixth in overall defensive field goal percentage in league play (.442) and but second in defensive 3-point percentage (.322). The matchup also features two of the most efficient rebounding teams in Pac-12 play, with the Bruins (plus-5.3) and the Buffs (plus-3.8) ranking first and second, respectively, in rebounding margin.

"You put yourself in position where games matter in February, and now we're in position where they matter in March," Boyle said. "This is what college basketball is all about."

Pat Rooney: rooneyp@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/prooney07