By any measure, the UCLA Bruins basketball team has had an absolutely atrocious start to the 2011-12 season. They dropped their opener to Loyola Marymount at home (the first time the Lions have defeated UCLA since WWII), got blown out by 20 points to Middle Tennessee State -- again at home -- and then went 1-2 in the Maui Invitational, with a win over host Chaminade followed by double-digit losses to Kansas and Michigan that dropped UCLA to 1-4. The Bruins 62-39 win over Pepperdine on Monday was their first over a Division 1 school this season.
Texas fans who inspect UCLA's early-season performance may conclude that the Horns are in good shape to pick up their fifth win of the season on Saturday, even though they'll be on the road. (Note: the Bruins are playing their home games at the Sports Arena this season as Paulley Pavilion undergoes rennovations.) Maybe so, but I fear that DCBruins is right when he senses that this UCLA team is turning a quarter.
I'll be honest: I'm very concerned about this match up, and if I had to wager, I'm not sure I'd take Texas on Saturday. Unfortunately, Texas may have caught UCLA a smidge too late, and if the Bruins are in fact ready to play more closely to their talent level, we could be in trouble on Saturday, because UCLA presents us with particularly difficult match ups.
UCLA's on-court performance numbers this year are terrible thus far. The Bruins are shooting the ball horrifically (44% Effective FG%, 280th in the country), and they aren't getting to the free throw line (32.6 FT Rate, 241st nationally). They've been absolutely abysmal on the glass, grabbing just 30% of their misses (240th nationally) while allowing opponents to grab 32% of theirs (143rd nationally).
UCLA has connected on just 28% of its three-point attempts (297th nationally), while their opponents have nailed a comically high 57% of their shots from downtown (worst 3PFG% allowed in the country). It's not much better inside the arc, where UCLA's making just 45% of their twos (242nd nationally), while allowing opponents to make 50% (233rd). This is how you find yourself 2-4 with double-digit losses to LMU and MTSU.
Watching the Bruins play has been as painful on the eyes as reading through their statistical profile. In Maui the Bruins looked utterly indifferent to stopping penetration, couldn't be bothered to close out hard on shooters, and appeared to approach the act of rebounding with an attitude that any ball that didn't fall into a UCLA player's lap was not worth going after.
If that's what Texas gets from the Bruins on Saturday, we'll be just fine. The trouble, though, is that this UCLA team has absolutely no business struggling in the ways that they are. Their roster of players isn't a particularly 'skilled' bunch (average ball handlers and shooters, etc.), but it is second-to-none in terms of size and athleticism. In other words: UCLA may continue to be an average offensive team in some regards, but there's absolutely no reason for this team can't and shouldn't excel on the boards and on defense.
About that size: the Bruins starting frontcourt goes 6-10, 305 in Josh Smith and 6-10, 225 in David Wear, with 6-10, 220-pound Travis Wear and 6-8, 235-pound Reeves Nelson coming in first off the bench. UCLA features length on the perimeter as well: starting point guard Lazeric Jones is 6-1, shooting guard Jerime Anderson is 6-2, and wing Tyler Lamb is 6-5, while their first man off the bench is 6-3 Norman Powell.
At the very least, these guys should be able to rebound capably against just about anybody, and if they decide they're in the mood to get after it against Texas, they might absolutely murder us on the glass. The good news, as I mentioned, is that while their roster is loaded with size, a lot of them are raw in terms of pure basketball skills, and to this point the pieces haven't worked well together. On the inside, the Wear twins are still figuring things out at the college level, and Josh Smith is limited in the same way Dexter Pittman was, circa his junior year. Reeves Nelson is active and can put up 10 and 10 on you if you're not getting a body on him, but he's not an impact player who can make things happen on his own. On the outside, the Bruins' point guard play has been underwhelming, Tyler Lamb is a great athlete but not a good basketball player, and while Jerime Anderson can shoot it he's not great at penetrating or creating his own shot off the bounce.
If UCLA isn't systematically working the ball inside to their big men, and if their guards are settling for jump shots more often than trying to penetrate to the paint, we should be just fine. What worries me, though, is if UCLA attacks us in the paint as they should. It doesn't matter if Smith or the Wears don't make their shots if they're drawing fouls on us in the process. Likewise, I'm concerned about an aggressive Norman Powell, who can really slash to the rim on the bounce, and even Tyler Lamb if he decides to try to be aggressive, because the one thing this Texas team cannot afford is foul trouble.
Keys to the Game
1. Will UCLA have the right game plan for Texas? If you couldn't tell by now, I'm as much or more concerned about UCLA's game plan as our own. We'll get to what the Longhorns need to do, but as far as I'm concerned the first and most important question for this game will be whether UCLA understands how to attack Texas in the right ways. This is a fun and interesting young Texas team with lots of talent and really intriguing potential. But our youth and lack of frontcourt size presents a double whammy in terms of defending and rebounding without committing fouls. An opponent who fully understands that, and who has the size and athletes to force the issue, can really put Texas in a difficult situation -- either hurting us with foul trouble, or forcing us to concede various advantages to avoid it.
You hate to boil down a long and multi-faceted game to something so simple, but in this case I have no hesitation in singling it out as the defining question of the game. If UCLA attacks us to draw fouls as they can and should, we're going to be in trouble. If they don't, there's plenty of room for Texas to pick up a win.
2. What is Texas' strategy for playing defense and rebounding without committing fouls? The companion point to the above is the approach Texas takes to mitigate this concern. We can open the game in our standard pressure man defense and see what UCLA's going to do, but we can't really afford to wait to adjust if the Bruins are successfully attacking us and drawing whistles. As for what Texas can do, most straightforwardly we can play a very soft and sagging man defense. I don't recall Rick Barnes ever doing this much, if at all, but this would be a great game to defend like opponents defended us in 2009-10. Remember that? The clogged paint and 5-foot cushions on our non-shooters? There's little disincentive not to do the same to UCLA on Saturday.
Alternatively, of course, we can play a zone, which seems to be Rick's preferred adjustment after the team gets in foul trouble. I'm perfectly fine with us playing a healthy amount of zone on Saturday, but it's a little bit silly to wait to be in a bad situation where you have to. I absolutely understand the benefits to us from playing our standard pressure man defense, but at some point you have to recognize, accept, and deal with the fact that the single biggest threat to this team against big and athletic opponents is foul trouble. We don't need to wait until midway through the first half when Holmes, Kabongo, and Wangmene are all on the pine with two fouls to know this. We know this right now, going into the game.
Finally, it's worth mentioning that we can at least partly counter UCLA's size advantage by making their big guys really have to run the floor. A faster tempo is our friend on Saturday, both to give our players opportunities to score in space and to force UCLA to really have to run back to play defense. Josh Smith can't run the floor for sustained minutes any more than Dexter Pittman could. Moreover, the more UCLA has to concern itself with getting back to deal with us in transition, the less aggressively they can deploy resources to try and pound us on the offensive glass. Win-win.
Whatever we do -- and it can be a combination of each of these things and others -- we must have a smart plan for avoiding the situations that will make it exceedingly difficult for us to win this game. We absolutely must have Jonathan Holmes out there for 25+ minutes. We cannot have both Wangmene and Chapman picking up two fouls early. And we cannot afford for either J'Covan Brown or Myck Kabongo to have the kind of foul trouble that means extended first half bench time.
3. Will Texas get the performances it needs from Wangmene and Chapman? There's no need to pretend that in order to win we need Alexis Wangmene and/or Clint Chapman to be more than they're capable of, but I think most Texas fans would agree that both of these players have demonstrated a... range of performance capabilities. We're not going to suddenly get a big-time rebounding performance out of Clint Chapman, but on Saturday he's got to give us 20 quality minutes in which he scores, plays adequate defense without racking up fouls, and is at least active, if not good, on the glass. As for Wangmene, the upper end of his capabilities is a bit higher, I think -- recall his second half in Chapel Hill last season, for example -- and he's a pivotal player for us on Saturday. Wangmene isn't someone you would ever want to run offense through, but on his best night he can give you 12 points, 10 boards, and quietly effective defense across 25+ high-energy minutes. We may not need both players to deliver the absolute most that they're capable of, but we do need both to play substantially on the 'good' side of their ledger.
4. Can Texas punish UCLA with outside shooting? The law of averages makes it unlikely we'll shoot it from the outside as well as most of UCLA's other early-season opponents have, but we're going to have to make our fair share to win this game. If we're cold from the outside, we're going to have to execute our offense awfully crisply to score consistently (a tough bet for such a young team) or do our own great job of getting to the line. If it comes down to it, I'm more hopeful that we might get there by penetrating and drawing fouls, but much better would be to see Texas shooting it well from the outside in the early going. If we're on from beyond the arc, UCLA can either let us bury them like their previous opponents have or extend their defense. The former speaks for itself, while the latter enhances our chances to win by providing terrific court spacing, which in turn facilitates opportunities to penetrate and makes it harder to play help defense effectively without fouling or leaving players unguarded and wide open.
5. Is Myck Kabongo ready for this caliber of athlete? I've written extensively about why there's no need to be concerned that Texas' freshman point guard -- talented as he is -- must go through a substantial adjustment period in learning to play at the collegiate level, and that will remain true even if he struggles on Saturday. With that said, boy will it help if he's taken a serious step forward since his first two encounters with Big Six-caliber athletes. Kabongo was stymied by Oregon State and NC State in New Jersey, and the Bruins' big athletes present similar challenges. We don't need Kabongo on Saturday to suddenly explode into the elite player his talents suggest he can become -- that will come over time, assuming he's capable of getting there -- but it will be a big boost if he's more comfortable in the challenges presented, better understands how to attack them, and takes a step forward in his ability to play effectively -- solidly, if not great.
Who knows, maybe we'll win a game on the back of J'Covan Brown alone -- I will not put that past him -- but we're better off if that's not our only path to victory. The real potential of this team lies in both Brown and Kabongo being primary guards who give defenses fits. Kabongo needn't get there by Saturday, but our chances of winning will be a good deal stronger if he's ready to put effective pressure on UCLA with his play.
I'm too concerned about the potential for us to get pounded on the inside, wind up in foul trouble, or both to make a prediction on this game, but if we avoid the situations that necessarily limit us from doing what we do best, we can pick up our first big win of the season. Don't let UCLA's record fool you: this will be a big win for this young Texas team, whether the Bruins have a good year or not.