Point guard: Bryce Alford vs. Nic Moore
Alford (33 games started) and Moore are good passers, who shoot a lot from behind the arc, albeit successfully. The 6-3 sophomore is second on UCLA with 15.1 points per game and leads the Bruins with five assists per game, although he shoots just 38 percent from the floor and averages 2.5 turnovers per game. Neither is a true shot creator, but Moore is more so than Alford. But the difference between Alford and the AAC’s Player of the Year is that Moore is essential to running the SMU’s entire offense, whereas Alford is a solid piece of the puzzle, but not an engine. Alford can get hot from behind the line, especially in transition, which could really doom SMU. But Moore should be able to have his way offensively, and hold his own on Alford on defense.
Shooting guard: Isaac Hamilton vs. Ryan Manuel
Hamilton (33 GS) was regarded as a born scorer coming out of high school, and he’s been solid in his freshman year. Scout’s 31st-ranked player in the Class of 2014 can do a little of everything; he’s averaging 10.7 points per game, 3.4 rebounds per game and 3.1 assists per game. While he shoots 39 percent from deep, he only shoots 41 percent overall. He’s not the best athlete or the strongest guy at 6-foot-4 and 175 pounds, but he’s an aggressive scorer, sometimes a bit too aggressive. Ryan Manuel’s stellar perimeter defense makes for an interesting matchup here, and one Manuel can win. He probably won’t be counted on to score much, but if he is aggressive on offense and can get to the line, that will help even the scoring between the two.
Edge: Slightly toward SMU
Small forward: Norman Powell vs. Sterling Brown
UCLA starts a smaller lineup and plays the 6-foot-4 senior at small forward. Powell (33 GS) is the Bruins best scorer and probably their best player, averaging 16.4 points per game and 4.7 rebounds per game while shooting 46 percent from the field. Powell has also dropped 20-plus points in four of his last five games, so he’s riding a good streak coming in. He’s a natural scorer and can play the three spot very well because of his excellent athleticism, despite being on the shorter side. He won’t light it up from deep (32 percent), but he’s a solid defender and averages a comfy 1.9 steals per game. Sterling Brown (16 GS) starts here, even though he did not start in SMU’s AAC title game win. Brown is more than capable of staying with Powell, but don’t be surprised if Ryan Manuel gets a chance to guard him as well. This is another spot where SMU’s scoring won’t match UCLA’s, but if Brown can knock down a couple open shots and have his usual efficient game, then SMU will feel good about its offensive production here.
Power forward: Kevon Looney vs. Ben Moore
Looney (33 GS), Scout’s second-ranked power forward for 2014, leads the Bruins in rebounding at 9.2 per game and chips in 11.8 points per game. UCLA can go big and put the 6-foot-8 freshman at the three spot and move Tony Parker to the four, although its starting lineup won’t. Looney is a versatile player and while he doesn’t shoot a lot of threes, he will shoot a couple on plays designed for him and hits them at a 46% clip (48 attempts on the year). When a play breaks down, expect Looney to get a lot of touches. He’s a little light for a power forward at 210 pounds and isn’t a true post player, and that’s where Markus Kennedy has an advantage when he spells Moore (30 GS) for playing time (Moore averages 22.6 minutes per game, Kennedy 22.5). Moore’s length can contain Looney on the perimeter and he’ll need to move well defensively when Looney is working inside. Kennedy will get a lot of minutes and be counted on for scoring and rebounding as usual, and UCLA could use a bigger lineup when he’s in the game. Looney’s not the strongest and not a great post defender, something crafty post player Kennedy will look to exploit.
Edge: Slightly toward SMU
Center: Tony Parker vs. Yanick Moreira
This won’t be a strict Parker (31 GS) vs. Moreira (33 GS) matchup. Parker is UCLA’s main post player and averages 11.1 points per game and 6.6 rebounds per game. He shoots 55 percent from the field but is a poor free throw shooter (56 percent). The junior from Georgia was Scout’s 20th-ranked player in 2013 and is a beefy 6-foot-9, 265 pounds. He’s a good low-post scorer with good touch and good hands. He will probably be used a lot to match up with Kennedy when he’s in, leaving Moreira with Looney or a bench player such as highly-touted freshman Thomas Welsh. Parker is prone to foul trouble; he’s played a number of games in which he picks up a lot of fouls rather quickly and gets limited minutes. However, he turned it around in the Pac 12 tournament. SMU’s big men need to look to get him out of the game by getting him in foul trouble. Moreira isn’t as much of an on-the-block scorer, but still poses a threat on offense and as a rim protector (as long as he doesn’t get too many goaltending calls). The 7-foot Welsh will see a fair amount of time at center too, but plays a little more like Moreira.
Bottom lineNo one can doubt UCLA’s talent, but the Bruins have underachieved their talent level all season long. They suffered bad losses in which their offense did not show up, and others where their defense was nonexistent. One other area to note is that Powell, Alford and Hamilton all play over 80 percent of UCLA’s minutes, while Looney isn’t far behind at 76 percent. Parker plays 57 percent of the team’s minutes. UCLA isn’t a particularly deep team either; Welsh is the only other player averaging over 15 minutes per game (15.8). reserve guard Noah Allen averages 12 minutes per game and forward Gyorgy Goloman averages 11, but they aren’t relied upon for much production. Fatigue is always something to keep in mind with a team that has four starters play 30-plus minutes per game, so if SMU is aggressive with attacking on offense and jumping to the ball on defense (especially the guards), UCLA could get gassed as the game goes on.
SMU has played sound basketball in almost every game since conference season began, but it will still be interesting to see how the Mustangs come out against their first non-conference opponent since December. The formula will be the same: ball movement, big-to-big passing, scoring in the paint, getting Nic Moore going and playing tight defense. UCLA was surprise at-large selection to many, but the Bruins still have skill and are capable of pulling an upset.