Preview of the Pepperdine Game

While UCLA is better on paper than Pepperdine, the Waves present some challenges -- namely, their athletic point guard, but also the prospect of how much intensity this young Bruin team will bring to the game...

The UCLA men's basketball team returns to action on Monday night when the Bruins host the Pepperdine Waves at Pauley Pavilion in the first round of the Preseason NIT. The Bruins are coming off a relatively impressive opening win over Cal State Northridge, while the Waves are 0-1 after a disappointing two-point loss on the road at Portland State. While the match-ups should clearly favor the Bruins there are some areas of concern for UCLA and Coach Ben Howland and some areas that we fans should pay particular attention to, as UCLA gets ready to take a step up in competition.

Pepperdine is under the direction of Tom Asbury, who is in his second stint as head coach of the Waves. Asbury was the head coach of Pepperdine during one of the most successful periods in the program's history but is having trouble replicating that success the second time around. The loss to a mediocre-at-best Portland State team in the season opener is testament to that. However, the Waves are not without talent and in that area the Waves should offer the Bruins tougher competition than did CSUN last Friday night.

The best player on the Waves is junior combo guard Keion Bell (6'3" 200 lbs.). He is a threat slashing and shooting from the perimeter. He led the Waves with 22 points in their opener even though he came off the bench. Bell missed the Waves' lone exhibition game due to a "minor compliance issue" and that is more than likely why he didn't start against Portland State. It would be surprising if Bell didn't start against the Bruins. Bell scored 22 points against the Bruins last season when UCLA defeated Pepperdine 71-52 at Pauley Pavilion, and he is the leading returning scorer for the Waves, having averaged 18.5 PPG in 2009-2010. He shot 42% from the field and 36% from behind the arc. He took almost 100 more shots than his nearest teammate and attempted more free throws than his next two teammates combined. He is strong enough to force his way to the basket against smaller players and quick enough to beat bigger opponents. He also can elevate well, thus allowing him to get off his three-point shot. Bell does, however, have some holes in his game. He tends to play out of control at times and can just as quickly end a Wave run as start one. His defense is suspect at best. Further, while he shot 75% from the charity stripe last season, he was only 5-10 in the opener. Although Bell has played primarily at the ‘2' throughout his career, Asbury has made it known that he wants Bell to log a great deal of time at the point this year. He led the Waves on Saturday with 4 assists, but he also had 7 turnovers. If he does indeed play the point against the Bruins he'll more than likely be matched up against Lazeric Jones. Jones did a very good job of playing on-ball and team defense against CSUN on Friday, but Bell represents a more difficult individual opponent. Jones will have to play under control and with intelligence, something he did show against CSUN. If Jones, and for that matter Jerime Anderson, can't handle the job of defending Bell then look for Howland to put Malcolm Lee on Bell. While Lee would have an advantage in that match-up that would mean that Jones/Anderson would have to guard a taller and probably stronger player.

Junior wing Dane Suttle (6'6" 210 lbs.) and junior guard Lorne Jackson (6'2" 205 lbs.) will more than likely rack up the bulk of the minutes at the other guard/wing spots. Suttle is a solid player but he is almost exclusively a three-point shooter. Against Portland State Suttle scored 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting but three of those four attempts came from behind the arc. He is not quick and has trouble when asked to put the ball on the floor or to create his own shot. Still, if Suttle has time to set up he will knock down shots. It's important for the Bruin wings, whether it's Tyler Honeycutt or Tyler Lamb, to close out on Suttle quickly. Suttle tends to start his shot well below his shoulders so it is much more likely that a smaller player, like Jones or Anderson, could effectively guard him and take away his shot.

Jackson is more of a traditional combo guard and will in fact share much of the point guard duties with Bell. Jackson will take a lot of three-point shots (as will the whole Pepperdine team, who took more that 1/3 of their total 2009-2010 shots from behind the arc), but he is just as comfortable slashing to the basket. Jackson scored only 6 points on Saturday but has the capability of scoring much more. If Lee does indeed guard Bell then Jackson will present Jones/Anderson with a challenge of keeping him out of the lane.

Sophomores Caleb Willis (6'2" 220 lbs.) and Joshua Lowery (6'3" 195 lbs.) will provide backcourt depth for the Waves, although there is a significant talent and experience drop-off from the aforementioned group. Willis started in place of Bell on Saturday although he only played 9 minutes. Lowery also logged 9 minutes.

Senior Mychel Thompson (6'7" 210 lbs.) is the best Pepperdine frontcourt player. Thompson averaged 11.8 PPG and 5 RPG last season. Against Portland State he went for 11 and 4. He is not a back-to-the-basket threat but is a solid face-the-hoop offensive player. He is certainly quicker than either Reeves Nelson or Brendan Lane and presents both UCLA ‘4's with another opportunity to guard a player they are bigger and stronger than but aren't as quick as. That's the worry; the good news is that Nelson and Lane excelled against a similar player when they shut down CSUN's Lenny Daniel last Friday. Daniel was held to 1 point. Thompson is going to have his hands full trying to guard either Bruin when UCLA has the ball.

If Asbury chooses to go smaller and quicker than senior Jonathan Dupre' should see a lot of minutes. He is a similar player to Thompson (he too went for 11 and 4 against PSU), but he is more of a defensive presence. Dupre' had all three of Pepperdine's blocks against PSU. By going with Dupre' and Thompson in the frontcourt Asbury will ensure that UCLA's Josh Smith and Anthony Stover will have to guard a quicker man. Again, though, both Bruin bigs have shown the capability to guard such a player.

Asbury's other, more traditional post options are juniors Corbin Moore (6'10" 235 lbs.), Taylor Darby (6'8" 230 lbs.) and sophomore Tanner Kerry (6'9" 245 lbs.). Moore and Darby played the bulk of the post minutes on Saturday with Moore scoring 12 and Darby pulling down a team-leading 5 boards. Kerry only played 5 minutes. Moore and Kerry would be at a serious disadvantage against Stover, but especially Smith. If the Bruins pound the ball inside to Smith they should be able to get easy baskets and several of the Waves' post players in to foul trouble.

Outside of Bell the Bruins should have a significant match-up advantage at virtually every position. That means the Bruins should see a lot of zone defense, as Asbury is sure to recognize that may be the only way of stopping the Bruins in the half court. Asbury is also sure to work on getting the Waves back on defense so as to prevent the Bruins from scoring in transition. CSUN attempted this, too, but the Bruins essentially ran them off the floor.

The ability to run a zone offense has been an ongoing issue during Howland's tenure as coach and it appeared yet again that the Bruins became lazy with their passing going against CSUN's zone. The Bruins certainly have the personnel and the athleticism to pick apart a zone, even if they don't have the shooters they've had in the past, and they have more than enough skilled passers to beat a zone (watch Smith when he catches it in the post), but they still run their zone offense in slow motion. That screams that beating the zone is a mental problem that may be exacerbated by Howland's deliberate half court offense since he's been in Westwood. As the Bruins continue to try to run off made baskets and turnovers look for their zone offense to improve as they team slowly gets away from their own perception of themselves as a ‘slow' team.

The question about the intensity the Bruins bring to the floor will be an ongoing one until the Bruins prove they will ‘bring it' game in and game out. They were focused on Friday, but this game presents a different challenge. The Bruins are young and may already believe themselves to be better than they are. Further, the Bruins know they have a much tougher game on Tuesday in the NIT Second Round (especially if it's Pacific, but one thing at a time). This is a perfect scenario for the Bruins to give a subpar effort.

It will be interesting to see if Asbury goes to a press when Jerime Anderson is on the floor. He looked tentative and nervous when dribbling against pressure in the CSUN game (although he did do other things well). In fact, the Bruins generally looked a bit off-kilter when CSUN extended pressure.

The bottom line is that UCLA is simply too talented for Pepperdine to handle on most nights. If this game were in late February I would predict the Bruins to win by 30 or so. However, with intensity and focus an unknown and the fact that in Bell Pepperdine has a player capable of taking over a game (remember there were rumors of Bell transferring to UCLA last season), Pepperdine does have a fighting chance.

Look for the Bruins to struggle more than in their opener, more because of their own performance rather than anything Pepperdine does. However, the Bruins should be able to outscore the Waves in the end. The score won't be indicative of how close this game was at the half.

Pepperdine 67

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