Let's cut to the chase: This is going to be a difficult game for the Bruins. It will be more so without Malcolm Lee, who is out due to an ankle sprain he suffered in the first half of the Pepperdine game.
Even with Lee, the Bruins were going to have their collective hands full anyway with the style of offense that Pacific coach Bob Thomason likes to run, so having all of their best on-ball defenders would have been huge for the Bruins. Instead, Coach Ben Howland and the Bruins will face the Tigers with Lee and probably Matt Carlino out, thus reducing UCLA to only three legitimate backcourt players.
Speaking of Coach Thomason, he is one of the more underrated coaches at the mid-major level. Including his playing days, this is his 27th season in Stockton. He has become the most storied coach in Pacific history, coaching some of the best Big West teams since the days that UNLV dominated, and some of the best players, like Michael Olowokandi. The key to Thomason's success, much like the success of many long-serving mid-major coaches, is his ability to "coach up" the talent he has and his ability to be flexible with his offensive and defensive sets, yet stay true to his core basketball beliefs.
It is in this last area that presents UCLA its biggest challenge and perhaps its biggest advantage. Thomason is a man-to-man guy and believes in the same tenets as Howland, namely a lot of lane denial, a great deal of rotational help and doubling of the post from the weakside post. The difference is that Thomason doesn't actually run that man-to-man defense that much because he simply doesn't have the horses across the board. Specifically for this game, Thomason will certainly know how UCLA has traditionally struggled against zone defenses. For those two reasons expect the Bruins to face mostly a zone defense of one kind or another tonight. Pacific ran a zone almost exclusively Monday night against Nevada.
Offensively the Tigers offer a difficult match-up because they move the ball quickly and efficiently, they spread out enough to create one-on-one match-ups, and they know enough about angles to have at least three players on the floor at a time that can conceivably beat their men off the dribble even if their defenders are more athletic than they are. On top of that, they have five players who are very comfortable shooting the three, although, admittedly, only three of them do it with any level of success.
The Tigers will arguably have the best player on the floor tonight in senior forward Sam Willard (6'9" 225 lbs.), who is the Tigers' leading scorer and rebounder. He's averaging 19 PPG and 13.5 RPG, and he's done it against some tough competition in UTEP and Nevada. He's shooting 50% from the floor, including three of four from behind the arc, and 78% from the foul line. He has four blocks on the year and, even though he has 8 turnovers in two games (tied for the team lead), that's more a result of the ball being in his hands so much rather than of sloppy play.
The other starting frontcourt player is senior Nyika Williams (6'8" 230 lbs.). Williams is strictly a space-eater, having not ever attempted a three-point shot. In fact, having averaged less than 10 minutes over his Pacific career, and only averaging 15 MPG on this season, his game last night at Nevada was a bit of a breakout for him. He had 10 points and 4 boards in only 18 minutes. Even though he starts, Williams will be used as more of a substitute for Willard and the other solid Tiger inside player, senior Pat Eveland (6'6" 225). Eveland is more of an offensive and rebounding threat than Williams simply because Eveland will at least take three-pointers. The trouble for Eveland is that he is only 1-10 from behind the arc in two games. He does, however, average 7 RPG.
The backcourt presents its own sort of challenges, but make no mistake, simply because of the presence of Keion Bell, Pacific's backcourt is not nearly as good as Pepperdine's. The four players who take up the balance of the backcourt minutes are seniors Demetrece Young (5'11" 185 lbs.) and Terrell Smith (6'4" 205 lbs.), junior Jose Rivera (6'3" 185 lbs.) and sophomore Allen Huddleston (6'2" 175.). The two seniors and Huddleston start but Rivera gets starters' minutes.
Young and Smith share the point guard duties, with Young being the more jitterbug in style, and Smith being more like Pepperdine's Bell, at least in size. Young is certainly the more dangerous player here as he does have some quickness, which has been the bugaboo of UCLA's man defense when things aren't going well. The two are tied for the team lead in assists and are within one of each other in turnovers. What separates them other than their size is that Young is more of a scorer while Smith is more of a defensive stopper. Young is also more of a three-point threat.
Huddleston and Rivera are more two guards by trade. Rivera is the designated "instant offense" off the bench as 13 of his 14 field goal attempts this season have come from the three-point line. He is the third-leading scorer on the Tigers. Huddleston is interesting. He's probably the best pure basketball talent on the squad and it's certainly only a matter of time before he explodes. He was reportedly the most celebrated recruit brought in by Thomason in the last decade. The issue for Huddleston this season has been confidence when he shoots. He has been horrible from the floor this year, shooting just 3-14 and 1-8 from behind the arc. Huddleston is a very good athlete, though, and a better defender than Rivera. In fact, Rivera is a sore spot for the Tigers defensively and they will almost always play zone when he's on the floor.
On that, the Bruins should expect to see zone for the bulk of the game. As I said before, Thomason knows the Bruins struggle against zone defenses and Pacific is a lot smaller than the Bruins up front. Add to that that Pacific really only plays seven players and you can see that it makes sense for the Tigers to go zone.
UCLA clearly had a poor opening 17½ minutes last night against Pepperdine, but there are probably some clear reasons for that. The first is that the team seemed out-of-sync once Lee went down with the ankle injury. The second is that UCLA's major weakness happened to be Pepperdine's strength: the back court. The third one, the lack of intensity, I said before the game could be an issue.
If the Bruins play in any way like that tonight then Pacific will win and do so rather easily. However, if the Bruins play like they did during the 26-2 spurt that spanned the half then the Bruins will be heading to New York City and the Garden. The Bruins took advantage of their strength by pounding the ball inside and Reeves Nelson and Josh Smith destroyed the Waves' frontcourt. It won't be that easy tonight, but the strength of UCLA, which is its frontcourt, while not as experienced as the strength of Pacific (its froncourt), has more bodies than do the Tigers and the ones the Bruins have are more athletic than the ones from Stockton. Willard will be a difficult match-up for Nelson, Lane and even Honeycutt and that one match-up could decide the game.
Pacific has five seniors among their top seven players and they know how to play and win away from home. The Tigers are 2-0 on the season with the aforementioned win against Nevada accompanying an even more impressive win at UTEP. Willard went off in both games and probably will to a certain extent tonight. The question will be whether one player can beat the Bruins single-handedly.
Pacific will try and press at time yet they will seek to slow down the game (remember, Thomason only has seven players that get significant minutes). The press could bother the Bruins, although Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones looked pretty good handling the ball last night. Anderson in particular was aggressive and was one of the few Bruins who was cutting into Pepperdine's zone when he didn't have the ball, thus opening up some good looks for himself and other Bruins.
As I was thinking of writing this preview I was sure that I was going to predict a Pacific win at Pauley, but the more I thought about it the more I was unsure of that logic. I thought the Bruins would be flat last night, and they were, but tonight I believe they will be focused and intense. Further, while Pacific has two nice wins this year, Nevada isn't as good as past years and UTEP has nothing up front to have really challenged Willard. This strength on strength may work in the Bruins' favor because they simply have more bodies. Look for Josh Smith to guard Williams when he's in the game and then roll over to Willard when Eveland is in the game with Nelson and Lane taking the quicker player.
In the backcourt I expect that Tyler Lamb will not shoot the ball as poorly as he did last night (1-10 from the field), and Jones has shown that he can more often than not keep the opposing point guard from getting in the paint. Young is quick, but not amazingly so. Finally, Honeycutt will guard either Smith, Eveland or even Rivera, but the question is, who will guard him? He honestly should be able to shoot over most of the Pacific squad.
The game will also be a battle of styles as Pacific seeks to slow down the Bruins' fast break. Pepperdine did a nice job of that last night, even beating the Bruins in the other direction a few times. But eventually the Bruins found their groove and 26-2 later, it was end-game. Even if Pacific can slow down the Bruins, if UCLA can run their zone offense against Pacific the way they did during most of the big run, (Pepperdine went man for much of the second half), then it won't matter what defense Pacific runs.
I think last night many things went against the Bruins. Conversely, tonight I think things will go their way, starting with their focus and intensity. Pacific is a better team than Pepperdine (but the Wave team I saw last night is better than the 7th place team in the WCC), of that there is no doubt, but Pepperdine was a more difficult match-up for the Bruins because of Bell, and especially after Lee went down. Pacific doesn't have that kind of backcourt advantage.
If it goes the way I think it will, the Bruins will have a nice win as they get ready for the Big Apple.