Preview of VCU

After losing to Villanova Wednesday, UCLA now takes on VCU in the third-place game of the Preseason NIT, and the Rams are formidable, with the kind of backcourt that gives UCLA fits...

The UCLA men's basketball team suffered its first loss of the season on Wednesday night, 82-70, to #7 ranked Villanova in the semifinal round of the Preseason NIT.

Because of that setback, the Bruins will play in the third place game on Friday afternoon against the Rams of Virginia Commonwealth. Even though it's only the fifth game of the season it really is a critical game for the Bruins as they move forward. With a game at Kansas looming next week the game against VCU represents an opportunity for UCLA to be sure they leave Phog Allen Fieldhouse with a winning record and it would allow the young Bruin team to play with much less pressure on them.

UCLA will be facing a VCU squad that should be hungry for their second win of the year against a BCS school. The Rams crushed Wake Forest last week in the second round of the NIT and even though Wake is pretty poor this season it was still a win versus an ACC school. Couple that with the close game that the Rams played on Wednesday when they lost to Tennessee and it's probable that the Rams will be pumped for the contest knowing they have a very realistic chance of winning.

The Bruins didn't exactly play a strong game against Villanova, but, as Greg Hicks pointed out in his game review, the Bruins didn't quit, which was a radical departure from last year's squad. The good news is that the Bruins played a pretty mediocre game, especially in the first half, and still were in it until close to the end. The bad news is that the things that killed UCLA on Wednesday, namely quick guards who easily got to the rim and timely outside shooting, are the staples of the VCU offense. There are some obvious differences, however, that make this game very winnable for the Bruins. In fact, unlike the Villanova game where the Bruins needed to not only play well but probably needed to have Villanova be off their game a bit, this contest really should come down to how UCLA plays. If the Bruins play with fire and intensity, as they did in the second half on Wednesday, they should win the game.

VCU coach Shaka Smart plays an offensive system that is very similar to Villanova's. The Rams almost always have three guards and two posts on the floor and the posts aren't all that big. The biggest difference between the Wildcats and the Rams, other than the obvious talent difference (UCLA may not face a better backcourt than Nova's for the rest of the season) is that the Rams focus on getting three-point shots as the key part of their offense.

For the Rams it all begins with their guards. They start seniors Joey Rodriguez (5'10" 175 lbs.) and Ed Nixon (6'4" 210 lbs.), as well as junior Bradford Burgess (6'6" 225 lbs.). All three of these guards are primarily outside shooters with the three of them combining to attempt 64 thre-pointers in only 4 games. Rodriguez is the leader of the group, averaging 43% from behind the arc and 15 PPG. He is the quickest of the Ram guards and after watching Lazeric Jones struggle to keep any of the guards he defended on Wednesday in front of him the thought is that Rodriguez will try to take advantage of his quickness. Rodriguez is the team's point guard, averaging over 8 APG.

Nixon is a role player and may not even start. He is more of a slasher in the mold of Malcolm Lee and, among all the Ram guards, he will be the most likely to try and get to the rack. He's only shooting 30% from the three-point line so backing off him a bit and inviting him to shoot from deep may be a better option.

Burgess has good size for a wing and is pretty good both inside and out. He averages 15 PPG and is the second-leading rebounder on the squad at 5.5 RPG. Of the three starters in the backcourt Burgess is probably the player the Bruins want shooting the ball from outside. Even though he's made 9-21 from deep he struggles against better teams (against Tennessee and last year against teams with length).

The best player on the Rams may very well be senior guard Brandon Rozzell (6'2" 185 lbs.). He is the team's leading scorer at 18.2 PPG and is the one Ram who had a very good game against Tennessee (he scored 23 against the Vols). He is almost exclusively an outside shooter, having attempted 31 of his 47 shots from beyond the arc. He is the instant offense for Smart off the bench and almost always can stretch a team that plays man defense.

The main player for VCU down low is senior Jaime Skeen (6'9" 240 lbs.), who averages 13 PPG and leads the team at 8.5 RPG. He's a shot-blocking presence averaging more than 2 BPG. He will be on the court all game unless he gets in foul trouble. He has good athleticism but is a hit-or-miss proposition when shooting outside of 8 feet.

Junior Toby Veal (6'8" 235 lbs.) is the other frontcourt player who sees the floor for extended minutes. However, it would be highly surprising if Veal plays more than 15 minutes as the best line-up for the Rams is probably a small quick one.

While the Rams do go 8 deep, Smart generally plays his big 5 players for over 30 MPG. Because the game should come down to a style issue, the assumption is that VCU is going to go small, look to push the ball and press a bit on defense with trapping in the halfcourt.

If the Rams go small that means Smart will move Burgess to the ‘4' spot. The Rams will then have players who are 6'9", 6'6", 6'4", 6'3" and 5'10", and will be a lot smaller than the Bruins. They will certainly look to spread the floor, looking for the player matched up with Jones or Jerime Anderson, and have that player try to take the Bruin point off the dribble. While Jones battled hard against Villanova he was simply overmatched. Anderson actually looked better than Jones on both ends of the floor and, defensively, even when he knew he was beat he tried to funnel his man to where he thought help would be in the lane. In fact, if the Bruins play team defense like they did for much of the second half against Villanova then they should win this game fairly comfortably. Coach Ben Howland made a few subtle adjustments at halftime that worked well. For a long period in the second half the Bruins held Nova to less than 20% shooting from the floor. The adjustments included having the Bruin bigs hold their hedges longer until a teammate recovered from being engaged by a screen. This forced the Nova guards to move laterally and gave them less leverage to get into the lane at an angle of their choosing. The second adjustment was to have UCLA's ‘4' and ‘5' players play a bit more off their man, thus being more available to help when one of the guards was beaten off the dribble. While VCU will more than likely have 4 players on the floor at any given time who can shoot from outside (Nova only had 3), it will still allow Josh Smith, Anthony Stover or Brendan Lane to cover help areas in the paint as Skeen isn't going to hurt the Bruins with his outside shot.

Defensively the Rams will throw a lot of press, traps and zone at the Bruins. Although the Bruins struggle with their outside shooting they actually looked better running against Villanova's zone than they did against the Cats when they went man. The key will be for UCLA to limit their turnovers against the pressure defense and be patient, knowing that their should be a lot of open space on the weakside for easy buckets.

The Bruins should almost certainly enjoy a rebounding advantage and they have the biggest personnel mismatch on the floor in their favor in the presence of Smith. The Bruin frosh made the entire Nova front line look like they were JV players when he got the ball on the low block. The key is when he got the ball. The Bruins actually passed up quite a few entry passes to Smith and threw a few others to the guys in the wrong colored jerseys when they attempted some lobs. Still, Smith is a fantastic weapon and, if his teammates get him the ball (and he stays out of foul trouble), he should be able to dominate on both ends of the floor.

Although VCU runs a very similar offense to Villanova the talent difference, especially in the backcourt, is pretty telling. That's not a knock on VCU's players; it simply tells you how good Nova's trio is. The Bruins will have prepped for this game by having played Villanova. VCU, on the other hand, played a team that is the polar opposite from the Bruins when they faced Tennessee. Tennessee gambles a lot on both ends of the floor. While it leads to some easy looks and forces turnovers it also gives up easy looks and takes a lot of poor shots. The Bruins take poor shots, too, but they are much more under control at both ends of the floor. VCU also had a lot of trouble with Tennessee's mammoth center, Brian Williams. Josh Smith is infinitely better than Williams and plays with intensity all the time.

That may be the game in a nutshell: intensity. Will the Bruins bring it or not? Last year's UCLA squad tended to fold in games like this one. Wednesday, though, this year's squad played hard and lost to a very good Villanova team. Will that cause them to mail it in on Friday or will they play angry, looking to improve on Wednesday's performance? So far UCLA has answered questions like this in a positive manner this season.

VCU is certainly good enough to win this game. In fact, one could argue that VCU will not shoot as poorly from distance (11-31) as they did against the Vols (especially considering that removing Rozell from the equation made them 5-20). That's why it is imperative that the Bruins bring focus and intensity to the game.

Finally, in a quirk of fate the Bruins last played VCU in the 2009 NCAA Tournament where the Bruins defeated the Rams in the first round by a point. The Bruins then got hammered in their next game against Villanova. Now the scheduling gods have reversed the order of opponents from that 2009 Tourney. If the Bruins play hard then the outcome of the two games will be the same as it was two years ago, only in reverse.

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