Now on the heels of the two losses in New York the Bruins have to travel to perhaps the toughest place for a visiting team to play in the country in Allen Fieldhouse, home of the highly-ranked Kansas Jayhawks. UCLA is coming off a terrible season and more recently a deflating two games and they have to go on the road to face a program with a 66-game home winning streak. Can the Bruins get a win they sorely need in a most difficult locale? It's possible but a lot of things have to break the Bruins' way.
One of the things the Howland learned in New York is that his team, particularly his point guards, still have a hard time keeping opposing ballhandlers out of the lane. Howland saw his team come out in two straight games fairly flat. Howland saw his team play "stupid" basketball in key situations. He also saw the Bruins play with little energy on defense for a good portion of both games. These are the same things that Howland and UCLA fans saw all of last year, and while this year's team oozes a completely different vibe from last year's dysfunctional squad, the fact is these problems are costing the Bruins games.
Kansas comes into the contest having just beaten Arizona in Las Vegas in a game that was clearly closer than it needed to be. What Kansas showed in that game and so fara this year is a set of rugged and athletic post players and very quick guards, as well as the ability to hit key shots. The speed at which the Jayhawks play simply seems faster than that of UCLA, because Kansas does it well. If Kansas has one weakness it may be the lack of true depth on the roster and therein lays the slim hope of a Bruin victory.
While this year's version of the Jayhawks doesn't have the marquee "name" power of past teams, they do have two players who look like shoe-ins to play in the NBA in the Morris brothers, Marcus Morris (6'9" 235 lbs.) and Markieff Morris (6'10" 245 lbs.). The two juniors lead the Jayhawks in scoring at 19 PPG and 12.3 PPG and rebounding at 6.3 RPG and 9.3 RPG respectively. They are both legitimate inside/outside threats with Marcus hitting 62% of his threes and his brother connecting on 38%.
Marcus is the better of the two brothers but that's partly because he's not anchored to the post like Markieff is most of the game. Many fans have been harping on Reeves Nelson's lack of effort on defense (VCU's Jaime Skeen did a number on him), but if he takes plays off in this game he's going to be thoroughly embarrassed by the Kansas big man. Marcus Morris is bigger and much more athletic than Nelson, and Brendan Lane, for that matter. Nelson might be Marcus' equal in terms of strength but it isn't enough to offset the advantage that Marcus has on him in virtually every other area. Morris is also a solid defender. If ever there was a game where Howland can show Nelson, "this is what you could be," this is it. Unless Nelson changes his attitude to 40 minutes of supreme effort on both ends of the floor then this is going to be a very hard match-up on the Bruins.
Markieff is also very athletic, but of the two Morris brothers he is the one who is tethered to a certain spot on the floor, namely the low post. If Marcus is a solid defender then Markieff is an excellent one. He is particularly adept at help side defense and weakside rebounding. Markieff is going to be a match-up nightmare for the Bruins because he is much more athletic/quicker than Josh Smith and he is much stronger than Brendan Lane and Anthony Stover.
This will be one of the few times this year that the Bruins are clearly outmatched up front, except in one aspect: depth. Kansas' back-ups in the post consist of sophomores Thomas Robinson (6'9" 237 lbs.) and Jeff Withey (7' 235 lbs.), both of whom are better suited to playing on the low block. In fact, they have combined for zero shots from beyond the arc. Robinson is averaging 10.7 PPG and 6 RPG, but Withey is barely playing (a little over 8 MPG). Neither is near as athletic as the Morris brothers, while Robinson is an average free throw shooter and Withey is worse.
The best hope for the Bruins is to get either of the Morris brothers into foul trouble. Howland can run four guys out there who can bang, and if they can draw fouls from the Robinsons and limit their playing time it would give UCLA a much better chance of winning the game. The key is Nelson. As Greg Hicks has stated, Nelson has all the tools to be a big part of UCLA returning to national prominence, but he has to understand that for that to happen both personally and for the team then he needs to exert a much better effort at the defensive end of the floor. Many Bruin fans will remember last year's game against Kansas when Nelson clearly outplayed Kansas' more-hyped center Cole Aldrich, at least until Nelson caught an elbow to the eye. What people fail to realize is that Aldrich's quickness can be measured in glacial time. This is an entirely different and more difficult match-up for Nelson and the Bruins.
Kansas' advantage at the other three spots on the floor may not be as pronounced as you may think. The point guard for the Jayhawks, junior Tyshawn Taylor (6'3" 185 lbs.), is quicker than either Jerime Anderson or Lazeric Jones, but Taylor, more than any point guard that UCLA has faced except for maybe Pepperdine's Keion Bell, tends to play out of control at times. In short, Taylor's quickness advantage can be canceled out by a smart defender. The other two starters for Coach Bill Self have been seniors Tyrel Reed (6'3" 193 lbs.) and Brady Morningstar (6'4" 185 lbs.). While Morningstar is known as the shooter on the team it's actually Reed who is far and away the team leader in three-point attempts with 28. The key, though is that both have been shooting horribly from distance with Reed checking in at 29% and Morningstar at 31%. They are a collective 13-13 from the charity stripe, though. Reed will slash at times to get to the basket while Morningstar will also in spots, but less so than his counterpart. Neither one of them is killer-quick, though, and it is a thought that perhaps Howland should switch up his defensive match-ups a bit. Lee can clearly guard either Jayhawk wing as can Tyler Honeycutt, if he puts his mind to it. Maybe, in order to cut down on Taylor's ability to penetrate, Howland will switch to having Lee and Tyler Lamb take Taylor while Honeycutt and the Bruin point guards match-up with the other Jayhawk wings.
The primary back-ups are senior Mario Little (6'6" 218) and sophomores Travis Releford (6'7" 207 lbs.) and Elijah Johnson (6'4" 195 lbs.). Little will take shots but he's more of a "glue guy" who will do what's necessary for his team to be successful. Releford is probably the best pure shooter on the team, averaging 67% from the floor and 50% from behind the three-point line. Releford has started two games for Self but Self has apparently not been pleased with Releford's defense or rebounding. However, it's Johnson that has really been in Self's doghouse. There were many who thought that he would start this season for the Jayhawks but he's actually not only not starting but he was benched for two games for what Self described as basically poor play. That's probably coach-speak for something else because Johnson actually is shooting well from the outside and has an unreal 4-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Johnson's confidence, however, has taken a beating and he looked tentative against Arizona last weekend.
While the Jayhawks have the clear advantage in the post, the Bruins may actually have the better backcourt if Johnson continues to play passively. If the Bruins can keep Taylor out of the lane, thus keeping him from finding the Morris brothers with a dish, they may have a shot, and it is conceivable that Lee can do that to the Jayhawk point guard.
The style of play of Kansas should be a concern to Howland. Kansas wants to speed up things and, while they haven't played anyone outside of ‘Zona, no team has been able to slow them down. They press, both man and zone, but it's their zone press that has caused teams fits. It has not only forced the opposition to turn over the ball in the halfcourt it has also forced teams into speeding up their offense and thus take bad shots. The Bruins have been culprits of both without even facing a blistering press yet. This could be a nightmare for the Bruins or it could be the wake-up call they need.
The thing about Kansas is they aren't deep so fouls will hurt them. Also, Self, while a very good recruiter, is not known as merely a fair game coach, with the big knock on him being that he generally doesn't have a "plan B" when team's succeed in taking away his offense.
Still, asking the Bruins to not turn over the ball, be smart on offense, play collectively hard on defense and get certain Jayhawks in foul trouble is more than likely too much to ask. Add to those facts that this will be the first true road game of the season for the Bruins (and what a place to have your road baptism), and it will be too much to handle. Hopefully there will be some growth from this squad during this game. I predicted that the Bruins would play a focused game against VCU and I was dead-wrong. My guess is they bring something close to their "A" game in terms of effort in this one and thus keep the game relatively close.