Last week at this time many UCLA fans were talking about how the Bruins had shown they were a team to be reckoned with this season because of the one-point loss at Kansas. Then came Sunday and the less-than-competitive loss to Montana at Pauley Pavilion. I will go on record to admit how wrong I was in the Montana preview about the kind of intensity and focus the Bruins would show against the Grizzlies. My prediction of a 20-something Bruin win was based on the Bruins learning from their loss at Kansas and using it to play inspired ball. Instead the Bruins came out flat and, while they couldn't execute well against the Montana zone, the real culprit in the defeat was the fact that, for whatever reason, the Bruins "mailed it in."
On Saturday the Bruins host the Mustangs of Cal Poly. It is a real opportunity for the Bruins to start playing the kind of basketball that can make them contenders for the Pac-10 crown and an NCAA Tournament bid. That really is the biggest thing the Bruins can gain from this game, other than a win, of course. Cal Poly is a team very much in the mold of UCLA's first opponent this season, Cal State Northridge. They both play in the Big West and Coach Joe Callero employs a line-up very similar to Northridge's: small. Instead of just breaking down the opponent like I usually do, let's break down the individual match-ups in this one.
The one Bruin that has caught the most heat from UCLA fans has been Reeves Nelson. While he is the Bruins' second-leading scorer and leading rebounder the reality is that he is coming off two sub-par games (Kansas and Montana). Nelson has traditionally had trouble matching up against power forwards and centers that are long and use their size. Against Cal Poly that shouldn't be an issue as Callero starts a "3" at the power forward spot in junior David Hanson (6'5" 195 lbs.). I know Hanson well as I coached against him when he was a high school player in Minnesota. In his prep days Hanson was known for his outside shooting and his above average hops. He was also known for putting up big numbers against middling competition and disappearing when playing more talented, physical teams. The team I coached was one of them. Hanson played at tiny Maranatha Christian School in the Twin Cities suburb of Maple Grove and we played them at their place when Hanson was a high school senior. Hanson finished the game with 12 points, fouling out with several minutes to go as our team rolled to about a 20-point victory. The story was, however, that our star player, a 6'2" point guard who went on to play at a mid-major college, simply dominated Hanson. Our guy had 20 just a few minutes into the second half and caused Hanson to get into foul trouble. Seven of Hanson's points came well after the game was decided. Why do I write all this? Because it shows that while Hanson can shoot and can jump, he isn't strong and was completely outplayed by a shorter, lighter, albeit more athletic player. While Hanson does lead the Mustangs in scoring at 15.4 PPG and averages 5.6 RPG, this is a match-up that Nelson should simply dominate if he wants to be thought of as a very good player, since he'll be facing an opponent in Hanson he can simply out-muscle. Hanson will pull Nelson away from the paint when the Mustangs are on offense, but Nelson did a steady job of helping UCLA essentially neutralize Kansas' Marcus Morris, and Hanson isn't anywhere near the same level of player as Morris. It would further help the Bruins as a whole if Nelson could bring an "A" effort on both ends of the floor.
Tyler Honeycutt is another Bruins who needs to elevate his game after a mediocre-at-best performance against Montana. Honeycutt will be matched up primarily against senior wing Shawn Lewis (6'4" 210 lbs.). Lewis is the Mustangs' second-leading scorer at 13.6 PPG and second-leading rebounder at 6.4 RPG. Lewis is not overly athletic but he is sneaky-quick. That's how he gets most of his boards. Honeycutt is longer, quicker and stronger than Lewis and he needs to utilize those advantages when playing on-ball defense. Honeycutt is a very good help-side defender but he needs to improve his on-ball effort. He has the tools to be a very good on-ball defender, but too many times this season and last Honeycutt allowed an opposing player to get by him too easily. Lewis is an inside-out player who can also shoot the ‘3' so he more than likely will also pull Honeycutt away from the rim. Honeycutt can't be lazy against Lewis or he will start to hit shots and make the game more difficult than it needs to be for the Bruins.
After having a breakout performance against Kansas. freshman post Josh Smith came back to Earth with a below-average performance against Montana. Montana's post players didn't necessarily bother Smith but he played as if the game was coming at him at a million miles per hour. When Smith slows down the game, especially on offense, he simply can't be handled by one player, like what happened at Kansas. But like any freshman can, when Smith allows the game to move too fast for him then he can become his own worst enemy. He'll be facing a much smaller post in Cal Poly's junior Will Donahue (6'8" 265 lbs.) but, make no mistake, Donahue is a load because at his weight and height he is a physical presence that's hard to move. But Smith has 70 pounds on Donahue and Donahue isn't 6'10" with length like Montana's Brian Qvale, so Smith should dominate this match-up. Donahue is strictly an inside player so Smith, Anthony Stover and Brendan Lane shouldn't have to worry when Donahue gets the ball outside the paint, thus allowing the Bruin bigs to concentrate on helpside defense.
The two backcourt starters for Callero are freshman Maliik Love (6'3" 205 lbs.) and sophomore Chris O'Brien (6'4" 205 lbs.). Love is a nice player for the Mustangs but he is still just a freshman. Callero inserted him into the starting line-up after the second game and he's been the primary point guard ever since. He is still learning to run the team but he is the best athlete on the squad and has a huge amount of potential. He's long, strong and quick. It will be incumbent on UCLA's Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones to keep Love out of the lane and force him to take any shot attempts from deep where he is just 1-9 on the season. Take away his poor three-point shooting and Love is hitting 50% of his shots. It would be interesting to see if Coach Ben Howland starts going with the player who is performing better in a particular game at the point. Anderson has been better than Jones, albeit marginally, the past two games and is certainly playing better than last season. O'Brien is the Mustangs' best deep threat, having connected on 7 of 16 shots from behind the arc this season. He isn't a one-dimensional player by any stretch, but he's only making 33% of his 43 shot attempts from the field, including the three-pointers. He is definitely a player that Malcolm Lee (assuming he plays) and Tyler Lamb must force to put the ball on the floor.
In terms of bench depth Callero relies on junior Jordan Lewis (6'5 215 lbs.), sophomore Drake U'u (6'5" 210 lbs.) and freshman Jamal Johnson (6' 175 lbs.). U'u and Lewis are both similar players to Hanson in that they look to shoot from the three-point line more often than inside the arc. The problem for them is that they aren't very good at it, with U'u being 1-14 on the season and Lewis being 1-5. Still, they will give Callero a lot more depth on the defensive side. Johnson will ultimately be the point guard (with Love probably going to the shooting guard spot) in a year or two, but as of right now he isn't shooting the ball well (23% from the floor) and he isn't taking care of the ball (4 assists versus 13 turnovers). He is shifty and fairly athletic and will play solid defense if Callero goes man-to-man.
That's a nice segue to the style that Cal Poly will play. After how poorly UCLA performed against Montana's zone it's a virtual certainty that the Bruins will be facing zones quite a bit this year and almost exclusively on Saturday. Cal Poly doesn't have the kind of length on the bottom of their zone to really bother the Bruins even if they don't execute well but there are some things the Bruins should work on.
First, the primary spot to get the ball in any offense, depending of course on match-ups, etc., is on the block. The Bruins need to make a concerted and smart effort to get the ball inside and not settle for outside looks. That means getting the ball to Smith. If that is closed off, and expect the Mustangs to play somewhat off the Bruins who have the ball at the arc, then the next spot to look is in the high post, specifically at the free-throw line. Both Nelson and Lane give the Bruins a pretty good option in that high-post spot in that they can spin and take the 10-foot jumper, drive to the hoop or pass the ball to an open man either cutting or outside or even a high/low lob. The Bruins haven't done a good enough job yet this season to consistently get the ball to the free-throw line and even when they have they haven't been able to consistently get the player in that spot into a position to attack. Too often Nelson or Lane has been forced to step to the top of the key to receive the pass. If those two options fail then the Bruins still have ways of attacking a zone successfully. The first has to do with spacing, which the Bruins are generally decent at doing. Against a zone there should rarely be a teammate within 6-8 feet of another. This allows the Bruins to spread the floor and look to pass or dribble into seams. That, however, is predicated on the Bruins moving the ball quickly. Too many times this year the Bruins' zone offense has stagnated because one or more of the players on the floor tend to hold the ball entirely too long, thus giving the defense a chance to adjust its shape. By moving the ball quickly and making solid, quick decisions the Bruins won't allow the opposition to get its defense, especially on the weakside, into proper position.
This game really isn't about what Cal Poly will do but how the Bruins will play. It is imperative that they use this game and the next to get ready for BYU, which, as Tracy Pierson pointed out, is the last best hope for UCLA to secure a big non-conference victory. Because Cal Poly is so similar to Northridge, even to the skill level of the respective teams, expect the Bruins to be able to win comfortably. The question is whether it will be the 30-point-something blowout over Northridge or a 15-to-17-point wing. That's dependent on the effort UCLA brings to the floor and until they start showing that on a consistent basis (more than just two or three games in a row), I am now going to assume that their effort will be, at best, somewhere in the middle.
Cal Poly 55