UC Davis Preview

The UC Davis Aggies come to Pauley Pavilion Monday night, a team that isn't very good but could possibly give the Bruins a few more match-up issues than Cal Poly. The question, as it always is: Will the Bruins play with intensity on defense?

The UCLA Bruins return to action Monday night when they host the Aggies of Cal Davis. The Bruins are coming off a less-than-inspiring 11-point victory over Cal Poly on Saturday night while Cal Davis is coming into Monday night's contest after having defeated Division II Notre Dame de Namur 80-53. The Aggies will be the third Big West team that the Bruins have hosted this season.

After putting forth a terrible performance in a deflating home loss to Montana, UCLA was hoping an inspired effort against Cal Poly would catapult them back to the way the Bruins were playing during their season-opening three-game winning streak. Unfortunately what Bruin fans and Coach Ben Howland got was simply a game where the only difference between the Montana and the Cal Poly game was the fact that one opponent was more talented. Ca Poly was certainly the more energetic team. In fact, as Tracy Pierson pointed out in his game review, the Bruins appeared to have been sleepwalking through much of the game, especially on the defensive end. B

While Coach Gary Stewart's Aggies are 4-5 on the young season they only have two victories against D-1 competition. Still, they've been competitive in all of their losses, including giving the Pac-10's Cal Bears all they could handle for about 33 minutes in Berkeley. The Aggies are a different sort of team than Cal Poly, in that they are not quite as athletic but they are longer and taller than the Mustangs. However, because the talent gap between the Aggies and the Bruins is wide the real question of the game, and indeed the rest of UCLA's season, is what kind of effort, focus and intensity the Bruins will bring to the court.

The Aggies have two double-digit scorers in seniors Joe Harden (6'8" 210 lbs.) and Mark Payne (6'8" 215 lbs.). Although both are listed as guards by the Cal Davis media guide they both play the wing and even the four spot. Harden and Payne are both "1-2" in scoring and rebounding with Harden averaging 15.3 PPG and 6.1 RPG and Payne averaging 12.3 PPG and 5.2 RPG. However, they are two very different players. Harden, the team leader, is almost strictly an inside player. He has attempted nine three-pointers on the season but attempted none in his last game. He does like to face the basket, though, and as a mid-range player he has been successful, although he doesn't get to the free-throw line as much as Stewart would like.

Payne is more of a "point-forward." He leads the team in free-throw attempts and assists. He will take outside shots (20 attempts) and he's made 6, which isn't a great average at 30% but it keeps defenders honest. He is on the floor more than any of his teammates and while the Aggies look to Harden for leadership, Stewart looks to Payne. Both Payne and Harden are long and can block shots. Brendan Lane, Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt all had difficulty guarding their men in the Cal Poly game and another insipid performance against the Aggies could have both Harden and Payne going off for over 15 points. The Bruins have a distinct athletic advantage over both and only require a good defensive effort to dominate Cal Davis' two best players.

In the post Stewart starts freshman Mike Kurtz (7' 200 lbs.). He only plays about 14 MPG but he is the only size that Stewart has and, while the Aggies tend to go small for large portions of games against mid-majors, Kurtz might get more minutes because he is the only size that can be put on the floor against UCLA's Josh Smith. Kurtz doesn't shoot well (43%), although he will step outside the arc, and he doesn't rebound well for his size (2.8 RPG). However, Kurtz's real value is protecting the rim with 13 blocks on the year.

The Aggies do have a bit more inside strength in freshmen Alex Tiffin (6'9" 220 lbs.) and Josh Ritchart (6'9" 215 lbs.). Tiffin is more of a perimeter player than Kurtz, but Tiffin sat out Cal Davis' last game and it remains to be seen if he'll play Monday night. Ritchart actually plays the least of anyone in Stewart's main rotation but scores well for only being on the floor about 13 MPG (he checks in at 5.3 PPG).

The backcourt is made up of junior Eddie Miller (6'5" 195 lbs.) and sophomore Ryan Sypkens (6'4" 185 lbs.). Saying this is the Aggies' backcourt is a bit of a misnomer in that Miller plays more of the small forward spot while Payne really plays the "1" and the "2." He averages 8.5 PPG and 3.9 RPG. He is the team's "glue guy" and loves to get floor burns in the service of his teammates.

Sypkens is probably the team's best pure basketball player in that he is a multi-tool athlete. He's the Aggies' best three-point shooter (18-41 on the season; 44%) and can score by getting to the basket and pulling up for the mid-range jumper as well as hitting the deep ball. He does a nice job of getting his teammates involved and is the team's best athlete. His size for a point guard is an obvious plus and he will have a size advantage against either Jerime Anderson or Lazeric Jones.

Stewart does play a 10-man rotation, but that was with Tiffin in the line-up. Still, that means nine players get at least 13 MPG so he tends to keep his players fresh. However, both Harden and Payne rarely leave the floor with both averaging over 30 MPG. It's a good bet that barring a blowout, both will be on the floor for more than that on Monday as the Aggies should play almost exclusively zone on defense. Senior Ryan Silva (5'10" 175 lbs.) and freshman Tyler Les (6'2" 185 lbs.) provide shooting punch off the bench but they both essentially play the two (although Silva will play some point), and both almost exclusively shoot from the outside. Of their combined 37 shot attempts on the year, 31 of them have come from behind the arc. Senior Todd Lowenthal (6'3" 215 lbs.) would normally play the point but, like Tiffin, he sat out the last game for Cal Davis, too. If Lowenthal plays then this game could be drastically different. He doesn't score but he has a better than 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover differential.

As it was against Cal Poly, expect the Bruins to face a zone defense almost exclusively. It makes sense; Cal Poly is going to be overmatched athletically but they are long and they can use that length to clog the lane, denying UCLA's attempts at post-entry passes and force the Bruins to be predominately an outside shooting team. That was the recipe for success for Montana when they beat the Bruins last week.

Two things I noticed when the Bruins played against Cal Poly's zone and they will sound contradictory. First, the Bruins must move the ball much more quickly when passing around the perimeter than they did on Saturday. The defense can't move as quickly as the ball and it would open up passing lanes into the paint. Second, the Bruins must be more patient on offense and not look to hoist up a threee-pointer with a bunch of time left on the shot clock. By swinging the ball quickly several times it should open up a post look for Josh Smith or any other Bruin on the low block. If the Bruins turn into an outside shooting team in this game then it will be a lot closer than it should be.

On defense the Bruins are going to be presented with some match-up issues, namely length. Cal Davis will actually start a line-up that will be longer than UCLA's starting line-up, and that's essentially across the board. While the guess is that Coach Howland will put Tyler Honeycutt on Payne and have Malcolm Lee take Miller, it still leaves the Bruins short at the point and at the four. But because of the athletic advantage the Bruins have they should be able to negate that in spades if, and that's a big "if," they play with intent and focus on the defensive end.

This is the last game the Bruins have to work out the kinks before arguably their biggest game of the year next Saturday against BYU. If there isn't a sense of urgency now I don't know when or if the Bruins will get one. I honestly don't know if they'll will play with fire or sleepwalk through another game. If they do, expect this one to come down to the wire. At least Cal Davis is not a great three-point shooting team, but with the way the Bruins have played defense the past two games, the Aggies could light it up from the outside to the tune of 45% for the game.

I have an uneasy feeling about this one…

Cal Davis 67

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