Other than St. John's, who sits in the low 60s in the current RPI ratings, the BYU game represents the last, best opportunity for the Bruins to achieve a good out of conference win to put on a possible NCAA Tournament resume. BYU is currently a top-10 RPI team while the Bruins are languishing in the 180s or 190s depending on which index is used for analysis. Tracy Pierson has written it before; this game really is the make-or-break game of the season for the Bruins in terms of a possible NCAA at-large bid.
In some ways Coach Dave Rose's BYU squad is the toughest that UCLA will face this year. The Cougars have only one bonafide star in senior guard Jimmer Fredette (6'2" 195 lbs.) but the remainder of the roster is filled with players who know their roles and play very hard. When healthy, the Cougars are a long team that can play man-to-man defense reasonably well and excel at zone defenses. They do lack pure athleticism but more than make up for it with their work ethic and maturity. If the Bruins plan to win this game then they will have to come close to matching the intensity and intelligence that BYU brings to the floor for 40 minutes. While that does seem improbable, it's not impossible.
The Bruins may gain an advantage before the ball is even tossed for the opening tip. Two of BYU's frontline starters, junior Noah Harstock (6'8" 230 lbs.) and sophomore Chris Collinsworth (6'9" 235 lbs.), may be missing from the game. Harstock suffered a nasty concussion and facial cuts in BYU's win over Arizona last weekend. It is 50/50 if he'll play. Collinsworth has been out since the fourth game for the 10-0 Cougars with a severe high ankle sprain. He just got out of the walking boot less than a week ago and it's unlikely he'll play. If both players are out then UCLA's chances at a victory improve dramatically.
BYU isn't a one-man show but they resemble it at times because of the presence of national Player-of-the-Year candidate Fredette. He leads the Cougars in scoring at 23.7 PPG, having scored 33 in BYU's dismantling of Arizona last weekend in Salt Lake City. He can score in virtually every way; he hits 36% of his shots from distance, having made 24 on the season to lead the team. He has taken 177 total shot attempts, which is almost as many as the next three Cougars combined. He is hitting 48% of those shots. He is almost automatic at the free-throw line, hitting 88% of his charity shots, and he's very good at setting up his defender to be taken out by a screen to set up his own shot. He isn't the quickest guy in the world but by no means is he un-athletic, either. He is very strong and can rebound with the big boys down low if he is allowed to use his body as a shield. Fredette is so much of the BYU offense that if he is in any way slowed down, let alone stopped, BYU is toast. The problem for opponents is stopping him. If Coach Ben Howland was going to pick a player to defend Fredette it would more than likely be Malcolm Lee and thanks to the fact that Fredette is a shooting guard, that's exactly the match-up that Howland will get. Fredette can take over the duties at the point but because of Rose's offensive system, which is predicated on getting Fredette shots as the first offensive option, much of the ball distribution duties fall to others. So, regardless of whether Fredette is playing the point or the "2," expect Lee to be on him. There is, however, a lot more to defending Fredette than the one or two players who might be assigned to him. To slow down Fredette will take a team effort with good rotations off screens so that Fredette as rarely as possible gets a clean look at the basket. Many of BYU's set plays are designed to get Fredette open looks so expect him to get double-screens and re-screens to free himself up. Lee and company need to even watch out for the backdoor plays that Rose likes to run for Fredette at least a couple times per game.
In the win against UC Davis, Howland had the Bruins going underneath screens and sagging a bit defensively, almost playing a complete lane denial defense. It worked well against Davis' offense, which looks for a lot of back cuts. However, even though Davis had a lot of open looks from beyond the arc, Howland may have more than the Mustangs in mind when designing a defense to combat Fredette. If Howland has to pick his poison with Fredette then Howland would surely like to see him have to put the ball on the floor to get his shot off rather than have him squared and set coming off a screen and pass. Expect a combination of ball pressure and denial and lane-denial defense by the Bruins. More specifically, expect the Bruins to chase Fredette with the idea that he'll have to curl off screens to get good looks and, if he decides to drive, the Bruins should have numerous shot blockers in the paint.
There is a philosophical battle here, as well. When Pete Maravich was scoring more than 40 PPG for LSU in the 1970s, some coaches elected to try and limit his points so as to beat the Tigers. Others tended to play with the idea of allowing Maravich his points but making sure that no one else on the Tigers had a good offensive game. More often than not the second option worked better than the first, but when it didn't then LSU won big. In defeating Arizona this past weekend by 22, two other Cougars scored in double figures and several Cougars hit timely shots, but no one came even remotely close to really hurting the Wildcats other than Fredette. In the Howland Era at UCLA, the Bruins have sometimes done well at shutting down big-time wings/guards (think Klay Thompson) and sometimes not (think Derrick Rose). The one constant has been that when UCLA has gotten burned by very good wings/guards, those players have typically been bigger than the Bruin defending them, and Rose is a prime example. Lee, Tyler Lamb and Jerime Anderson, however, are all taller and longer than Fredette, Lee especially so, and Howland will hope that the length the Bruins can employ will slow down the BYU senior.
The other Cougar starter in the backcourt is senior Jackson Emery (6'3" 190 lbs.). To emphasize the point that BYU is very reliant on Fredette, Emery is the only other Cougar who averages double figures (11.4 PPG). Emery is better than Fredette at taking care of the ball, having a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He's a solid rebounder for a guard, averaging just under 4 RPG. Like Fredette he is an outside shooter, averaging 34% from outside the arc on 64 attempts. In fact, Fredette and Emery have attempted more than half of BYU's 217 three-pointers this season. He is built similarly to Fredette and, like his more accomplished teammate, Emery lacks elite athleticism but is very strong. Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones will be challenged to make Emery even slightly irrelevant in this game. Jackson doesn't try to get inside as much as Fredette, having attempted 2/3 of his shots on the season from behind the three-point line. Like Fredette, the Bruins would be better off forcing Emery to have to put the ball on the floor rather than let him shoot off screens.
With the possible absence of the aforementioned Collinsworth and Harstock, the frontline of the Cougars becomes much thinner in terms of depth. Sophomore Brandon Davies (6'9" 235 lbs.) will certainly start at one forward spot. Davies averages 9.9 PPG and 4.6 RPG and is strictly an inside player, having not attempted a single three-pointer this season. He is shooting 58% from the field and knows how to use his body on the offensive end. However, he's only averaging a little over 18 MPG on the season because he is prone to foul trouble. More than likely Reeves Nelson and Brendan Lane will be matched on Davies. Nelson is stronger than Davies, although the BYU forward is longer than Nelson and Nelson has traditionally had trouble with longer players. Lane is longer than Davies and can certainly cause problems for the Cougar sophomore when BYU has the ball.
If Harstock doesn't play then his minutes will go to junior James Anderson (6'10" 240 lbs.). Like Davies, Anderson is strictly an inside player but isn't anywhere near the shooter that Davies is; Anderson is shooting 29% from the floor for the year. He is a big body, though, and when he plays he isn't on the floor for his offense. In BYU's win over Arizona it was Anderson who effectively shut down Arizona's star post Derrick Williams, even though BYU played mostly zone. Williams is more of a slashing player compared to the Bruin Anderson will more than likely match up against – Josh Smith. Assuming the Bruins can get the ball inside against BYU's inevitable zone defense then Smith should be able to push Anderson (and anyone else BYU has in the post) all over the place. If Harstock is out then getting Anderson into any sort of foul trouble will spell doom for the Cougars' chances as they will then be terribly outmanned on the boards.
If Harstock does play he brings experience and skill to the court. Harstock averages 9.8 PPG and 5.6 RPG, which is second on the squad. More than that, he is BYU's best interior defender in either zone or man defense. Unlike Davis and Anderson, Harstock will step out beyond the arc and hit the three. As stated previously, if Harstock can't go then it seriously hurts BYU's chances.
Chris Collinsworth's younger brother Kyle Collinsworth (6'6" 210 lbs.) starts at the small forward spot. Kyle, a freshman, is the more talented of the Collinsworth brothers but he brings a different skill set to the table than does his older brother. Kyle is a very good passer, being second on the team in assists to Fredette. He still needs to work on his outside shooting, being 0-6 from distance and shooting only 44% from the free-throw line. In many ways he is BYU's poor-man's version of UCLA's Tyler Honeycutt. He's not as flashy but he doesn't make as many flashy mistakes, either. He's at his best when he's creating chances for his teammates.
Rose plays a nine-man rotation, but that's when everyone's healthy. It remains to be seen what type of rotation Rose will have if both Harstock and Collinsworth are out. Of the players that come off the bench the two most likely to make an impact are senior Logan Magnusson (6'6" 210 lbs.) and junior Charles Abouo (6'5" 215 lbs.). Magnusson is a typical Rose player in that he plays hard and knows his role. He essentially plays when Kyle Collinsworth needs a breather. He's not a big scorer but he's not asked to be. Abouo may be the team's best overall athlete. He is more of an outside shooter but he's struggled in that area at times this season, only hitting 8 of 26 from beyond the arc. Abouo would actually be leading the team in total rebounds (he averages 5.9 RPG) if he played more minutes.
Sophomore Brock Zylstra (6'6" 210 lbs.) comes off the bench to provide instant outside shooting. When he's on he'll play about 15 MPG but, if he's off, and Rose tends to make that decision after watching Zylstra for only a few minutes, then Zylstra will be lucky to see the floor for five minutes.
Counting Zylstra that means that Rose can have his pick of four players who are physically similar to play what is essentially one position, and that may be a huge factor. BYU is going to show UCLA a great deal of active zone defense and in spite of Fredette and the other individual match-ups that BYU presents the Bruins, it is how UCLA deals with the zone defenses which could very well decide the game.
BYU played primarily zone against Arizona and it paid off because the Wildcats provided a clinic on how not to attack the zone. They were stagnant on offense, took ill-advised shots from beyond the arc and didn't get back when BYU used the rebounds off those misses to get out on the break.
To attack the zone UCLA must remember a couple of things. First, no matter which zone BYU utilizes the reality is that virtually all halfcourt zone defenses fall into a 2-3 zone after the first pass to the wing is made. From that standpoint then the Bruins must look to get the ball inside where Smith can do damage to BYU, easily being the most dominant player on the floor. The second thing the Bruins must do is to move the ball quickly. BYU isn't quick but they are long and that length really bothered Arizona. If UCLA moves the ball quickly to reverse the floor they then offset that length and accentuate BYU's lack of quickness. Finally, the Bruins need to look to drive the baseline against BYU. The Bruins are more athletic along the front line and BYU looked to push their bottom players in the zone up a bit from the baseline, thus opening it up for drives.
As has been usual, the question that remains is which UCLA team will show up. Will it be the one that should have beat Kansas or the one that fell flat against Montana? After all the match-ups and tactical scouting, if the Bruins play with fire and passion then things should look pretty good for them at the end of the day. When focused the Bruins tend to play well on offense and make good decisions, but more importantly they play more inspired on the defensive end.
If the Bruins can at least slow down Fredette somewhat then they should be in good shape. They need to attack the BYU zone with purpose and play defense the way they did against Kansas. That still may not be enough. BYU is a team with some battle-tested seniors in its line-up, something UCLA lacks. The Bruins, however, need to play and should be playing with more urgency than the Cougars. If it was known for sure that Harstock and/or Collinsworth were out then the Bruins would have the edge. Without knowing that until game time, and not knowing which Bruin team will show up, this game really is a crapshoot in terms of trying to predict the outcome.
UCLA should really bring their best effort; there's no excuse not to. And if the Bruins fail to do that then they deserve to lose their last chance to make a statement before Pac-10 play begins.
One final item: the win over Vermont last week aside, BYU is a much different team when playing in Utah then when playing outside of it. The Cougars had difficulty with South Florida (OT win) and St. Mary's (one-point win) in Puerto Rico and had a difficult time polishing off a very average Creighton team in Nebraska. This game is in Anaheim and should be more of a home game for the Bruins.
With that in mind, let's go with this (fingers crossed)…