UCLA is coming off a huge victory over previously unbeaten BYU while Montana State is coming off a Sunday night loss to UC Riverside. The victory over BYU may have been the most significant win that UCLA has had since the Bruins defeated Xavier to get to their third straight Final Four three seasons ago.
The key for the Bruins is remaining focused in order to build off the BYU victory and not slump to a poor effort much as the Bruins did when they lost to Montana at Pauley Pavilion several days after taking Kansas to the wire in Lawrence. So, the season-long question is yet again: Which UCLA team will show up against the Bobcats?
The Bruins are now to the point where every game matters, especially the games the Bruins are supposed to win. The Montana State game falls into this category because it's a home game against a weaker mid-major team…but so was the game against Montana. Every game matters because of the win over BYU. That victory puts UCLA squarely back into the picture regarding the NCAA Tournament. I know that the bids for the Big Dance don't go out for another three or so months but now that the Bruins have put themselves back in the frame the key is for them not to throw it away…again…like they did against Montana.
The Bobcats come into the game with a record of 6-5, although two of those wins were against non-Division 1 competition. Montana State's best win arguably came against Cal Poly, who the Bobcats beat fairly easily and who the Bruins struggled to put away. However, and this is key, Montana State's wins have all come in Bozeman while they are winless on the road. That includes Montana State's loss to a poor UC Riverside squad Sunday night.
Although I've tried to tie in the Bobcats with the other school in Montana (you know the one), the reality is that there really are many similarities between the Grizzlies and the Bobcat. So much so that Coach Ben Howland better have the Bruins ready to play or they may suffer the same fate as they did when they came out flat and lost to Montana.
Like Montana, the Bobcats have a big man in junior Cody Anderson (6'10" 270 lbs.). While he is built like Montana's senior post Brian Qvale, who killed the Bruins, he isn't as athletic or as skilled. While he pulls down a solid 3.3 RPG in only 14+ MPG, he only averages 3.1 PPG and only has two blocks…on the season! One would think that with a body that large and relatively long that he would inadvertently fall into more than two blocks. He is a three-point threat and does shoot well from the floor (48%) but, compared to Qvale, Anderson is a bit soft. Couple that with the fact that Josh Smith seems to be coming into his own and this looks like a match-up that should benefit the Bruins.
MSU's best player is arguably senior forward Bobby Howard (6'7" 230 lbs.). He is the Bobcats' leading scorer and rebounder at 15.8 PPG and 6.9 RPG. He is an inside/out player who has taken over 1/3 of his shots from beyond the arc, where he's connecting on 36%. He is a bit more of an outside threat than his UCLA counterpart but Howard is in many ways a similar player, both in size and style, as Reeves Nelson. Howard is ostensibly the four in Coach Brad Huse's offense, and in that way he will be different than the 7-footer that Nelson and the Bruins faced when they went against Montana.
The second senior that Huse counts on is Erik Rush (6'5" 210 lbs.). Rush is second on the team in scoring and rebounding at 15.5 PPG and 4.5 RPG. He is also an inside/out player who slashes a bit more than Howard and is a better foul shooter. Their numbers are virtually identical from shot attempts to turnovers. The only real difference is the 2 inches and 20 pounds that Howard has on Rush. Rush has the capability to go off on a hot streak if he is guarded lazily so it will be imperative that Malcolm Lee and the rest of the guards plays with as much intensity as they did when they beat BYU.
Huse's point guard is a junior Rod Singleton (5'10" 185 lbs.), who may be the most dangerous person on the floor for the Bobcats as he's quick enough to bother UCLA's guards, can shoot the three-pointer (although he doesn't shoot it often enough for Huse) and is a solid distributor with the ball (44 assists to 24 turnovers). Still, while Singleton averages 8.9 PPG, he would really have to perform out of character to "go off" on the Bruins on Tuesday.
The small forward is senior Danny Piepoli (6'6" 205 lbs.), an average player with average athleticism who plays hard but will now be dealing with UCLA's Tyler Honeycutt. This may be the biggest mismatch of the game and that's saying something considering Josh Smith will be in the building.
There are a few other Bobcats who will provide some minutes, like junior Jordain Allou (6'7" 200 lbs.) who plays strictly in the post, and freshman Shawn Reid (6'5" 195 lbs.) who is a three-point specialist.
It isn't the player personnel that will give this game its best flavor but rather the match-up of styles. Montana State is first and foremost a three-point shooting team. Roughly 40% of their field goal attempts this season have come from behind the arc. That's simply a ridiculous number of shots attributable to the three-point line. The Bobcats get a lot of open looks over the course of a game, but they simply don't hit many. They are only connecting on 36% of their collective three-pointers this season and, outside of Reid, the Bobcats have no one making more than 38%. The Bobcats are shooting pretty consistently from behind the arc, though, and when they've had a bad shooting game from distance, as they did against Riverside, they have followed it up with a good shooting game. The only completely abysmal shooting game they had was against Iowa State, the only other BCS conference team that MSU has played this season, and the Bobcats were 30% from behind the arc as they turned the ball over 19 times and were outrebounded by 5.
The offensive sets that Huse runs really combine elements of the dribble drive motion and the Princeton spread. It is an effective offense to run when you know that you'll play teams that shouldn't be ready for it. It is designed to spread out the defense and get the occasional backdoor lay-in, but the main design is to get off-angle passes leading to open three-point shots. The key for this to work is the ability of the offense to consistently get to the paint when faced with a one-on-one situation. That appears to be very difficult for the Bobcats to accomplish against better athletes and the Bruins will be the best team on MSU's schedule up to this point.
The proverbial mortgage can be bet on the fact the MSU will run a variety of zone defenses. That should be much less of a concern for the Bruins after UCLA simply tore apart the BYU zones time and time again. It was so bad at certain points that BYU coach Dave Rose put his team into a man defense simply because the zone wasn't working and BYU is not a man team. BYU's defense is much better and athletic than is Montana State's. That's not to say that MSU can't be effective running zone against UCLA. If Smith gets into foul trouble and the Bruins struggle from outside the arc then MSU can pull off the same result as their State brethren did a little over a week ago.
The final and critical piece to this puzzle is the question of UCLA's motivation. There is only one game this year that had anywhere near the feel of this one and that was ironically the Montana game. The Bruins had just come off a very good effort against a top-ranked team and obviously tanked in their next game. The Bruins played their best game of the season on Saturday and now face a team they should beat but that is good enough to upset the Bruins in Pauley if the Bruins mail it in.
Expect the Bruins to have learned from the Montana experience, having grown enough since so they won't fall on their collective face again. However, that doesn't mean the game won't be sloppy. The Bruins will miss shots they were making on Saturday. The key is that they won't lack the intensity it took to beat BYU.
One step at a time for the Bruins…one step towards the NCAA Tournament. It'll look closer than it is…
Montana State 60