UCLA lost its first game, against Loyola Marymount, 69-58, while on Sunday, MTSU beat those same LMU Lions in Los Angeles, 58-51. Could the Bruins conceivably start the year 0-2? Yep. That being said, this is a highly critical game for Ben Howland's Bruins. They are coming off a terrible loss, one that could hamstring them for the rest of the season. Whatever room for error this UCLA team had is now gone. They simply can't afford to lose to another mid-major team this season.
While Loyola Marymount isn't very good (which is a scary thought because the Bruins made them look like Gonzaga), MTSU is; in fact they may be the best mid-major squad on UCLA's schedule. However, just because one team beats another, and so on, doesn't necessarily mean that the outcome of a game can be predicted as a loss. In this case, the Bruins probably match up better with MTSU than they did with LMU.
The Blue Raiders come into the game with the Bruins 2-0 on the season, with wins over Austin Peay (the Ohio Valley Conference favorite) and the aforementioned win over LMU. They have done so without their best player, junior wing Jason Jones (6'6" 195 lbs.), who's been out with a disc problem. Still, they have talent and it really is (gulp!) at the guard position. Junior Guard Marcos Knight (6'2" 210 lbs.) has scored 15 points in both of MTSU's games. He has only attempted one shot from beyond the arc in the two games and utilizes his strength and bulk to wear down opponents. He has been to the line 12 times, hitting 10 of his charity shots, but perhaps more impressively he's tied for second on the team in rebounds with 15. He isn't the quickest player in the world and that may be something that the Bruins can use. Because of Howland's insistence on starting David Wear at the small forward spot, Wear may be matched up on Knight. That may not be a terrible proposition, as Knight isn't quick enough to hurt Wear as much as some other players might. Regardless if it's Wear or Tyler Lamb on Knight, the Bruins should play off him a bit when he's facing the hoop. That isn't likely to happen as Howland's defenses have rarely, if ever, done that to a particular player.
Like Knight, junior Bruce Massey (6'3" 195 lbs.) is a JC transfer. Massey runs the point for Coach Kermit Davis' squad and is good about getting his teammates in the right positions on the floor. Massey isn't much of a scorer or even a distributor, but he has done a good job in the first two games getting his teammates to play well on the offensive end of the floor. Also like Knight, Massey isn't lightning quick, relying on his size to be able to get the Blue Raiders in their offensive sets. If Howland elects to go with Lazeric Jones on Massey, at least he won't have to worry about getting beat to the paint like LMU's Anthony Ireland did to him last Friday. Well, as much, anyway.
The third guard in Davis' lineup is junior James Gallman (5'11" 180 lbs.). While his size may give Bruin fans a bit of pause, he's not the quick, jitterbug guard that has bothered UCLA so much in the past (like this past Friday). Gallman is a three-point shooter and lives or dies by that shot. For example, he hit a few in the Austin Peay game and scored 14. Against LMU he went 1-4 and missed both his free throw attempts, finishing with 3 points.
The two guards who provide depth are senior Jimmy Oden (6'3" 175 lbs.) and junior Raymond Cintron (6'0" 195 lbs.). While both are more suited to the two-guard spot, Oden will handle the point in Massey's absence while Cintron is a three-point specialist.
While the Blue Raiders don't have the bulk of the Bruins, they do have the bodies to throw at UCLA and could cause some match-up issues with their collective quickness. The most skilled scorer of the bunch is senior LeRon Dendy (6'10" 230 lbs.), a transfer from Iowa State. Dendy is averaging 15 points in MTSU's two wins as well as 7.5 RPG. He is a tough match-up because of his length and the fact that he can hit the outside shot. More than likely Reeves Nelson will be matched on him and it will be very important that Nelson not play in a funk on defense like he did last Friday or else Dendy may have a stat line like he did against Austin Peay when he scored 21.
The other frontcourt starter is junior JT Sulton (6'8" 230 lbs.), who is strictly a banger. He is the team's leading rebounder after two games, with 19 in 2 games. He can score inside and has enough quickness to cause Josh Smith or Travis Wear to get into foul trouble. The good news for both Bruins is that Sulton likes to play with his back to the basket and that should lend itself to letting Smith or Wear play defense more to their advantage than they did on Friday night.
Sophomore Kerry Hammonds (6'5" 200 lbs.), a true wing player, provides depth at both the wing and in the frontcourt when Davis wants to go small. Hammonds is a solid defender who will score if you let him, both from inside and out. He is one of those "glue guys" every successful team needs. The other frontcourt depth is provided by sophomore Shawn Jones (6'8" 227 lbs.) and freshman Jacques Rozier (6'7" 210 lbs.). Of the two, Jones plays much more, averaging 17 MPG for MTSU. He is a player in the mold of Sulton in that he does all of his work in the paint. Rozier has played all of two minutes this season and is basically on the floor to provide a quick rest for either Dendy or Knight.
The Blue Raiders will mix zone and man defenses and can play either big or small. The key fot them is their defense. They held Austin Peay to 39% shooting from the floor in a 9-point win and held LMU to 33% shooting on Sunday. Granted, much of that had to do with LMU's Anthony Ireland coming back down to Earth. After lighting up UCLA for 21 points on Friday, Ireland only scored 5 on 2-11 shooting against MTSU. Still, the Bruins had trouble scoring against LMU and MTSU plays better defense. UCLA will have to be more patient on offense and get the ball to the right spots on the floor. If Jones can't do it then Howland will have to turn to Jerime Anderson, who will return to the line-up after serving his suspension. As has been written previously on BRO, Anderson has a much better feel for the game. Don't be surprised to see Anderson, Jones and Lamb on the floor at the same time. As poorly as the Bruins played on offense against LMU, it was their defense that really caused the meltdown. LMU shot 10-17 for the game from behind the arc as the Bruins couldn't close out properly, get in help position in sufficient time or even rebound effectively. With LMU scoring on seemingly every possession it was natural for the Bruins to start putting up low-percentage shots from behind the arc because that's what the Bruins thought they needed to stay in the game. Regardless of what happens when MTSU has the ball, the Bruins must do a better job of getting Smith involved in the offense. Patience on offense will allow the Bruins to utilize their advantage in the post. Let's face it: the Bruins are going to have to grind out victories this year.
Defensively the Bruins are lucky that MTSU isn't a great shooting team, either. The Blue Raiders only shot 35% from the floor against LMU. However, more importantly, the Bruins need to play with a sense of urgency. They played against LMU as if all they needed to do was show up because of the four letters across their chest. The Bruins need to realize that those four letters mean something because of the effort and attitude that previous players put in to their seasons. From a tactical standpoint, the Bruins need to improve their help defensive reads. They were very late stepping into the lane with help, and even when they were on time, the secondary rotation (the player that drops down to cover the post's back as the post steps in to help) was late or even non-existent. While that won't improve greatly overnight, it certainly needs to improve from Friday.
MTSU is a much better rebounding team than LMU is and they are very active on the boards, especially at the offensive end. UCLA had better take notice of that and bring the effort on the boards necessary to take advantage of their strength -- namely their size.
As much as MTSU is better than the LMU team that just beat UCLA by 11, they aren't quick like the Lions are, and that's what gave UCLA fits defensively. The Bruins should be able to stay with MTSU much better than they did with the Lions. Couple that with the fact that Anderson returns and UCLA is almost certain to put in a much better effort you can see why the Bruins should win this game. While the Bruins do match-up better against MTSU, this is still a scary game on paper. However, the Bruins simply can't afford to slip up again against a mid-major, no matter how good that mid-major might be. The fact that UCLA does indeed match-up better with MTSU, coupled with the presumed better effort, leads to a UCLA win. I just can't see the Bruins starting 0-2.
Middle Tennessee 61