The Bruins are coming off a game that was a tale of two halves, the first of which found them trailing by 17, while the second saw them come storming back to make a game of it. Ben Howland's Bruins trailed by 5 with about 7 minutes to go in the game and had several chances to cut the deficit.
The Wolverines, on the other hand, lost to Duke in their semifinal by an 82-75 score. Frankly, the UM-Duke game was about as much of a contest as the UCLA-Kansas game was, in that Michigan found itself down early, trailed by double-digits at the half and was down big for much of the second half before coming back to make the score respectable after Duke started playing its subs. In fact, the Bruin-Jayhawk game was in more doubt deep into the second half than was the first Michigan-Duke.
UCLA found itself down by 20 early in the second half last night because they weren't patient on offense and they played pretty poor defense. Add to that fact that the Jayhawks seemed to get to every loose ball and you have the recipe for the blowout that was looming. Then something strange happened as Reeves Nelson, Tyler Lamb and Jerime Anderson started moving the ball on offense, hit their open shots and, surprisingly, started playing defense with the intensity, passion and proper rotations of the Bruin defenses from Howland's Final Four years. The final score's deficit was so large because the Bruins simply ran out of gas. Howland played the aforementioned three, plus the Wear brothers, to the point of exhaustion. The question will be whether those three Bruins will have anything in the tank to be competitive against the Wolverines today.
Michigan is not a big team. Coach John Beilein essentially plays seven in his rotation, but it can be argued that only six see the floor. It is a guard-heavy team that relies on the three-point shot and penetration off ball reversal. The three guards that get the bulk of the playing time are senior Zack Novak (6'4" 210 lbs.), sophomore Tim Hardaway Jr. (6'5" 185 lbs.), and freshman Trey Burke (6'1" 175 lbs.). Hardaway is the leading scorer and is a threat from both outside and through penetration but he is more of a jump shooter than a slasher. Novak is almost strictly an outside shooter but does have a lot of court savvy developed over his three years in Beilein's system. The key, though, is Burke. He is quick, can distribute and, most importantly, he can score. Against the Blue Devils, he had 17 points, 9 assists and only 3 turnovers. He is clearly the engine that makes Michigan go, and stopping him will give the Bruins a great chance to win. Senior Stu Douglass (6'3" 190 lbs.) will also get a lot of playing time.
Howland, frankly, did a poor job of player management in terms of minutes last night, basically riding Nelson, Lamb, Anderson and the Wears to exhaustion. UCLA can stay with and beat Michigan if Howland uses his bench more liberally and doesn't allow David Wear to get the bulk of the minutes at the three. Michigan's small lineup dictates that UCLA play with three guards, too. The question then becomes: If Howland indeed plays three guards, will he allow Norman Powell, UCLA's best potential perimeter defender, to play more than the 2 minutes he did last night? Powell, Lamb and Anderson are the best defensive pairing that Howland can play in the backcourt. But, as UCLA fans have seen, and last night is a perfect example, Howland is pretty set in his ways so expect him to go with the bigger line-up.
If Howland does go big then it could help the Bruins on the offensive end. The Wolverines play Beilein's favored 1-3-1 halfcourt defense off dead balls. The Bruins have the personnel to beat that defense over the top with their collective size. However, the Bruins were very sloppy in the first half with their possessions and not turning the ball over is key to beating this defense. Anderson, being a senior, should be ready for the challenge, but will Lazeric Jones? Plus there is the question of UCLA's collective fatigue. In order to keep the Michigan defense honest, the Bruins must hit some outside shots with some consistency. They were able to do that last night in the second half, but there is a question as to whether the Bruins' legs will stand up after the second half effort less than 24 hours ago.
Josh Smith had arguably his worst game as a Bruin last night, fouling out in 13 minutes of play with only 1 point. He simply looks disinterested on both ends of the floor, but part of that could be that he simply doesn't get enough touches to keep him engaged. The good news is that Smith should be well rested for the game tonight. Also, Michigan really only plays two forwards, sophomores Jordan Morgan (6'8" 240 lbs.) and Evan Smotrycz (6'9" 235 lbs.). Neither is especially daunting and get minutes more for their ability to defend and play Beilein's defensive system. Often the Bruins will see four guards and Morgan. Morgan is strictly and inside player, while Smotrycz can step out and hit the three. The Bruins have to take advantage of their size and athletic advantage in the post in order to win.
It could be a matter of who's more fatigued. Against Duke, Michigan's Burke played 39 minutes, while Novak played 38 and Hardaway 36. UCLA's Anderson put in 38 minutes and he's definitely not used to that. Exhaustion tends to affect the mental part of the game, too, and the Bruins haven't exactly been astute so far this season, so expect them to make some really head-scratching decisions with the ball.
Howland also probably hasn't had much time to practice against the 1-3-1 defense. Howland's track record is by far better when he's had time to prepare for the game, and this is definitely not the case.
All of these elements lead to the conclusion that the Bruins will suffer another loss. Really, there are two ways UCLA can win: 1) If Howland gives the bulk of the minutes, especially in the backcourt, to the Bruins that can defend. If David Wear gets serious minutes at small forward, then expect Michigan's quicker guards to take advantage of him. The Bruins have to get stops because, if nothing else, it forces Michigan to play man defense on the other end and the Wolverines' man defense is mediocre at best. And #2) If Howland gives more playing time to all of the rested guys from last night.
I predicted a 68-65 final last night and some people questioned my sanity. After the first few minutes of the second half, I have to admit that I did the same myself. Then the talent that I know UCLA has took over for a stretch and the Bruins made a game of it against the Jayhawks. I don't think that will happen tonight. The combination of fatigue and Howland's personnel decisions will do in the Bruins .