UCLA is coming off a disastrous trip to Hawaii where the Bruins lost handily to both Kansas and Michigan and fell to 1-4 on the season. Although the Bruins picked up their first win of the season when they beat Chaminade in the first game of the Maui Invitational, there's no getting around the fact that the Bruins are off to one of their worst starts in the program's storied history. The Bruins are 0-4 against D-1 competition and the game against the Waves is now critical for UCLA to stave off a complete meltdown for the remainder of the season.
The Waves are 3-2 so far on the season, with its biggest win two weeks ago over Arizona State (66-60).
Coach Marty Wilson, who is a former Wave player and is in his first season as Pepperdine head coach (although he was interim head coach for 13 games in 1996), has an experienced line-up that has many of the same players that gave UCLA fits last year before dropping a 79-69 decision to the Bruins. Although the Waves were picked to finish second-to-last in the preseason WCC media poll, below a Loyola Marymount team that already beat the Bruins this season, Pepperdine is the kind of team (three-guard line-up) that has already proved to be tough to handle for the Bruins.
Wilson's three-guard line-up took a serious hit this past summer when Pepperdine's best returning player, senior guard Lorne Jackson, tore his ACL. Jackson is probably going to redshirt this season. However, Wilson still has three players that could give the Bruins serious trouble. Juniors Caleb Willis (6'2" 220 lbs.) and Joshua Lowery (6'3" 195 lbs.) start alongside sophomore Norwegian sharpshooter Nikolas Skouen (6'4" 190 lbs.). Both Lowery and Willis are able to play either guard spot and its unusual how their respective statistics are so similar. Willis is averaging 9.5 PPG while Lowery averages 8.5 PPG. Lowery averages 4.3 APG while Willis averages 3.3 APG. Willis is the much better three-point shooter (8-12 on the year) but Lowery is much better at getting to the foul line (23 attempts to Willis' 16). They both turn the ball over at the same rate.
Skouen is almost strictly a three-point specialist. 18 of his 26 shot attempts this season have come from beyond the arc (where he's hitting at 50%) and he's only been to the free-throw line twice. Still, with the way the Bruins allowed Michigan's Zack Novack to light them up with a career day, discounting Skouen's ability to beat the Bruins from outside would be naïve.
Wilson really doesn't have any depth at the guard position. Freshman Jordan Baker (6'3" 185 lbs.) has been the only guard off the bench since senior Dane Suttle Jr. (6'6" 210 lbs.) suffered an ankle injury. Baker isn't careless with the ball but he does average as many turnovers per game as he does assists. Further, he's not shooting particularly well, although he did break out with 14 points in Pepperdine's last game on Saturday against Texas San Antonio. Baker is much more like Lowery in that he'll slash to get to the basket, but he does have the ability to shoot the three-pointer. Suttle's availability is in question. He hasn't played in the last two games for the Waves and the ankle injury seems to be a chronic problem. Although he's only averaged a little over 12 MPG on the season, he is a former starter and he would provide leadership and moxie as well as depth.
Because UCLA's man defense has been so poor this season, the key to stopping Pepperdine is preventing or limiting dribble penetration. The Bruins have been pretty bad at help rotations, both on the primary rotation and especially on the secondary rotation. If UCLA can keep the Pepperdine guards out of the lane for much of the game then it would go a long way to helping the Bruin cause. It remains to be seen if the Bruins can do that.
Up front, Wilson starts seniors Taylor Darby (6'8" 230 lbs.) and Corbin Moore (6'10" 235 lbs.). Darby leads the team in scoring (12 pts/game), while neither is a big offensive threat and certain neither are outside threats, although Moore did hit a desperation three (the first of his career) against UTSA on Saturday to send the game into overtime, a game the Waves eventually won. Both are Pepperdine's two leading rebounders, with Moore averaging close to 10 RPG and Darby averaging almost 6 RPG. They combined for 25 boards in Saturday's victory. They have similar offensive games in that they both like to play with their back to the basket, although Darby will face up and drive, while Moore will step out for the 10-foot jumper. They get to the free-throw line where Darby is adequate but Moore is almost automatic. Darby is athletic and he gave the Bruins trouble last season, but Moore is unlike any of the posts UCLA has faced yet in that he isn't very athletic and doesn't move well, plus he doesn't like to step outside. He is very crafty, though, and will find a way to impact the game through his rebounding if the Bruins aren't careful.
Wilson's depth in the post is marginally better than what he has in the backcourt. Freshman Ramon Eaton (6'7" 200 lbs.) and sophomore Hector Harold (6'7" 205 lbs.) will get almost all the minutes off the bench. Eaton is strictly an inside player who is the slightly better rebounder and interior defender while Harold is the better offensive player and has a bit of an inside-out game. Harold will be more of a match-up problem for the Bruins because of his athleticism.
The Bruins have a huge advantage in the post because Pepperdine can't really throw long, athletic players at UCLA's defense. Further, UCLA has been hurt by opposing post players that can step outside of the paint and hit the outside jumper. Really, only Harold is capable of that that kind of game. It wouldn't be surprising to see Wilson go with a smaller line-up, especially if either Darby or Moore is struggling. Finally, although Wilson has the Waves running a type of basic motion offense, expect them to try some variation of the dribble-drive offense with four players around the perimeter trying to spread the Bruins' defense out and driving for shots or kick-outs to open three-point shooters. This has been the recipe for attacking the Bruins this season and even a mediocre coach is going to catch on to what the Bruins can't so defensively.
As much as a preview can speak to the tendencies and personnel of an opponent, this game, and really, the season, is all about the Bruins. First and foremost is Coach Howland. UCLA has obviously played poorly this season and there are probably a myriad of reasons for that. The team, while not world-beaters, is certainly better than their record and performances have shown up to this point. The responsibility for getting that talent to mesh is really up to the coaching staff and most especially the head coach. Howland has insisted on playing strictly man-to-man defense this season but the Bruins collectively don't have the athleticism and possibly the determination to run the defense that Howland apparently wants them to run. The BRO basketball forums have been full of threads that address this issue, from personnel decisions to defensive philosophy. Speaking to each in detail would require the writing of a short novel, but there are some keys that can be rehashed. From a personnel standpoint Howland has got to realize that his best defensive line-up, the one that stands the best chance to be successful running Howland's man defense, is one that has three guards and two posts, with one of the posts being Anthony Stover. Any other personnel combination screams out for a zone. This is not to say that Howland should run a zone exclusively, but it should be shown to an opponent at various points throughout a given game because it causes the opposition to have to adjust and allows the Bruins to play more to the strength of the team's personnel. Certainly a coach should teach a system that allows a team's players the best opportunity for success yet still have in place the base system for which the coach eventually wants to be the foundation of either the offense or the defense.
The personnel decisions have been, well, head-scratching, to say the least. The playing time of the David Wear and Travis Wear has been discussed ad nauseum, but it can be argued that the minutes at the guard and wing spots have been just as critical to UCLA's poor start. Obviously Jerime Anderson has been a much better option at the point than Lazeric Jones, while the Bruins have been much better defensively with Tyler Lamb and Norman Powell on the floor. It should be noted that guard/wing De'End Parker was out of all the games in Maui and that certainly hurt UCLA's player rotation in the backcourt and definitely hurt the Bruins' ability to play anything close to decent perimeter defense. Parker's return for Monday's game against Pepperdine is questionable. The Bruins can definitely use him but he will be rusty and then there's always a question as to how much Howland will use him.
Finally, there is clearly a disconnect between Howland and the players. Tracy Pierson has written several times that the character of this team is much better than the past two seasons and if true that means that UCLA's players have the ability to turn things around. However, Josh Smith looks disinterested when he's been on the floor and the spirits of players such as Stover and Powell, not to mention Brendan Lane, has got to be very low based on the distribution of minutes and the seemingly different rules that Howland has for distributing playing time based on mistakes and effort. Then there's the issues with Reeves Nelson that have been talked about continually for the past several years and came to a head about 10 days ago. Certainly the kids (after all, that's what many of them still are) have the ability to lift their spirits and get themselves on the same page on both ends of the floor. However, it really is incumbent on the head coach to get the players to buy in to what he wants to do.
It's pretty clear that it will primarily about how the Bruns can improve rather than how good their opponents are that dictate the season. In terms of UCLA's schedule, the Bruins have arguably played the two toughest teams they're going to see this season in Michigan and Kansas, so there's no excuse for the Bruins to not at least be competitive the rest of the way, unless there are no adjustments on the part of the coaching staff and/or the players simply pack it in mentally. Make no mistake: there is a very real possibility of either scenario happening. In fact, one could argue that one or both scenarios are likely.
For this particular game Pepperdine is fully capable of prolonging UCLA's poor start to the season. However, Pepperdine doesn't have the kind of personnel that has hurt the Bruins up to this point. The Wave guards aren't as quick and athletic as the guards UCLA has faced so far. Certainly the Bruins match up better with Pepperdine's guards than they did with LMU's. Further, the Wave posts are almost strictly inside players with limited outside shooting capability and relatively limited athleticism. This, of course, could be thrown completely up in the air if Howland insists on things like playing David Wear at small forward. If those kinds of things continue, then UCLA is going to make many mediocre players look athletic. Finally, outside of Skouen, who Wear probably can guard successfully, Pepperdine isn't a very good outside shooting team. Now, the Bruins have made several average shooting teams look outstanding, so Pepperdine could go off and shoot over 50% collectively from behind the arc. Because the Waves don't have the ability to drive and kick near as well as some f UCLA's earlier opponents, though, the likelihood of that happening is much less.
UCLA should win the game. The key, though, for Howland, the players and the fans is to look at the demeanor the Bruins display individually and collectively throughout the game. Let's see if the Bruins are even in the same book, let alone on the same page…