There has been a great deal written about the reasons for UCLA's poor start, from Coach Ben Howland's supposed intransigence to the fact that the team is playing outside Pauley Pavilion. There have been accusations of poor player management, questions regarding game strategy, recruiting strategy and interpersonal communication skills. Like most things in life, UCLA's early struggles are probably the result of a little bit of each (how much of each remains to be seen), with the addition of a bit of bad luck.
By winning this game, the Bruins could easily begin to make come true Tracy Pierson's optimistic season outlook scenario; one that has the Bruins fighting for an NCAA Tournament berth.
In their two wins, the Bruins were able to play solid half-court defense and overwhelm the opposition with their size and depth up front. In the four losses, UCLA's defense suffered greatly with poor rotations and poor close-outs, but mainly with an inability to keep opposing guards and wings out of the paint.
Texas presents a unique opponent in that they don't fall into either category, although they have elements of teams the Bruins defeated and teams that gave UCLA a "L." They have very quick and athletic guards that are potentially better than any UCLA has faced this season. However, the Longhorn frontcourt is significantly smaller and they lack UCLA's potential depth. Loyola Marymount, Middle Tennessee, Kansas and Michigan all had frontlines that could at least use their size against the Bruin bigs. Texas really doesn't have that option.
While young, the Texas guards are athletic and explosive, and have the potential to be elite sooner rather than later. The problem for Texas coach Rick Barnes, for now, is that virtually all of his guards are freshmen.
Barnes graduated all of his starters from last season's squad, but his one returning player that played starter's minutes is junior J'Covan Brown (6'1" 197 lbs.). Barnes stated in the preseason that Texas would ride Brown's scoring for the early part of the season and this has proven to be true. The ball has been in Brown's hands an inordinate amount of time. He has taken 30 more shots than the next Longhorn on the roster, been to the free-throw line quite a bit and has the most assists of any Texas player. Further, he has only 10 turnovers and is third on the team in rebounding. Needless to say, if the Bruins find a way to shut down Brown then UCLA could win handily. Brown averages 20.3 PPG on 45% shooting from the floor. He isn't overly quick but he is very aggressive. Brown is a more complete player so far this season because he has developed his outside shot (42% from behind the arc) to the point that opposing defenses can't sag off him.
The other two guards that start are both freshmen: Julien Lewis (6'3" 190 lbs.) and Myck Kabongo (6'1" 169 lbs.). Lewis is mostly a three-point threat as roughly half of his shot attempts have come from behind the arc. He's also only been to the free-throw line three times on the season. He isn't a strong rebounder and he turns the ball over much more than he passes it, but his three-point shooting is a serious weapon. He is shooting 38% for the season and has the capability of lighting it up from the outside.
Kabongo was one of the highest rated recruits from the 2011 high school class nationally. He is quick, has good handles and showed in high school that he knows how to see the floor. His introduction to the college game has been inconsistent at best, but he has the potential to give the Bruin guards nightmares. He is quicker than anyone on UCLA's roster, save Norman Powell, and it may be that Howland finds himself putting Powell on Kabongo in order to slow down the Longhorn frosh. Kabongo is coming off his best college game, consisting of 16 points and seven assists, when Texas beat North Texas. However, Kabongo had 3 turnovers in that contest and is averaging 3.3 turnovers per game. Against Oregon State and North Carolina State (Texas' two losses) Kabongo had 5 turnovers and 3 turnovers, respectively. However, Kabongo only scored a single point against the Wolfpack. Kabongo has been to the charity stripe 45 times this season but is only 67% on his free throws. Brown will take over the point duties when Kabongo needs a rest.
The only guard that Barnes plays off the bench for significant minutes is another freshman, Sheldon McClellan (6'4" 200 lbs.). McClellan may get a lot of time against the Bruins as he, like Brown, is a dual threat, being a decent outside shooter but also being able to slash to the hoop and get to the free-throw line. He is actually Texas' third-leading scorer, averaging 10.7 PPG.
Texas has more overall talent in the backcourt than UCLA but other than Brown, it's all freshman talent. The Bruins have more experience with Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson, as well as Tyler Lamb. The key for Howland and the Bruins will be to put the best defensive backcourt on the floor. That probably means that Lamb, Anderson and Powell should get the bulk of the minutes with Jones backing up. If De'End Parker is available and relatively healthy then that will only help UCLA's cause. The question is whether or not Howland will actually play the best defensive combination or if he'll insist on playing Jones or even David Wear as one of the three backcourt players. If Howland plays his best defensive three in the backcourt for much of the game then the Bruins have a real chance of winning and doing so relatively easily. However, if Howland insists on continuing to give Jones significant minutes and playing David Wear at the three, then UCLA will probably be caught flat-footed by Texas' collective quickness. Wear could potentially be a match-up issue for Texas, but he has yet to show that he'll use his size to a significant advantage for the Bruins.
On paper, the Bruins have a significant advantage up front against the Longhorns. Barnes starts two forwards, freshman Jonathan Holmes (6'7" 239 lbs.) and senior Alex Wangmene (6'7" 241 lbs.). Holmes is going to be the biggest match-up nightmare for the Bruins because UCLA simply doesn't have anyone on the roster that can guard him consistently. He is quick, has a good jump shot out to 19 feet, can hit the three (where he's at 40% on the season), and can play either a face-up game or with his back to the basket. Any of Howland's power forwards will suffer from a lack of quickness relative to Holmes. Typically, a Howland-coached team would put ball pressure on Holmes knowing that the back side help would be there from a teammate. However, UCLA's help defense has been atrocious for the most part this season. It will be interesting to see if UCLA's forwards back off of Holmes and invite him to shoot from outside. Reeves Nelson has the potential to make Holmes work hard and would be a match-up problem for Holmes on the other end of the floor, but Howland hasn't played Nelson much since his suspension. The Wears would simply be athletically overmatched by Holmes. Holmes also leads the Longhorns in rebounding at 6 RPG.
Wangmene is, in many ways, Texas' version of Alfred Aboya. He works very hard, plays solid defense and plays longer than his size because of his long arms. However, Texas is only averaging 4 blocks per game and that's against some weaker competition. Wangmene can use his quickness to be a force on the offensive boards so the plan should be for the Bruins to pound the ball inside and nullify Wangmene's athleticism. Big, wide post players have given him issues this season. This is where Josh Smith comes in for the Bruins. If ever there was a game where it would be critical for Smith's light to go on, this is it. Texas simply won't be able to guard him and Smith would stand a good chance of getting Wangmene and his back-up, senior Clint Chapman (6'10" 245 lbs.), in early foul trouble. That would mean, though, that Smith would have to play beyond what he's shown so far this season. He'd have to be dialed in to the game. He'd have to avoid early fouls. He'd have to rotate well on the help side. Most importantly, since Barnes will undoubtedly have Wangmene and Chapman set ball screens for the guards, Smith would have to hedge much better than he has, or go back to "plugging" like he did for much of last season.
Freshman Jaylen Bond (6'7" 227 lbs.) should also get playing time, but he is strictly an inside threat and lacks the girth to stay with Smith or even the Wear twins, if Travis and David decide to use their size on the low block.
That is where the key to the game may lie. Talent-wise, if Smith and Nelson can play the bulk of the game at the 4 and 5, and Howland has the inclination to do so, then UCLA should win the frontcourt battle relatively easily. If the Wears get many minutes in any combination at the 4 or the 5 then they'll have to show the kind of physicality that only Travis has shown this year and that was really only against Pepperdine.
Barnes will certainly run much of his offense through ball screens as he has quick guards and he has likely watched tape of UCLA's struggles to defend ball screens. The Wears are the best at hedging, but the question must be asked as to whether the ability to hedge is worth the struggles the Wears have in other defensive areas.
There are a great many intangibles that will go into this game. Texas is very freshmen-heavy and they are understandably much less comfortable on the road than in Austin. The Bruins are playing this one at the Sports Arena and it hasn't been much of a homecourt advantage for the Bruins. The venue has been half-empty for the first three home games. Texas is a big name, though, and it's on Saturday, so that could contribute to drawing more fans to the game.
Finally, there is Howland and his distribution of minutes; if he stays true to the early part of the season then he won't put UCLA in a position to be as successful as the Bruins could be. If, however, he decides to, as Tracy Pierson put it in a recent front page article, play his most talented players (Smith and Nelson as well as Powell), then UCLA stands a great chance at victory.
The Bruins, regardless of Howland's distribution of minutes, will probably play incrementally better and, perhaps most significant of all, the Longhorns will still be freshmen (mostly). This game is much more important to the Bruins than it is to the Longhorns. UCLA needs this, since a Texas win and one over St. John's later in the season represent the only name non-conference opponents left on UCLA's schedule. How UCLA comes out to start the game and responds to any adversity the team faces as the game progresses should give UCLA fans a pretty good idea of where the season is headed.
This is one of the hardest games to predict since I've been doing this. There are just so many intangibles. Basically, I should just flip a coin for the outcome of what should be a close game -- heads for the Bruins and tails for the ‘Horns. Here goes nothing……….
(It was heads)