The UCLA Bruins return to the friendly environs of the Honda Center this Saturday when they host the University of California-Davis Aggies. UCLA is coming off a 60-47 victory over Eastern Washington last Wednesday night while the Aggies are coming off a come-from-ahead defeat at the hands of Hawaii last Sunday. The win for the Bruins over the Eagles represented the first time this season that UCLA had won back-to-back games, with the other coming against Penn last weekend, and brought UCLA's record to 4-5. The Aggies, to be frank, are probably the worst team on UCLA's schedule this season. UC Davis is currently 1-8 with the Aggies' only win coming against Division III UC Santa Cruz (the famous Banana Slugs). There really is little to dissect about this game as Davis really is that bad. Granted, the Aggies did put up a fight against San Diego State earlier in the season, but they still lost by 14. They've lost to Idaho, Hawaii and Eastern Washington by 20, 13 and 20 points respectively. The Aggies just aren't a good team and UCLA should win handily. However, this game will be about UCLA building some momentum going into the Richmond game on the 23rd and then the Pac 12 season that starts one week later. The major issues that afflict this Bruin squad have been well documented, but there are areas where the Bruins can truly improve before those games become reality.
The most glaring problem for Coach Ben Howland and the Bruins up to this point in the season has been the utter ineffectiveness of sophomore center Joshua Smith. Smith has certainly lost any lift he had as well as a great deal of aggressiveness. He is missing many "bunnies" as well as over half of his free throws. For Smith, these simply appear to be symptoms of a deeper problem. Smith appears to lack confidence in everything he does on the court. In the win over EWU, Smith showed flashes of how dominant he can be when he is focused. The problem right now is exacerbated by Smith's inability to fully focus from one possession to another. The Davis game will hopefully provide a remedy for what ills the Bruin post. When Eastern Washington's coach, Jim Hayford, decided that he was going to have his players run a stall offense, he did UCLA a great favor. The Bruins play much better when they can slow things down; sort of get their proverbial feet under them. This is in large part because of Smith. While EWU was stalling, Howland rightly had Smith wait in the paint because his man wasn't going to be a three-point threat. Hopefully Howland allows Smith to do the same thing against the Aggies. It will be a bit more difficult to game plan that for Smith as Davis doesn't really play a "post" in the traditional sense, but rather a bunch of guys who can go out and shoot the ‘3'.
Davis coach Jim Les, formally the longtime coach at Bradley, has mixed and matched his starting line-up all season. It really is a crapshoot predicting who will be starting for the Aggies. Juniors Ryan Sypkens (6'4" 185 lbs.) and Ryan Howley (6'5" 195 lbs.) are the only two Aggies who have started every game. Sypkens leads the team in scoring at 14.5 PPG. 37 of his 54 shots have come from beyond the arc. This is endemic to the entire Aggie squad. The three-point shot is the primary weapon of the Aggies as Les has a squad that has been outrebounded by a count of 8 per game, has 40 more turnovers than they've caused, have played teams that have made almost as many free throws as the Aggies have attempted and are being outscored by 10 PPG. Howley is the team's leading rebounder at 6.3 RPG and he gets many of his rebounds in the same way that EWU was able to dominate the boards at times last Wednesday, namely he is sneaky and slashes into the lane, especially for offensive rebounds. Still, Howley has to rely on his "smarts" because he has only average athleticism, which is the case for most of the Aggies.
Sophomore post Alex Tiffin (6'9" 225 lbs.) may start and provides really the only true post presence on the Aggie roster. He is one of the few Davis players who doesn't shoot the ‘3'. Smith so outmatches Tiffin in almost every category that he should be able to get comfortable early and begin to dominate…at least that's the theory. The guess is that Les will go small and start players like Eddie Miller (6'5" 195 lbs.) who transferred from Cal, or sophomore Harrison DuPont (6'5" 215 lbs.). Miller is much more of an inside player while DuPont plays his game mostly in the paint. Miller has been on fire lately, scoring in double figures of the past two contests and leading the team in scoring in those games.
The other player who will get a lot of minutes on the wing from Les is sophomore Josh Ritchert (6'9" 215 lbs.) who is another primarily outside shooting wing, despite his size. Smith will more than likely have to guard one of these wing-type players. They collectively aren't great shooters. Smith shouldn't have to go chasing after them outside of 12 feet, even if they are setting ball screens. If Smith can't get confidence in this game then there is a strong likelihood that he will remain in a season-long funk. He won't have an opportunity to play a team so devoid of a player or players able to even somewhat play defense on him again.
Another issue and one that Howland seems to be hesitant to even recognize is his use, or lack thereof of freshman guard Norman Powell. As both Tracy Pierson and Greg Hicks have alluded to repeatedly over the past several weeks, Powell is the best athlete on the roster and has the most upside of any guard/wing on this UCLA team. Echoing Pierson's sentiments, Powell is the one talent outside of an in-shape Josh Smith that Howland could build around. Powell already does certain things better than virtually all of his teammates (the pull up jumper against EWU was telling) and the mistakes he makes are ones that aren't game changers. Powell is springy enough to guard the ‘3' and athletic enough to guard the ‘2'. However, Howland continues to play Powell roughly 12 MPG even though both Jerime Anderson (with his shot) and Tyler Lamb (with a few things) are struggling. The Davis game is a perfect opportunity to have Powell play close to 20 minutes, if not more. Any mistakes he makes will likely not be capitalized on by the Aggies, certainly not enough to be anywhere near costing the Bruins the game.
The struggles of Anderson and Lamb segue nicely to the next issue; the Bruins have talent but they aren't "putting it together" right now. To be blunt, imagine how much better the Bruins offense will be if and when all of the guards, particularly Anderson and Lamb, are firing on all cylinders. The EWU and Penn games would have been blowouts. Going forward, the Bruins would be a match-up nightmare for all Pac 12 competition. It seems that both Anderson and Lamb are suffering from both a bit of fatigue and a lack of confidence. Anderson has been short-arming quite a few shots in the past few games (a confidence issue???) while Lamb seems to be over thinking almost everything (definitely a confidence issue and he's been having to work hard on the defensive end, to boot). The Davis game represents an opportunity for both players to regain their confidence. It is amazing how winning increases confidence exponentially. Davis has quite a few wings, all of whom Lamb should be able to match-up with favorably, and the only true "guard" the Aggies play is true freshman Tyrell Corbin (6' 176 lbs.). Corbin isn't the type of quick point guard that has bothered UCLA this season. In fact, he may actually be less quick than all of the Bruin guards. He only has 32 assists to go along with 29 turnovers and he's been a horrible shooter on the season at less than 25% from the floor. He is, however, arguably the best free throw shooter on the squad.
Coach Les' son Tyler (6'2" 190 lbs.), a sophomore, has the size of a guard but has a game more like a wing. He works hard on both ends of the floor, but he's been a below-average shooter. He can get hot, but athletically he is going to find it difficult to get his shot off against any Bruin guarding him. Matt Carlino is a better player and athlete than Les and Carlino would not have been able to crack the Bruin rotation.
The Bruins will see a lot of zone in this game because Les has to recognize that Davis can't match-up athletically with the Bruins. The Bruins may even see the Aggies try to trap in the halfcourt. Whether the Aggies play man defense or zone defense is really immaterial. The Bruins need to stay patient on offense and work the ball inside and play an inside/out game. Defensively, the Aggies don't have anyone who the Bruins need to specifically plan for, so Howland will be looking to hone the defenses he is going to start playing when next week rolls around.
The keys for the Bruins this game really come down in many ways to the issues written previously; Smith's ability to be more of a factor, Powell getting more minutes and the guards in general playing better. The Bruins and Howland can start an upward swing with the Davis game. The big question, though, is whether Howland will actually break from form and start doing the things to turn the aforementioned issues into positives for the team.
Regardless of whether Howland does all or some of these things or not, this game should be a rout.
Cal Davis 56
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