After that joy-sapping victory over moribund USC on Wednesday, there was a question as to why Ben Howland opted for a seven man lineup in that game, against a pretty awful team. The bench (comprised of Josh Smith and Norman Powell) combined for 26 minutes of playing time, despite UCLA's lead occasionally stretching as high as 21 in the second half, and despite the starters looking obviously gassed over the last minutes of the second half. Afterward, Howland said that he chose to go with the shorter rotation not because of any injury issues, but because he was really worried about losing the game, with the implication being that he thought playing the bench (comprised of the two best NBA prospects on the team) over his winded starters would be a bad thing.
So one thing is pretty clear for the remainder of the season: if Howland isn't absolutely set on his rotation, he's pretty darn close. As he said in his teleconference Friday, the team is playing every game as if it's the last game of the season, and, more to the point, he's coaching every game as if it's his last game. And it's clear that he is going to ride his starters as far as they'll carry him.
Which leads to the open question at this point: how far can David Wear, Travis Wear, Lazeric Jones, Jerime Anderson, and Tyler Lamb carry a team? Given that UCLA's game against probably one of the worst teams they'll face all year got unnecessarily close at the end, the answer is probably not too far.
Luckily for the Bruins, they won't get much of a test this weekend when they head east for their second pillow fight of the week against St. John's (10-16, 4-8) on Saturday. The Red Storm, much like UCLA, is having a letdown season after reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year, but for different reasons. St. John's has had to replace ten (!) seniors from last year's squad, in addition to freshman Dwayne Polee Jr., who transferred. All that might have been fine, but they've actually lost two other players (freshman Nurideen Lindsey and junior Malik Stith) from the program during the course of the season. St. John's is now left with six scholarship players, all of whom are first year players.
Taking all of that into account, you have to say that, all in all, the Johnnies are having a not godawful season. They've notched a couple of good victories over Cincinnati and West Virginia, played Duke very close at Cameron, and, although their record is a paltry 10-16, they've looked halfway decent at times.
The Red Storm is led by two very talented freshmen in guard D'Angelo Harrison and forward Maurice Harkless. Harrison is averaging over 16 points a game this year, and, although he's hitting just 38% of his shots overall, he's making 37% of his 3's, and he takes about six of them per game. Harkless, who's averaging just under 16 points per game, is also an exceptional rebounder as a slightly undersized power forward, pulling in 8.5 boards per game.
Phil Greene mans the point for the Red Storm, and he's solid, but not flashy. He has a nearly 2:1 assist to turnover ratio, but St. John's has enough one on one scoring potential from the rest of the team that he doesn't dominate the ball enough to generate much in the way of assists, averaging just under three per game.
The Johnnies don't employ a true center in the starting lineup. The closest thing to a center on the roster is God'sgift Achiuwa, who got off to a fairly hot start to the season, but has since slowed down, and is now the first guy off the bench. A junior college transfer, Achiuwa has one of the all time great names, but he isn't tremendously skilled around the basket. He is a bit of a load inside, at about 6'8 and 240 pounds, and averages about 9 and 5 each game.
Rounding out the rotation for St. John's are guard/forwards Amir Garrett and Sir'Dominic Pointer (also a great name all star). Garrett was ineligible at the beginning of the season, and had to enroll at a junior college to get his academics in order. After just a semester away, he was able to nail down his academics and enroll at St. John's for the spring semester. Pointer has been a solid contributor this year, and although he hasn't wowed on the scoring end, he has contributed on the board, pulling down almost five per game.
All in all, the Johnnies are fairly undersized. Harrison and Greene are both 6'1 or 6'2 in the back court, and then it goes Garrett (6'5 or so), Pointer (6'5 or so), and Harkless (6'7). Defensively, they tend to play a zone, both for matchup reasons and because they only have a six man rotation, and no subs for the guards.
So this game should come down to matchup considerations against an undersized team that has a very short rotation. If that sounds familiar, it should, because it was much the same story heading into the USC game.
Defensively, the matchups will be interesting for the Bruins, especially if they opt to play mostly man defense (likely) and opt to play the Wear twins for at least their requisite 25 minutes each (a certainty). It's pretty clear that this game could come down to how the Wears handle Harkless. Travis Wear will likely get the initial assignment, and David Wear will likely be forced to guard Pointer at the beginning, who is much quicker than he. If either get burned, Howland may be forced to look to Anthony Stover for the first time in a week to provide some interior defense.
The rest of the matchups should be fine defensively for the Bruins. Although Powell might have the best chance of guarding Harrison, you have to project that if it's a close game, Jones and Anderson will get the primary duties of slowing him down, since Howland seems to be coaching fairly tight in terms of his rotation in the waning days of the season.
On offense, the Bruins should be able to take advantage of their size inside, especially when Smith is in. St. John's is a very bad defensive team, and while they play a fairly aggressive zone, Anderson and Jones should be able to slice it up. The Wears have a decided height advantage inside, and with their shooting ability, should be able to get off plenty of shots, as they were able to against the Trojans. Unlike USC, though, Harkless should be able to beat the Wears for a fair amount of rebounds.
The really interesting part of this game will be if UCLA ever generates enough of a lead for Howland to feel comfortable going outside of his rotation, or even enough of a lead to play Powell and Smith considerable minutes. If UCLA does get a big lead, but still Stover doesn't play, and still Powell and Smith play less than 40 combined minutes, then that will be a pretty good indicator of the rotation we'll see over the last few games of the season.
Ultimately, this game will probably feature some pretty poor defense on both ends, due to some big matchup disparities inside, but the Bruins offensive efficiency should win out over the Red Storm, who are simply too young and inexperienced to execute offense consistently. Obviously, going across the country to play a 10:00 A.M. game against a team in Madison Square Garden presents its own unique challenges. Although that factor, along with UCLA's short rotation, will probably help to make this game much closer than it otherwise needs to be, UCLA's experience and St. John's tired legs should tell the tale.
St. John's 67
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