UC Irvine Preview

UCLA blew out Irvine last year, and while both teams are more talented, the Anteaters present a match-up problem with its backcourt...

After a herky-jerky performance in the season opener last Friday, the UCLA men's basketball team returns to action on Tuesday night when the Bruins host the Anteaters of UC Irvine.

While the Bruins will certainly be playing their second game without Shabazz Muhammad, there is still good to very good talent on the UCLA roster. However, UCI should provide the Bruins with a stiffer test than did UCLA's opening opponent, Indiana State. The Anteaters have some dangerous players but the Bruins have significant advantages in certain areas. The question is how and whether Coach Ben Howland and UCLA can utilize those advantages.

Head Coach Russell Turner's UCI squad got the 2012-2013 season off to a successful start when they defeated Nevada by 14 on Saturday in Irvine. While the Wolfpack aren't the power they were a few years ago, they are a solid team. The victory was a good one for an Anteater program that is on the cusp of fighting for Big West Conference supremacy. One of the things that stood out in the win was the relative athleticism that UCI had compared to Nevada. It goes without saying that UCI will be more athletic than were the Sycamores. Where UCI potentially struggles is with size, although an objective observer wouldn't know it as they outrebounded a bigger Wolfpack squad by 14.

Turner starts what is essentially a 3-guard line-up. It will be, however, one of the most unconventional 3-guard line-ups in the country. That's because of the presence of senior "hybrid" Michael Wilder (6'2" 235 lbs.). Some Bruin fans may remember Wilder from last season, both because of his game and his unique hairstyle. Hair aside, Wilder's game is modeled on that of Charles Barkley in that Wilder is a bruiser on the low block despite his size, and can step out and hit the three-pointer. In essence, even though Wilder has the height of a guard, he plays more like a power forward. It will be interesting to see whom Howland assigns to guard Wilder. He'll have an advantage in quickness against both Wear brothers and Josh Smith and he's stronger than Kyle Anderson. Regardless of who guards Wilder (Howland implied in his press conference that it would be Kyle Anderson), the Bruins will go a long way towards a victory if they limit Wilder's impact. He had a double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds) against Nevada.

The strength of the ‘Eaters is in their backcourt. Aside from Wilder and the unique skills he brings to the game, Turner will start seniors Daman Starring (6'3" 192 lbs.) and Derrick Flowers (6'0" 178 lbs.). Starring is clearly the scorer of the two, hitting for 25 against Nevada. He can shoot from distance but does most of his damage driving to the hoop. He has good size and strength and will be a bit of a difficult match-up for any of the Bruin guards. The most likely Bruin to defend Starring is Norman Powell and he will present Starring with a different level of athleticism than he saw against the Wolfpack.

Flowers will share point guard duties with Starring although his game is more suited to his playing the ‘2' guard. Flowers plays much like Starring in that he likes to get into the paint, and like Starring, can hit the outside shot. While undersized, Flowers is not the kind of jitterbug guard that has caused UCLA issues in the past. He has some athleticism, but he certainly doesn't have elite athleticism. He had a horrible shooting night against Nevada, going 0-7 from the floor and finishing the night with a single point.

Backcourt depth is provided primarily by junior Chris McNealy (6'4" 182 lbs.) and true freshman Alex Young (6'1" 176 lbs.). McNealy is very much a clone of Starring, being a little bit better shooter but not quite as quick. Young was a bit of a revelation in his first collegiate game, scoring 12 points, showing range on his shot, pulling down 4 boards and adding 2 assists against only one turnover.

While frontcourt play isn't the strength of the Anteaters, its not as if they don't have size. Three players share the vast majority of the minutes at the two post spots, senior Adam Folker (6'9" 225 lbs.) and sophomores Will Davis II (6'8" 210 lbs.) and John Ryan (6'10" 247 lbs.). Folker and Davis start, and against Nevada they provided UCI with a combined 14 points and 16 boards. Folker is the truer low post player while Davis is more of an athlete. Neither of them are an outside threat. Ryan provides real size but has a serious lack of athleticism. His scoring also comes strictly in the paint.

It will be interesting to see how Howland decides to both defend and attack the Anteaters. UCI did not shoot well in last year's game against the Bruins. That trend continued for most of last season and into their opener this past Saturday. UCI shot 39.4% from the field, mostly because they were a woeful 3-15 from behind the arc. This is not a team built to score in bunches but rather they slice up teams driving to the basket and getting to the line. They got to the charity stripe 36 times on Saturday, with Starring going 10-10 from the free-throw line. UCI is almost a perfect opponent for Howland to employ his man defense with zone principals. However, Howland said that before the Indiana State game and yet the Bruin posts were still attempting to hedge screens out on the perimeter. With the Bruin guards going underneath screens and with help in the lane, there really is no reason for UCLA's bigs to hedge screens. Still, even if they continue to do so on Tuesday night, it shouldn't be a problem for the Bruins. UCI's ball handlers can come off the screens and get into the lane, but UCLA showed against the Sycamores that the Bruins could do a reasonable job of providing lane help. That was even more apparent when both Wears and Kyle Anderson comprised the frontcourt as those three generally played a mini-zone in the paint. That kind of defense did leave open shooters on the perimeter and Indiana State simply couldn't take advantage of the open shots. UCI should get some looks from the arc area, but the ‘Eaters aren't as good shooters from outside as the Sycamores so for at least one more game expect the Bruins to not be hurt too much by mix-ups on defensive switches regarding which player should be closing out shooters. One big key beyond basic defense is defensive rebounding. UCI is very active on the offensive boards. Even though the Anteaters lack size, they are sneaky and quick enough to shoot gaps between defensive box-outs, especially if the box-outs are done poorly. UCI had 21 offensive boards against Nevada and UCLA struggled in the first half of the Indiana State game with box-outs on the defensive boards. The Bruins were much better in the second half with their defensive rebounding against the Sycamores and if they continue that trend against UCI then UCLA will be taking away much of what UCI can do to at least get extra possessions.

UCI's defense was able to keep Nevada off-kilter for most of its game on Saturday because the Anteaters were able to force the Wolfpack into being a jump shooting team. Nevada shot poorly, going 34.5% from the field, including 2-16 from beyond the arc. The Bruins can expect the same style of defense from UCI on Tuesday. Turner will more than likely have the ‘Eaters pack the lane and deny interior passing lanes. Because UCLA has trouble individually breaking down defenders, and that kind of defense could cause the Bruins real problems. The idea is that UCI will try to force the Bruins into taking jump shots instead of getting the ball inside, and that could be a real key for the Bruins. UCLA has a significant post presence compared to the Anteaters, but the Bruin posts, particularly the Wears, must establish themselves on the low block. That includes quickly kicking the ball back out when the inevitable double-team comes, as it did against Indiana State. The Wears in particular did a poor job of moving the ball out of the post and getting ball movement against Indiana State's quick low-post doubles. The Bruin posts simply need to move faster and make quicker decisions with the ball. It was almost as if the Bruin bigs were inviting the double team, which isn't a bad idea in and of itself, except for the fact that they tried to then beat the doubles rather than move the ball quickly back out of the post. If UCLA rotates the ball out of the post quickly then the Bruins will have significant opportunities, with ball rotation, to attack the UCI defense on the weak side. If this fails to materialize and UCLA does allow itself to settle for outside jumpers, then Jordan Adams' offense will be critical. He is the one Bruin who can force UCI to either extend their defense or come out of their lane denial altogether. However, expect the Anteaters to have seen film on Adams' quick release and outside shooting and have a plan to neutralize the Bruin frosh.

In many ways the Bruins will see a carbon copy of Indiana State on Tuesday, especially in terms of schemes. The Anteaters will try to drive the lane and get to the free-throw line more than the Sycamores did, but the essence of their offense should be to beat the Bruins off the dribble and high ball screens. Defensively UCI will try and stymie UCLA's natural post advantage. UCLA did play at a faster pace than many Bruin fans are used to seeing by a Howland coached team, but UCLA still struggled to get numbers for easy buckets. Much of that had to do with Indiana State releasing three players back off of many of their shots (and the Sycamores were still able to get multiple offensive boards, especially in the first half), and UCI may very well use the same game plan.

If UCLA works the ball on offense, using a quicker inside/out game than the Bruins showed on Friday, then this could be a blowout. Since UCI struggles with team shooting, if the Bruins can keep the ‘Eaters from the foul line and if the Bruins control their defensive glass, then they should find themselves coasting home. UCLA beat the Anteaters last season by 29 and although UCI is improved and more experienced, the Bruins are better, too. Because it is only the second game of the season it is difficult to see if the tendencies from the first game will translate to this contest. For the sake of consistency, let's say UCLA wins by the same margin as last year.

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