During the trip to the Big Apple the Bruins actually presented the college basketball word with more questions than answers regarding the ceiling of the team and the relatively poor play by the Bruins while in Brooklyn. UCLA's next two games are against low-major squads (although look out for Northridge…but that's for another preview) and the hope for Coach Ben Howland's Bruins is that some of the kinks will get worked out on both ends of the floor before next Saturday's Wooden Classic game against San Diego State.
Coach Joe Callero's Mustangs enter Sunday's contest with a record of 1-2, with close losses at TCU and at home against Fresno State, and a home win against Northern Colorado. The Mustangs are a deliberate team that generally plays smart but is very undersized.
Although Cal Poly is small, arguably its best player this season has been junior college transfer Chris Eversley (6'7" 225 lbs.), who leads the team in scoring (14.3 PPG) and rebounding (7.0 RPG). Eversley is not a great shooter, averaging only 41% from the field and having hit only a single three-point shot on the year. Further, he isn't a great free throw shooter, averaging 63% from the charity stripe. In many ways, Eversley is pretty indicative of Cal Poly as a team in that he will work hard on both ends of the floor, but he simply isn't a shooter.
The one exception to that is true freshman Brian Bennett (6'9" 240 lbs.), a true back-to-the-basket player who is shooting 58% from the floor while averaging 7.7 PPG and 6.0 RPG. Bennett is not one of the top three offensive options so he hasn't been to the foul line much, but being the only decent shooter on the team right now Callero may decide to run things through Bennett more, starting with Sunday night.
Foul trouble with one of Eversley or Bennett is why Cal Poly really struggles at times; Callero really plays no one with any size off the bench. However, as thin as Cal Poly is up front, they run six deep in the backcourt.
The final three starters are all true guards (as opposed to a ‘3') and play the bulk of the backcourt minutes. The starting point guard is junior Jamal Johnson (6'0" 170 lbs.), who is a pass-first point guard. In fact, Johnson almost plays as if shooting is a disease, passing up good shots simply because he believes that's his job. If there ever was a player that Howland should play off, it's Johnson. He isn't terribly quick, but players like Johnson have had big games against the Bruins in the past few seasons. Johnson is shooting less that 30% from the floor, but he has been almost automatic from the free throw line. He does take good care of the ball, averaging 5 APG against on 2 TPG.
Two seniors, Dylan Royer (6'1" 190 lbs.) and Chris O'Brien (6'4" 210 lbs.), make up the rest of the backcourt for Cal Poly. Royer is the primary three-point threat on the squad and O'Brien isn't far behind. Still, they are a combined 14-37 from the floor, which isn't exactly earth shattering. O'Brien is more of a slasher and has been a perfect 10-10 from the free throw line this season. While Royer doesn't get to the foul line much, he too is perfect from ten feet.
Junior Kyle Odister (6'0" 175 lbs.), freshman Reese Morgan (6'2" 195 lbs.) and senior Drake U'u (6'5" 210 lbs.) are the direct back-ups to Johnson, Royer and O'Brien respectively. Not one is a very good shooter and, although they should all play double-digit minutes, the Cal Poly offense, which isn't good to begin with, truly suffers.
While the Bruins appear to be a team that would like to play more of a transition game, both Georgetown and Georgia successfully slowed them down. Further, the Bruins really struggled with the length of Georgetown's zone and relative quickness of Georgia's. If anything, Cal Poly is better at slowing down the game than either George-related team and they are a smart man and zone defensive team. Don't misunderstand; Cal Poly seriously lacks athleticism, but they will do several things that will cause the Bruins some headaches.
First, Cal Poly is going to take very good care of the ball. One of the easiest and most successful ways to initiate transition offense is to force the opponent to turn over the ball. The Mustangs average slightly more than 7 TPG, which is very good. UCLA will almost assuredly going to play man defense, which means that Cal Poly should find taking care of the ball relatively easy. That's because the Bruins are a mess right now defensively when they play man. Some of this can be attributed to UCLA playing four freshmen extensive minutes, while some can also be attributed to UCLA having yet to play a game with a full roster, thanks to injuries. However, while those things can improve, the reality is this UCLA team is not laterally quick and has yet to show at least the defensive work ethic to make its man defense even average. In fact, the Bruins would probably hold the Mustangs to less than 40 points if Howland would employ a zone defense even some of the game; Cal Poly is that poor of a shooting team. Lastly, a trapping zone, like a 1-2-2 with Kyle Anderson at the top, would more than likely utilize the strengths of the Bruin roster, namely its length, in such a way as to cause turnovers and get some easy transition points.
The Mustangs will make the Bruins work on offense, especially when Callero decides to run a zone. UCLA needs to work their zone offense in this game because the Bruins will certainly see some zone later this week against both Northridge and San Diego State. The Bruins will find that they can collectively shoot over Cal Poly's zone easily, but that won't help the Bruins later in the season. This is the perfect game for the Bruins to really work the ball inside, both to the free throw line and to the short corner. Lastly, the offensive ball movement needs to improve both in decision-making and in pace. The Bruins were entirely too slow in their zone offense in New York.
The Bruins will beat Cal Poly because the Mustangs and their lack of size simply don't present much of a match-up issue for the Bruins. This is one of those cupcake games that many high major teams feast on at the beginning of every basketball season. However, this game can truly be a positive for the Bruins if they use it as a way to practice in the areas they failed so badly in New York. The Bruins have to use this game for growth because a victory over the Mustangs isn't going to impress anyone or the RPI computers.
The outcome is about as certain as a game can get. The facet to take out of this game is whether or not the Bruins simply rely on the overall talent disparity between themselves and the Mustangs or if they truly work on the areas of the game that they as individuals and collectively as a team need to improve upon before next Saturday's Aztec game. A 20-point victory will mean a great deal more to the Bruins in the long run than a 40-point victory if the Bruins actually learn something from it.
Cal Poly 57