San Diego State Preview

UCLA might have found some new life against Cal State Northridge, and even though San Diego State is a much better team, UCLA still holds some similar match-up advantages...

Just when UCLA's basketball fans thought that the program hit a new low with the departure of Josh Smith, the Bruins went out and played arguably their best game of the year in beating Northridge on Wednesday night. I take full credit for the victory and the inspired play and solid game plan that put the Bruins in a zone on defense and run on offense. It's all because I predicted the Bruins to lose.

Seriously, while the game was a nice distraction to all that has seemingly gone wrong in the program over the last few weeks (and many would say much longer), it is just one game and a game against a team that simply is a good match-up for the Bruins. If UCLA really has made strides from the early season until now then they and the fans should have a better idea of an answer after Saturday.

The Bruins return to action on Saturday night when they play nationally ranked San Diego State in the Wooden Classic at the Honda Center in Anaheim. The game is the first of two that the Bruins will play in the next eight days against name opponents. By that, I mean a program that is nationally recognized (SDSU) or one that recently has been (in this case, Texas, who the Bruins will face on December 8).

One of the things that both the Cal Poly and Northridge games have proved, at least partially, is something Greg Hicks has written numerous times on BRO -- that basketball is all about match-ups. UCLA didn't match-up nearly as well with Cal Poly as it did with Northridge, both from a style standpoint (Cal Poly was a much better outside shooting team than the Matadors) and from a system standpoint (the man defense the Bruins played fell apart in the second half of the Cal Poly game and zone against Northridge did the job). The SDSU game is going to be no different.

Based on the body of evidence through the Aztecs' first five games, some general conclusions can be reached. First, SDSU is not a good outside shooting team. The Aztecs average 27% from beyond the arc, with senior Chase Tapley (6'3" 195 lbs.) being the only regular shooting better than 35% from distance. Offensively they tend to be much more like Northridge than Cal Poly in that they like to run more and as a consequence don't take very good care of the ball (they averaged 14 TPG against USC and Syracuse, the only high-major programs they've played as of this point).

While the Aztecs may do some things offensively that play into UCLA's hands (disclaimer: if the Bruins play zone), Coach Steve Fisher's SDSU team does some things that could conceivably cause the Bruins some real problems.

San Diego State is a tremendous rebounding team, especially on the offensive glass, where the Aztecs average 15 ORPG. They also are adept at getting their opponent to be loose with the ball, forcing an average of 16 turnovers per game.

In terms of personnel, Fisher can deploy a line-up that can play tough man-to-man defense against the Bruins. Tapley is one of the stars of the team. He is the second-leading scorer at 11.8 PPG and presents an athletic mismatch against many of the Bruins…but only if Coach Ben Howland decides to run a man defense.

The clear star of the SDSU squad is junior wing Jamaal Franklin (6'5" 205 lbs.), its leading scorer at 18.6 PPG and rebounder at 10.6 RPG. He does most of his damage slashing to the hoop because he has proven to be a less than mediocre outside shooter (he's at 20% from the three point line). He is vitally important to SDSU's success. It is safe to assume that if Franklin's minutes are limited for whatever reason then San Diego State will be in serious trouble. For instance, although the Aztecs are a good offensive rebounding team, that advantage almost disappears when Franklin is off the floor. Franklin does have his issue, though; he is responsible for more than 1/3 of the team's total turnovers.

Junior Xavier Thames (6'3" 190 lbs.) is the Aztec point guard and he does a decent job of initiating an offense for Fisher. His scoring is less than expected (only 8.6 PPG) and his shooting has been off (he's only 28% from the floor right now). Still, he is clearly talented and Saturday could be the coming-out party for Thames for this season.

The two true post players who start are senior DeShawn Stephens (6'8" 225 lbs.) and sophomore JJ O'Brien (6'7" 225 lbs.). Essentially they board and play defense. They let the wings and guards handle the scoring. They are both strictly inside players and while Stephens is athletic, they should both struggle a bit against UCLA's post if the Bruins play a zone. A significant statistic could be the fact that Stephens and O'Brien are a combined 8 of 28 from the free throw line, with O'Brien being a particularly egregious 1 of 13. Fouling them may sometimes be a fairly good idea.

Fisher has a fairly deep bench. He has two very good freshmen forwards in Skylar Spencer (6'9" 235 lbs.) and Winston Shepard (6'8" 210 lbs.). They are both getting about 15-20 MPG and although they aren't scoring much they are rebounding well and playing solid post defense. They are athletically superior as a duo than the starters they replace, but they are freshmen and are prone to mistakes of youth on the court.

Sophomore transfer Dwayne Polee (6'7" 195 lbs.) spells both Franklin and the posts. While Polee can jump out of the gym, he is limited more athletically than most would think. He isn't a great lateral defender because of this lack of athleticism.

Senior James Rahon (6'5" 205 lbs.) rounds out the rotation and has been solid, averaging 8.4 PPG and providing a senior presence on the floor.

Because of the upheaval in the UCLA program over the past few weeks, many fans expect the Aztecs to beat the Bruins on Saturday. The crowd should be more pro-Aztec than pro-Bruin. The Bruins may be down to 7 players depending on the availability of Tony Parker. Steve Fisher has gotten many plaudits for raising the SDSU program to its current level, while Ben Howland is being talked about nationally as being on the hot seat. However, as I wrote before, it's all about match-ups and the match-ups here actually may favor the Bruins.

Assuming UCLA plays the 2-3 zone then the Aztecs are going to find the going tough in the paint. The one thing I noticed against Northridge was how long the Bruins truly are in the paint. There were more shots than I could count that were altered or blocked by the Bruins. And as Tracy Pierson wrote in his Northridge review, the Bruin zone allowed UCLA to get out and run.

SDSU is much more like Northridge than any other opponent that UCLA has yet faced, albeit with more talent. However, if anything, the Aztecs are a worse shooting squad than Northridge. SDSU shoots less than 40% from the floor…not from the arc, but from the field. That means that if UCLA can control the defensive boards then they will control the game.

Speaking of rebounding, taking a closer look at the stats shows an Aztec squad that may not be as dominate on the glass as a first glance would lead one to believe. Although they average 8 rebounds per game more than their opponents, in the only two games they played against BCS conference schools (Syracuse and USC) the Aztecs have actually been outrebounded by both.

Then there's the issue of the amount of turnovers the Aztec's force. While they did force Syracuse into 18 TOs, that may have been due to it being the first game of the year and the fact that the game was played on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. The Aztecs only forced USC into 8 total turnovers. If Larry Drew can do as good of a job taking care of the ball as he has up to this point in the season, then that will actually go a long way to eliminating a large part of the fuel to SDSU's running game.

UCLA turned over the ball quite a few times against Northridge. If the Bruins had taken better care of the ball, they probably would have hit 100 on Wednesday. Many of the turnovers were caused by the exuberance of youth and the fact that the Bruins actually got out and ran a break for much of the game. The Bruins aren't going to clean up things all that much between Wednesday and Saturday so expect a few turnovers that make you want to pull your hair out, but those TOs can be tolerated if the Bruins play with energy and finish more often than not.

The more I've studied SDSU and thought about this game the more I think this is a really good match-up for the Bruins. Although UCLA's zone has a great many holes in it, there are certain teams that simply can't take advantage of those holes. For instance, the ball side guard in the 2-3 tended to drop too far to the wing with the ball, thus leaving him too much ground to make up to properly recover quickly if the ball was rotated back to the top. Those playing in the top 2 for the Bruins were consistently slow at releasing out of taking a wing when the ball side low wing picked up that player. These two situations led to Northridge seeing a lot of good, open looks, which they missed. SDSU should expect to get those same looks, and may in fact see a few more because they are 6'3 and taller in the backcourt whereas Northridge was 6'0". Still, until the Aztecs have a couple of players step up and prove they can consistently hit an outside shot then they will probably miss enough to allow he Bruins to get out and run.

The game will probably come down to rebounding and turnovers. If the Bruins can either control their defensive glass or keep the TO totals down, then they'll probably win. UCLA doesn't necessarily need to do both.

To type a familiar refrain, it's all about match-ups.

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