Let's get this out of the way: This is by far the most important game of the young season for the Bruins and it is arguably the most important game of the Ben Howland era in Westwood. At least the latter half of the era. The proverbial heat on Howland's coaching seat is pretty warm, and an embarrassing home loss to Missouri could turn up the heat considerably. The question is: Can the Bruins remain competitive against the most athletic team they've faced seen, let alone win the game?
During Howland's Final Four years, Tracy Pierson often wrote about how UCLA was able to win games even when their offense failed to fire because of the intensity and success of its defense. That is certainly not the case with this year's version of the Bruins and they will now face a team with the ability to exploit that failure. Greg Hicks has further opined about the overall lack of athleticism on this Bruin team and Missouri can exploit that, too. In fact, there is ample evidence to show that Missouri, because of its individual ability, superior athleticism, and UCLA's slack man defense, will shoot well over 50% from the field for the game. As athletic as the Tigers are, however, there are some holes in their individual offensive games and it is those holes that the Bruins have to exploit in order to have any semblance of a chance to win.
Junior point guard Phil Pressey (5'11" 175 lbs.) is clearly the engine that makes the Tigers go. Tiger Coach Frank Haith has not tried to hide the fact that Missouri's offense allows Pressey to be the first option offensively. He has a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ration on the season, but that doesn't begin to tell how well Pressey can help carve up an opposition's defense. The hole in Pressey's game is that he is not a very good shooter. However, that didn't seem to bother the Tigers when they beat Illinois last weekend. Pressey was 3-19 from the floor but it was his passing that broke down Illinois' perimeter D. It is scary to think what Pressey could do to the Bruins if he gets even a lukewarm touch from the outside. UCLA's Larry Drew and Norman Powell will have the task of slowing down Pressey, and they will probably play off him, almost inviting him to shoot on many possessions. Louisville played him a bit that way earlier in the season and Pressey had a bad game, first because he shot poorly and second (and more importantly) because he started forcing his passes. He ended up with 8 turnovers for that game and settled for outside shots, not getting to the free throw line once. Pressey is a very good free throw shooter (over 81%) and he gets to the line a fair amount of time by simply being quicker than the man who's guarding him. He'll be quicker than either Drew or Powell. Since Pressey, though, is pretty slight physically, Drew has a chance to match up with him. The argument has raged on the BRO Premium Message Boards about just how good Drew is; defending Pressey, a high-major point guard that is Drew's size, will be a good test. So much of the game will depend on how this match-up.
Keeping Pressey out of the lane has more direct consequeces than simply forcing Pressey to shoot from outside. He has some very athletic frontcourt teammates who can finish off his passes when the inevitable help has to come to keep Pressey from getting lay-up after lay-up. The player who benefits greatly from Pressey's ability to drive is senior forward Laurence Bowers (6'7" 227 lbs.). Pressey may be the engine that makes Missouri go, but Bowers is the player that the Bruins (and their fans) should fear the most. He is the one Missouri player who really doesn't have a hole in his game. He is also the one Missouri player for whom UCLA has no individual defensive answer. He could destroy the Bruins singlehandedly.
Bowers is the leading scorer and second leading rebounder on the team at 16.9 PPG and 6.7 RPG respectively. He can beat a team facing the basket or with his back to the rim. He is the one real three-point threat on the squad averaging 57% from beyond the arc. He also gets to the free throw line, and although his overall free throw percentage is an average 65%, he tends to make them when they count. Based on Howland's line-up over the past few games he'll probably start Kyle Anderson on Bowers. While Anderson has the length to play against Bowers, he is both slower and weaker than the Tiger senior. Thinking outside the box it might make more sense for Howland to try Shabazz Muhammad on Bowers. The Bruin frosh only gives up two inches to Bowers but he is probably as quick and roughly as strong. Further, if Howland (or anyone) can light a fire under Muhammad on the defensive side of the floor then he really could begin to neutralize Bowers.
If Howland does indeed defy his past tendencies and put Muhammad on Bowers then that means that Anderson will have to take one of senior Keion Bell (6'4" 200 lbs.) junior Earnest Ross (6'5" 222 lbs.) or sophomore Jabari Brown (6'5" 200 lbs.). While all three are a bit quicker than Anderson, none of the three should really strike fear in the heart of Howland or the frosh from New Jersey. Bell has been the ostensible backup to Pressey after he started most of the games at the beginning of the season, but since Brown's return to the line-up, Bell, a transfer from Pepperdine, has seen his minutes slashed. Bell is another Tiger who is much more dangerous in the paint than he is out on the perimeter. Whoever Howland matches on Bell would do well to sag off him and invite him to shoot from distance.
Ross is a solidly built wing player who averages well over 5 RPG on the season coming off the bench. He can score inside and out but he has had moments where he gets away from the strength of his game…which is strength, and thinks he's an outside shooter. His 30% from distance on the year would belie that thinking. Again, Ross is the kind of player the Bruins would be smart to sag of off when he has the ball.
Brown is the scorer of the three and the least likely to want to get into the lane. He has taken 14 of his 19 attempts in the two games he's played on the season from behind the arc. He's only hitting on 29% of those shots but that's more because of the small size of the sample rather than anything else. He is undoubtedly more dangerous from outside than inside. However, he has been to the line 12 times in 2 games, hitting 10 of those 12 charity shots. Still, the book on Brown is force him to put the ball on the floor and not let him get his feet set from outside.
The Bruins will suffer in many of the game's match-ups because of the athletic difference in the two squads. However, no match-up may more clearly favor the Tigers than the one in the middle, where Haith has senior UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi (6'9" 255 lbs.) manning the paint. The Bruins simply have no answer for the very strong Oriakhi. He is more athletic than either of the Wears (and it's not close) and he is stronger than both, too. After watching Fresno State center Dan Jennings manhandle the twins (and Tony Parker) it's downright scary to think what Oriakhi will do on the inside. He averages 10.8 PPG on better than 50% shooting (and better than 70% from the free throw line) and 9.1 RPG. He could very well double both averages in this game. There really isn't much to analyze here other than the Bruins have incentive to sag in order to prevent the entry passes into Oriakhi. Other than that, the Bruins will have to run double-teams at Oriakhi as soon as he catches the ball in the post. That will open things up outside as the Bruins have been less than stellar with their defensive rotations this year.
If that weren't enough, Haith has junior Tony Criswell (6'9" 240 lbs.) to spell Oriakhi. Criswell is very similar to his senior teammate and he will have the same advantages over UCLA's interior defense that Oriakhi has, only not as pronounced.
UCLA has been able to score easily in most games this season. The obvious exceptions were the games against Georgetown, SDSU, Georgia and Texas, four teams that have, at some level, the kind of high-major athleticism that would bother the Bruins. UCLA went 1-3 in those games and that was only because the Bruins got a bit lucky at Texas.
Larry Drew and Kyle Anderson are going to face an enormous amount of pressure just getting the Bruins into their offense. Outside of Norman Powell, there isn't a single Bruin that will be able to routinely take his man off the dribble. That means the Bruins must shoot well from the outside and run their sets very well. A few easy baskets would be helpful in keeping the Bruins in the game. The bottom line is, even though Muhammad is getting back into competitive game shape and Jordan Adams has a knack for scoring against anyone, the Bruins should struggle on offense more than at any time this season outside of the Georgetown game.
To recap, there are several keys to the game, but every one of them will have to go in the Bruins' favor just for them to stay competitive. First, the Bruins must force the Tigers to shoot from the outside. Fans will be able to see early on if this is indeed happening because the Tigers will start to take three-pointers early in the shot clock.
Next, the Bruins have to own the boards, which is something they can do. Missouri is a rebounding powerhouse, as Illinois discovered, but the Tigers struggle when they don't own the glass.
The Bruins will need to get Missouri turnovers, and this is the most likely thing to go in the Bruins' favor. The Tigers are prone to turnovers, but the Bruins need to turn those TOs into points in transition.
Finally, the Bruins need to successfully run their offensive sets. This will allow them to slow down the game in the halfcourt a bit when they need to, and it will frustrate the Tigers. That could very well mean foul trouble for Missouri and that could be the great equalizer. Missouri is in reality a 7-player rotation right now and there is a significant drop off if the Tigers lose Pressey or Bowers to fouls.
In the end, there are simply too many factors for the Bruins to overcome. Missouri is a legitimate March threat and is now the eye-test winner for SEC favorite. Now, Illinois tends to play loose on the offensive end, looking to hoist three-pointers as the primary offensive threat, so Missouri beating them wasn't a huge shock, but the capability of the Tigers, especially as Brown gets more acclimated to Haith's system and his teammates, is staggering.
A home court that will likely be close to capacity for the first time in a while could buoy UCLA, and certain things could go UCLA's way. Keep in mind that Adams and Muhammad will be the two best offensive players on the floor. However, a victory in this game remains outside the realm of logic.
It might be close, but all the things that Greg Hicks has written about over the past few seasons may catch up to the Bruins in spades on Friday night.
To paraphrase Hicks, it's all about the athletes…