I have sat back (for the most part) with a bit of a grin since Sunday as I have read and heard the national media essentially proclaim the Gophers the best bet to be a second-round upset winner. Tracy Pierson and to a lesser extent, Greg Hicks, have often posted on BRO in the past that the national media doesn't have a clue as to much of the happenings behind the scenes at UCLA and can be lazy with regard to researching and reporting in general. I have gotten to see and hear that up close since Sunday about the Bruins and the Gophers.
Further, many on BRO have been lamenting the match-up with Goldy, citing statistics that frighten them as fans, especially using some of Ken Pomeroy's statistical numbers. In response I would like to quote BRO's esteemed Mr. Hicks when I say, Believe your eyes.
The game can be broken down into five match-up categories, and I'll deal with each in turn. The first is the area of individual match-ups followed by the Gopher offense versus the Bruin D. Then will come the analysis of the Bruin offense against the Gopher defense, the bench match-up and I'll finish with the coaching match-up.
I intend to break this down so specifically that BROs will see that UCLA actually has a better chance at significantly winning all five of these categories than do the Gophers.
As with many match-ups the Bruins have faced this season, this one starts at the point guard position, and Bruin fans should be pleased by that. Minnesota's sophomore starter Andre Hollins (6'1" 200 lbs.) is probably the most complete player on Coach Tubby Smith's roster and the most athletic (more on that later). However, he is no point guard, but rather a scoring guard and his weaknesses may play right into UCLA's hands.
Hollins may lead the Gophers in scoring at 13.9 PPG, but it has been his mediocre play the past two months that has led the Gophers into this collapse in the second half of the season. The Gophers rely on turnovers to generate easy points and utilize what athleticism they have (the Gophers are not terribly athletic outside of Mbakwe, who is undersized, and Hollins) in order to do that. However, as teams have become more accustomed to the Gophers and had more time to scout them out, the ability for the Gophers to run has been dramatically curtailed. That means they've been reduced to being a halfcourt offensive team for much of the time. Hollins has difficulty in making quick, correct decisions. He has only 110 assists and 74 turnovers. The offense goes into serious vapor lock when the Gophers are forced into the halfcourt. Much of this is on Hollins. Often the ball will die in his hands when all a good shot requires is a quick reversal pass. He doesn't see the floor, but, as I wrote earlier, he is a scoring point guard, not a true point.
On the flip side is UCLA senior Larry Drew II. Drew has 253 assists on the year and 81 turnovers. However, those seven extra turnovers that Drew has compared to Hollins have been achieved in almost 300 extra minutes of playing time. Drew is much more efficient at running an offense.
Hollins' strength is actually outside shooting. He is the one Gopher who might reasonably considered to be an outside threat. His 40% three-point shooting is clearly the best on the team. However, his overall shooting percentage is just under 41%, so his ability to drive and finish is under question. Getting Hollins to put the ball on the floor and drive is actually what the Bruins may want the young Gopher to do. He truly drives with a complete lack of control. He will throw up shots that have absolutely no chance of going in (but the Gophers know this and attack the offensive glass…more on this in a bit) and he tends to throw the ball away when trying to kick it back out.
Hollins has the ability to play solid defense, but his decision-making leaves much to be desired on the defensive side of the floor as well. While Hollins has yet to foul out of a contest, he is second on the team with 74 total fouls. His problem is he plays as if he believes he is the second coming of Russell Westbrook and goes for steals when he shouldn't. Coach Smith is almost ridiculously rigid in sitting any of his starters when they pick up a second first-half foul, and that has happened to Hollins several times this year. The key is the impact his absence has on the offense. With Hollins on the floor the Gopher offense is stagnant; with him off the floor it turns in to the epitome of a figurative train wreck. If the Bruins get Hollins into any sort of early foul trouble it may mean game over.
Hollins is a very good free throw shooter, hitting just over 80% of his foul shots. What's more, Hollins' shooting percentage rises as the free throws become more critical. If the Bruins need to foul a Gopher at the end of the game then they need to force the ball out of Hollins' hands.
The Gopher point certainly shoots free throws better than Drew and he is a better athlete, however the rest of the statistical numbers and the eye test clearly favor Drew. Even if he plays as he did in the Pac-12 final against Oregon, Drew will still be the better point guard on the floor. If he plays as he did earlier in the Pac-12 Tournament, like he did against Arizona State, then the Bruins will have a massive advantage at the point.
Point Guard Advantage: UCLA
The shooting guard battle should be much more of an even match-up if for nothing more than both Minnesota's junior Austin Hollins (6'4" 185 lbs,. and no relation to Andre) and UCLA's Norman Powell are both playing with questionable confidence entering the game.
Unlike Powell, whose confidence level can be traced in a straight line back to December, Hollins is more of a mentally fragile player that has no confidence. Hollins is the Gophers' designated shooter, yet he only has a 32% success rate from behind the arc. That's critical considering he takes more than 50% of his shots from the three-point line. Hollins can get hot, but more often than not this year he's been a disappointment. Gopher fans were expecting a great deal more from Hollins after seeing glimpses of a dominant player last season. Hollins hasn't reached the levels that Gopher fans expected primarily because he doesn't take advantage of the athleticism he has. The long and short of it is that Hollins doesn't like to be physical or have someone play physically against him. I honestly don't know how athletic Hollins can be because I haven't seen him max out. I have doubts as to whether I ever will.
However, the thing that brings this match-up back to the mental issue is what's going on between the ears in crunch time. Most Bruin fans remember Powell's brain freeze at the end of the Cal Poly game, but what they don't know is that Hollins has suffered a series of those over the course of his three years in Minneapolis. From passes thrown to nowhere and fouling the wrong player to balls dribbled off his feet and stepping out of bounds when dribbling (as he did last Thursday against Illinois in the Big 10 Tournament with the game tied and the Gophers looking for the last shot), Hollins has done just about it all. Hollins seems to find a way to make an inexplicable mistake when it matters.
I am pretty sure that Powell is the better athlete and if he pays attention may be able to render Hollins completely moot. That means Powell has to keep Hollins off the boards when the Gophers are shooting. Hollins will play defense and his length will be a problem for Powell. Hollins leads the Gophers with 54 steals.
Shooting Guard Advantage: Even
The small forward position could prove to be a dominating one for the Bruins. UCLA starts its leading scorer and possible lottery pick, Shabazz Muhammad. The Gophers counter with local sophomore Joe Coleman (6'4" 210 lbs.), the glue guy for the Gophers and it's no coincidence that, as Coleman has started disappearing from the box score, the Gophers' fortunes have taken a nose dive. Coleman isn't great at anything; in fact I thought it was a stretch for the Gophers and Smith to take him out of local Hopkins High School. He does, however, have a great motor…most of the time. Of all five of the Gopher starters, Coleman is the one who looks like he is exhausted at the end of games. He is the hardest working defender on the squad and that may allow him to match up with Muhammad for a while. The problem for Coleman is that Muhammad is a better athlete than he is (and when have we been able to say that this season?) and he is stronger than the Gopher wing.
Coleman is actually the third-leading rebounder on the squad but he only averages 3.8 RPG. With all the talk of how well the Gophers rebound on the offensive glass, it will be interesting to see how Muhammad does on UCLA's O-boards and if Coleman, who is about an inch or two shorter than Muhammad, can keep him from second-chance points.
Coleman's job will be to limit Muhammad's touches, but the Bruins do a good job of running their sets and should be able to get Muhammad the ball around the arc. Minnesota is a pretty poor defensive team around the arc and Muhammad may actually begin to light up things if Drew and the rest of the Bruins find him.
This is the area, however, where the loss of Jordan Adams is going to hurt. Muhammad saw a lot of extra attention against Oregon last Saturday and with multiple days to prepare you can be sure that Smith will have the Gophers doing the same thing. Muhammad has to have a better game than he did against Oregon, especially in the first half (when he was in early foul trouble because of the poor charging call he received) or this is going to be a much tougher game than it needs to be. Muhammad really needs to dominate this match-up to the point that Tubby will have to adjust on the fly. Perhaps most importantly, Muhammad has to be a force on the boards at both ends.
Small Forward Advantage: UCLA
The power forward spot for the Gophers is manned by senior Rodney Williams (6'7" 200 lbs.), who most in the national media feel is an athletic freak. Let me be blunt about this: he is not in the same way Nick Johnson of Arizona is not. Make no mistake -- Williams can jump out of the gym. His vertical is probably better than the two best Bruins combined. Okay, that's obviously hyperbole, but the point is he can get off the ground. Tracy Pierson has pointed out many times on BRO that many scouts equate a great vertical with athleticism when what scouts should really be looking for is lateral movement and quickness. Williams is average in both areas. He is a solid, not great defender because he has nice length and works hard. However, worse power forwards than UCLA's Kyle Anderson have gotten around Williams with relative ease at times.
Anderson has got to provide Muhammad with a scoring sidekick or else the Gophers are simply going to smother him. He is longer and has a better feeling for the game than Williams. Anderson is even a more dependable shooter than Williams, which is saying something.
It will be interesting to see how Williams responds to the spotlight of this game. He was a very highly-ranked player coming out of Robbinsdale Cooper High School, just outside of Minneapolis. He was raw but thought of as a fantastic athlete. Again, confusing jumping ability with athleticism. Williams could dominate on the no-defense AAU circuit because of his ability to elevate and get out on the break. However, as a prospect he had a very poor outside shot and he couldn't beat his man off the dribble, and nothing has changed since his senior year of high school. Looking at it that way, Williams never panned out, although he has turned into a contributing starter who could play overseas. In many ways it wasn't Williams' fault; everyone, including Tubby, was recruiting him as small forward when it was apparent that he had the skill set of a four. He is Minnesota's version of Mike Moser, except he didn't transfer, and is still being used out of position.
Williams is the second-leading rebounder but only averages 5.1 RPG. He, like Hollins, can disappear at times. I actually have a sneaking suspicion that when Minnesota plays man on defense that Williams may guard Muhammad from time to time, especially if Coleman is struggling.
If Anderson is placed on Williams, it would be best if Howland got him to play way off of the Gopher senior. Williams goes through moments where he believes he is a small forward and will shoot from behind the arc, and he is shooting 20% from behind the arc. Let him shoot from there. It remains to be seen if Howland will say the same.
If Anderson can pull out Williams to the perimeter and drive on him then his "slo-mo" game may get the Gopher senior in foul trouble. Williams, as well as Austin Hollins, have both fouled out of 2 games, and Williams is tied for second-most fouls for the season on the team.
Power Forward Advantage: Even
Now for the area the Gophers will have a clear advantage, the low post. Without getting into details, I know the game of Gopher senior Trevor Mbakwe (6'8" 245 lbs.) very well. He's a bit undersized for a post, but he's a very good athlete, and one of the strongest players I have ever seen. He will, quite simply, push David and Travis Wear around (Tony Parker, too, for that matter) any time he wants. That is the key to Mbakwe, though, when he wants. You would think that a sixth-year senior would want to go out with all guns blazing and single-handedly take the game over, right? I've thought that a couple of times this year about Mbakwe and it hasn't happened in certain games. Mbakwe is more of a complimentary player, but a very, very good one. That's because he is limited offensively. He has huge hands, perhaps the biggest I've ever personally seen, which allows him to treat the basketball like a tennis ball when he rebounds. However, it makes his outside shooting (and by outside, I mean beyond 6 feet) spotty at best and horrible at worst. He is a mediocre free throw shooter, hitting 62% of his charity shots. However, he is an emotional player and good at getting and-ones. The best thing that Mbakwe does is rebound. He is only averaging 8.7 RPG, but when you look at his minutes played this season and his rebounding totals, you see that he averages almost 17 rebounds per 40 minutes. That is ridiculously good. With numbers like that, he could outrebound UCLA all by himself. And that's only a little hyperbole.
If that's his strong suit, then he must have a weakness, right? Beyond his shooting is his passing. He just isn't good at it. He doesn't see the floor well and his large hands don't give him a good touch-feel on the ball, thus some passes go astray. He is second on the team in turnovers with 65, and he's not the point guard.
He has a long enough wingspan to get out on the Wear's when they spot up to shoot and still recover in time to block a shot in the paint. However, he isn't used to having to run out to the perimeter on a regular basis to guard his man. Further, he is very average at hedging/plugging. He picks up many of his fouls in those situations. He leads the team with 78 fouls on the year, but Tubby feels he is so important to the team's success that he will immediately sit upon getting his second foul in the first half. The Bruins should attack him. One other thing about Mbakwe: he has always fallen for a strong pump fake. Kyle Anderson and Shabazz should remember that when they drive the paint. Also, should UCLA's Powell try to posterize Mbakwe, I am afraid the Bruin guard will have to peel himself out of a third row seat.
Low Post Advantage: Minnesota
The bench play for both teams will probably be critical. UCLA's bench is two deep and both players are forwards, David Wear and Tony Parker. As most of BRO already knows, Parker really doesn't play that much. However, the production from the bench is what's critical and it is in this area that UCLA's bench outperforms the bench from Minnesota. Case in point: in its last game, Minnesota's bench combined for 54 minutes played. In that time the entirety of the players on the bench combined for 3 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 4 personal fouls and 3 turnovers. That's a very poor return for the time played and is pretty typical of Minnesota's bench play this season. The Gophers do have an advantage in terms of bodies (Smith will play as many as six players off the bench), but in terms of talent Howland could do the same if he played his walk-on players. There is no one on Minnesota's bench who can add as much to the team as David Wear can for the Bruins by himself. However, the extra bodies will give the Gophers a chance to rest their starters more than Howland will be able to do with his starters. From that standpoint the Gophers have the advantage. So the Bruins should expect to have more production from their bench, but the Gophers should be able to rest their starters more than the Bruins. The one key for Minnesota is that Smith does have a guard to come off the bench in junior Maverick Ahanmisi (6'2" 192 lbs.). He is the one bench player who has the ability to come in and be productive, but he hasn't done so in quite a few games. Still, his almost 39% shooting from distance could be cause for concern, especially if the Bruins leave him open when he's on the floor.
Bench Advantage: Even
The Gopher offense is predicated, much like the Bruins, on early offense. However, it is different than the Bruins, who look to push and get an early shot. If the Gophers don't have a clear break, they'll pull the ball back out and run their patterned motion offense. When the Gophers were playing well, and when they beat Indiana three weeks ago, the Gophers were forcing turnovers in key situations. The Gophers are pretty good about turning turnovers into points. The only way to defend that is to cut down on turnovers. However, if the Bruins do keep their turnover totals down then they will negate a large part of Minnesota's effective offense.
That would force the Gophers into their halfcourt offense and it has been one of the worst offenses in major college basketball the past two months. Generally the reason is that Andre Hollins just isn't adept at getting his teammates in the right spots. Further, the offense insists on trying to get the ball inside to Mbakwe, even at the expense of ball movement. Just watch how long it takes the Gophers to pass the ball in their halfcourt offense and it will not be surprising that the Bruins will have time to defensively recover off weakside screens.
When Mbakwe or Williams do get the ball in the post the Bruins should absolutely double. Neither is a great passer, but more importantly, neither has great court vision. If the Bruins do indeed frustrate early entry passes or cause turnovers due to doubles in the post, then look for the Gophers to start taking poor shots from distance.
This Gopher team also doesn't like to drive to the hoop. They generally will settle for mid-range, pull-up jumpers and they aren't great at those. If they do get to the rim, they have a hard time finishing. However, this is where Minnesota's best offensive weapon comes into play; the Gophers are an excellent offensive rebounding team, and very often this is their best halfcourt offense. The have over 100 more offensive boards than their opponents. This could kill the Bruins if they don't mind the defensive glass.
There is, though, a great equalizer: turnovers. This Gopher team is horrible at taking care of the ball and if the Bruin defense has one good quality, it's causing turnovers. The Gophers average 14 TPG and have 442 on the season. The Bruins have forced 480. Most Big 10 defenses aren't predicated on causing turnovers, but rather strive for a good shooting percentage defense. The one team in the Big 10 that does like to cause turnovers is Ohio State, and they simply destroyed the Gophers last month, causing 21 turnovers. Much of the credit for that goes to OSU's point guard Aaron Craft, but UCLA's team makes up somewhat for Craft being a better on-ball defender than Larry Drew II.
The best guess is that Minnesota's offense is going to try and run some things that Arizona State did to hurt the Bruins. That's probably the closest team comparison to the Gophers that the Bruins have faced. Obviously there are major differences in personnel, etc., but in terms of style that could happen. The key is that Andre Hollins is not Jahii Carson.
Minnesota's Offense v. UCLA's Defense Advantage: Even (if the turnovers become an issue then UCLA has an advantage because Minnesota won't have as many chances to offensively rebound)
UCLA's offense actually may be tailor-made to attack the Minnesota defense. The Gophers have an excellent shooting percentage defense, allowing the opposition to shoot only 40% from the field. Much of that success stems from the fact that Minnesota plays in the Big 10, a conference well known for running variations on motion offenses, good post play and seeing a lot of offense run through the paint. Minnesota is very good at defending the paint. However, there is a major chink in Minnesota's defensive armor. The Gophers allow their opponents to shoot 34% from behind the arc. That's versus all opponents. That figure rises to almost 38% when factoring in only the Big 10 schools and goes to almost 40% when removing Penn State and Nebraska.
While the Bruins aren't a team that attempts an overwhelming number of three-pointers, and they're missing one of their biggest threats from behind the arc in Jordan Adams, upon closer inspection, the Gopher defense drops off in its effectiveness at about 15 feet, which is right around the area that both of the Wear brothers get many of their shots. The Bruins should find ample room to get good looks from the mid-range area, especially if the Wears pass the ball out of the low post when they receive it. The question is whether the Bruins will make their shots.
The UCLA offense, because of its reliance on jumpers, is very much like Northwestern's in the way it will force the Gophers to defend the perimeter. I certainly don't think UCLA's offense is anything like Northwestern's Princeton-style offense, only that the Bruins shoot a lot of jumpers and so does Northwestern. The Gophers split with Northwestern this year, winning big at home and losing in Evanston.
The biggest thing for the UCLA offense may be its ability to maximize the advantage they'll gain by turning over the Gophers. UCLA didn't do a good job of taking advantage of turnovers in the Pac-12 title game against Oregon. That can't happen again.
UCLA's Offense versus Minnesota's Defense Advantage: Even (only because its unsure if the Bruins will shoot well from mid-range, however, if the Bruins force turnovers then this becomes a big advantage for the Bruins).
The coaching match-up will be relatively simple; UCLA's Howland has an established track record of scheming for an opponent when having multiple days to do so, especially one who is unfamiliar with the Bruins, that is quite successful. Minnesota's Tubby Smith used to have that reputation. However, one of the biggest complaints about Smith this season by Minnesota fans has been his apparent inability to adjust. The Gophers have attempted to do most of the same things against almost all of their opponents. There has been very little adjusting on Tubby's part. He will make halftime adjustments, but that usually means the Gophers are behind.
Then there are the intangibles in this coaching match-up: Howland and the UCLA players already probably have a pretty good idea that there will be a new coach in Westwood next fall. That may or may not take the pressure off.
Conversely, the Gophers probably need to win two games to save Smith's job. The talk of Tubby's seat getting hotter in the local media has certainly been read by the players and their performances have gotten seemingly worse as the pressure has built on their head coach, save the Indiana game. Keep in mind that the new AD at the ‘U' is Norwood Teague, the former AD at VCU and the man who hired Shaka Smart. Plus, the Gophers don't save any buyout money with Tubby staying an extra year and the Gophers lose the entirety of their inside game to graduation with nothing else coming in to replace them. Next year could be tough in Minneapolis and people are theorizing that now is the time to make a change. Obviously that changes if Tubby and the Gophers make a run, but I can tell you this: Tubby is cut very much from the same cloth as Howland. They are both "old school" with regard to how they interact with their players. Smith is definitely not "touchy/feely" and leaves the personal interactions to his assistants. The chances of the players winning one for the coach are about the same as the Bruins playing for Howland.
Coaching Advantage: UCLA
There is one more piece to this puzzle, and it's the intangibles beyond what I've already written. Actually, it comes down to one specific intangible: home court. The Gophers have been simply awful on the road this season. They are 5-10, but they have only a single road win in 2013 -- January 9 at Illinois. The Gophers have lost at Nebraska, Purdue, Northwestern and Iowa, the first three of which are at the Oregon State/Washington State level of play and Iowa isn't much better. The other road losses, like to Michigan State and Ohio State, have been absolutely one-sided. Even the Indiana game in Bloomington was a blowout, in spite of the late Gopher run.
While anything can happen, there seems to clearly be a great deal more that must go right for the Gophers to win that hasn't gone right for them recently than for UCLA. In fact, if this game were to get out of hand even a bit, the tendencies, match-ups and advantages point clearly to UCLA.
As I wrote in the beginning, this is a match-up that I know the best, obviously by how long this preview is, and never have I taken more personal pride in getting a preview right.