Season Opener: Drexel Preview

UCLA will start its season in Pauley Pavilion tonight against Drexel, and the Dragons should actually be one of UCLA's toughest non-conference opponents this season...

It's peculiar how at the beginning of any season in college sports there are so many more questions about the various teams than there would be in a corresponding professional team. There is, perhaps, no sport where that is truer than in college basketball. Obviously the annual turnover in rosters creates these questions, but there are other factors that can make the questions more significant.

That's the case for at least one team that will take the floor at Pauley Pavilion on Friday night at 9:00 p.m. PST (ESPN), and that team happens to be the host UCLA Bruins. The game will mark the regular season debut of Coach Steve Alford and all of the tactical and strategic philosophies that he brings to the table.

On the other bench will be the Drexel Dragons, and Coach Bruiser Flint's team will probably have far fewer questions to answer. The Dragons should be a difficult opponent, having little roster turnover and the benefit of players being in the program for three or four years. In fact, the Dragons may be the most difficult opponent UCLA faces before traveling to Missouri in December. There is a reasonable argument to be made that Drexel will be better than both Nevada and Northwestern, the two schools UCLA will face at the end of this month in Las Vegas.

As good as Drexel may be, and the consensus is that they will be one of the top two teams in the Colonial Athletic Association, there are some things about the game match-ups that may be less worrisome than appear on the surface. Much of that could be because Drexel's personnel, while good, are the kind of players that generally won't overwhelm the Bruins with athleticism.

Drexel's team will revolve around three players, seniors Chris Fouch (6'2" 185 lbs.) and Frantz Massenat (6'4" 190 lbs.) and junior Damion Lee (6'6" 200 lbs.). Fouch was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA last summer after breaking his ankle early last year, and they is be his first regular season game since. He is clearly the best outside shooter on the team, averaging almost 50% on three-pointers last season before going down with the injury. Extrapolating his statistics out over the team's 31 games last year, he would have clearly led the Dragons in shot attempts. His game is definitely predicated on his outside shot, having taken 61% percent of his overall shots from behind the arc. If Alford decides to play man defense then expect to see Norman Powell, Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine guarding Fouch during the game. When in a zone defense, the Bruins will always have to know where Fouch is on the floor. Fouch is a preseason 2nd team CAA selection.

Chris Fouch.
Massenat is the Dragon point guard, but he too is not a great athlete. He does, however, know how to initiate and run Flint's offense. He is strong and can get to the line, so UCLA's sagging man defense that the Bruins displayed in their two exhibition games may just be what's needed to force Massenat into a poor game. He is a poor outside shooter, shooting well below 40% from the field last year, and only 32% from behind the arc. When he does penetrate, he does have the ability to get to the line and he shoots over 82% from the charity stripe. He also attempted 40 more free throws than his nearest teammate. Massenat is a preseason 1st team all CAA selection. He was tabbed as the preseason favorite to be the player of the year in the CAA last season, but he struggled as he became the focal point of opponents' defenses. Lee is probably the most gifted of Drexel's big three. He is the leading returning scorer at over 17 PPG, and is the second leading returning rebounder at over 5 RPG. Of the three he is the best athlete and will be the most difficult to guard. Like Massenat, he is not a gifted outside shooter, going a merely respectable 36% from behind the arc, but only 42.5% from the floor overall. Lee is also a preseason all CAA first team selection.

The transition part of Drexel's team now comes to the fore as the Dragons lack serious depth in the backcourt. If UCLA has depth issues up front, the Dragons more than match that with their own backcourt issues. There isn't a single true guard on the roster outside of Massenat and Fouch that has played any significant minutes in an NCAA Division 1 game. The lone returning backcourt bench player, senior Jake Lerner (6'2" 190 lbs.), played a total of 4 minutes last season. The only other true guard on the roster is true freshman Major Canady (6'4" 200 lbs.), who is a combo guard. Khris Lane (6'6" 215) is a freshman who wasn't very highly touted in high school and appears like he's more of an undersized four than a wing.

Drexel's frontcourt should probably be a bit undermanned, since it lost its best rebounder and interior defender in Daryl McCoy to graduation. Flint can still trot out senior Dartaye Ruffin (6'8" 250 lbs.) and he will be a handful for the Bruins. Ruffin is the only real low-post threat for the Dragons but he is also a solid shot blocker. He isn't as effective a defender as McCoy was simply because Ruffin looks to swat shots rather than prevent them from happening in the first place with solid denial defense. Ruffin isn't much of a scorer but he is going to be good for about 8 boards per game, since there is probably no one else who can rebound at a high level, so keeping him off the offensive glass will be key.

Flint will likely use junior Kazembe Abif (6'7" 215 lbs.) as the power forward spot. Abif is athletic and is much quicker than UCLA's David Wear, but he is much smaller and has nowhere near the strength of the Bruin senior. Abif is a bit better offensively around the rim than is Ruffin, but he is not a key to the offensive game.

After Abif and Ruffin, Flint has many unproven frontcourt parts. Senior Goran Pantovic (6'10" 225 lbs.) played in 19 games last season, averaging over 10 MPG, but only took 12 total shots on the season. He can rebound a bit but he is not a very good athlete and is a slow. After Pantovic, there are some unknown freshmen in Rodney Williams (6'7" 220) and Mohammed Bah (6'9" 225) who, well, we just don't know that much about. They weren't highly recruited and, since this is their first college game, we don't have much to go on in evaluating them. Both players pass the eye-ball test but we'll see if they can offer more than just looking good in the airport. We know Flint is expecting Williams to be a major contributor.

Flint's style is to play a controlled offensive game and show the opponent solid, physical man-to-man defense. He certainly has the three-headed monster at his backcourt spots to make the offense work, and it may be a good idea to slow down the Bruins, but the question is whether the Dragons can do that. If their defense is anything like last season's, then the answer is a resounding "yes." The Dragons only gave up 63 PPG. They only allowed one opponent to score more than 80 points last season and that was an overtime game. Heck, they only allowed 7 opponents to get into the 70s. That fact that they only allowed 25% of their opponents to hit for more than 70 points in a game shows that Drexel's issues were at the offensive end. Keep in mind that, for all of last season, Drexel got good scoring and shooting from its three guards. The problem was up front and the lack of production from the forwards.

Chances are that Drexel's offense will be better than last season. Drexel was not a good shooting team, hitting on only 41% of its shots from the floor. However, the key on offense will not be the scoring of the backcourt, since that's a given, but rather what the frontcourt can offer.

The defense will probably take a hit with the loss of McCoy in the paint and the lack of experienced depth. Overall, the Dragons will probably be a little better than last year when they lost a host of close games after being the preseason favorite in the CAA. Take this statistic as an example: the Dragons averaged 63 PPG and gave up 63.1 PPG. That's about as close as it gets. The Dragons were involved in 12 games decided by five points or fewer.

As much changes the Dragons have seem to face, the Bruins are clearly a team in transition, especially because they'll be facing the Dragons with only two true frontcourt players. Just that fact alone should dictate that Alford puts the Bruins into a zone for much of the game. Further, Drexel is not a strong outside shooting team but they are athletic enough to get to the hoop. Again, these facts scream zone defense.

There are two final pieces that really fall clearly in UCLA's favor. The Dragons have to travel across the country for what will be a midnight tip-off. Further, and this is a bit strange, Drexel hasn't played an exhibition game. This will be the first game for the Dragons with a crowd in the stands since last March. Both of those factors will be difficult to overcome.

While the Bruins have some adjustment issues, they will have arguably the best player on the floor in Jordan Adams as well as the two most athletic players in LaVine and Powell. The one question mark will be the frontcourt depth, as it will be for every game before UCLA gets back Travis Wear and Wanaah Bail.

Expect the Bruins to play a great deal of zone, both a 2-3 and a 1-2-2 (although remember, all halfcourt zone defenses become a 2-3 as soon as a pass is made into the wing), depending on the threat from the top of the key and whether the Dragons elect to screen the weakside top player to set up open looks.

Certainly the Bruin faithful are unsure of what to expect in the Alford era, and certainly in his first game as coach, but with the combination of the probable use of the zone, coupled with some of the issues the Dragons will have to face, it should mean a fairly comfortable UCLA victory. However, don't expect the Bruins to hit the century mark.

Drexel 63

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