UCLA is coming off an opening five-point victory over a stubborn Drexel team, and the game left UCLA with many unanswered questions, specifically on the defensive end of the floor.
Coach Greg Kampe's Grizzlies are coming off a 23-point loss in their opener this past weekend at North Carolina that wasn't as close as the lopsided scored indicates. The Tar Heels were up by almost 40 points at the half and coasted home against an overmatched Oakland squad.
While Oakland simply doesn't have the proverbial horses to compete with the talent of UCLA, Kampe has shown in the past that he can devise a game plan that makes a particular contest closer than it should be on paper.
Kampe certainly saw the defensive issues the Bruins had on Friday and will plan accordingly to take advantage of the consistent mistakes the Bruins made both individually and collectively. As Tracy Pierson pointed out after the game, the Bruins simply played with no effort on the defensive end of the floor. For the trained eye, this was apparent, as the Bruins didn't fight through screens or get in a proper defensive stance with any regularity when playing man-to-man defense, and didn't rotate well when playing in a zone. Looking deeper, the Bruins to a player consistently stayed too high in their defensive stances and didn't get their hands/arms at the proper height or in the proper position to be effective defenders. The good news is that those deficiencies are correctable as they are a sign of lack of effort rather than ability. The bad news is that lacking effort, or what Tracy Pierson called a lack of a commitment, is a sign of laziness and it remains to be seen if Bruin Head Coach Steve Alford can motivate the Bruin players enough to start playing defense with a sense of urgency.
While Oakland shouldn't have the kind of talent needed to consistently take advantage of this lack of defensive commitment, the Bruins will shortly be facing teams that have that talent and athleticism. For that reason alone, the game against Oakland is important for the potential building block it provides UCLA to get better on defense. Hopefully for Alford and the team, the Drexel game was a defensive aberration. Keep in mind, however, that many of the issues relating to effort were reported to be present in both exhibition games.
Oakland is starting its first season in the Horizon League, moving to a higher level of competition after spending many years in the Summit League (formerly the Mid Continent Conference). The Grizzlies aren't entering the league without firepower. In fact, Oakland was chosen to finish 3rd in the 9-team Horizon. However, the Horizon is down this season, especially compared to the days when Butler ruled the league.
Kampe does have the luxury of counting on four returning starters, including his top three scorers from last season, senior wing Travis Bader (6'5" 190 lbs.), senior shooting guard Duke Mondy (6'4" 205 lbs.) and junior post Corey Petros (6'10" 260 lbs.). Mondy and Petros both averaged over 12 PPG last season, but it was Bader who led the offense, averaging over 22 PPG on the year. Against UNC Bader had 18 and Mondy had 14, but they both had poor shooting days, going a combined 10-29 from the floor and combining for 9 turnovers. They were simply overwhelmed by Carolina's superior athleticism.
If there's been a knock on Bader, and to a certain extent, Mondy, it's that they lack any real athleticism. To put it in perspective, they aren't nearly the athletes that Drexel had on its wing, and Drexel didn't have elite athletes running up and down the floor. However, when given even a half step, both players, especially Bader, have proved to be excellent shooters. Bader's game is almost showcased exclusively from behind the arc. Of his 523 shot attempts last season, 360, or almost 70%, were three-point shots. He was very proficient, hitting for 39% from behind the arc. Though he can struggle against athletic defenders because of his inability to create his own shot, he does have a knack for using teammates to get open. He also has a quick trigger to compensate for his lack of athletic ability. When the Bruins play man defense, Jordan Adams may struggle to keep Bader under wraps. Alford may find himself calling upon Zach LaVine or Norman Powell to use their athleticism to stymie Bader. If that doesn't work then look for Alford to perhaps turn to Kyle Anderson and his superior length to limit Bader. Interestingly, Bader is a crafty player, crafty enough to have gotten to the line 202 times last season (where he made 89% of his free throws), but so is Adams. Perhaps Adams can use his craftiness on defense to be able to frustrate Bader.
Mondy is the more athletic wing, but he is nowhere near the shooter or scorer that Bader is. Mondy shot less than 40% from the floor last season and his performance against the Tar Heels seemed to indicate that little has changed. He is a high-volume shooter, though, having attempted 353 shots last year. He does share a similarity with Bader from the free throw line, though, in that Mondy is a very good free-throw shooter, hitting 82% last season.
Petros is the lone true post on the Grizzly roster. He was second on the team in scoring last season at 12.5 PPG, shot 57% from the floor and led the team with 8.2 RPG. He actually finished with a decent stat line against the Heels, but his lack of athleticism was out there for all to see as he tried to stay with Carolina's James Michael McAdoo. UCLA doesn't have anyone like McAdoo, but even David Wear is made to look like a superior athlete compared to Petros. The worst thing that could happen for the Bruins would be for the Grizzlies to turn the contest into a grinding half court affair with constant touches for Petros. He is so much bigger and stronger than either Wear or Tony Parker, that he could foul out both of them. However, if the game has any running at all, then Petros could end up being a liability.
Only three other Grizzlies see significant minutes, sophomore forward Tommie McCune (6'8" 205 lbs.), junior wing Dante Williams (6'6" 19o lbs.) and freshman point guard Kahlil Felder (5'9" 180 lbs.). Felder is the key as he couldn't withstand the defensive pressure Carolina brought and Oakland's offense crumbled in the first half because of it. Felder looked so shell-shocked at one point that Kampe benched him in favor of Mondy at the point. Felder won't face anything like that kind of pressure on Tuesday. This is an area of concern for the Bruins, that their collective lack of urgency on defense could be just what the proverbial doctor ordered for a player's confidence, whether it is Felder or anyone else. Felder isn't good enough (yet) to make UCLA truly pay for lax defending, but he could look much better than he did against Carolina.
McCune, a West Virginia transfer, didn't have any real impact against North Carolina. He had 5 points before fouling out. He's a nice athlete but really hasn't developed since high school. Williams is a returning part-time starter who can shoot nicely (46% from the floor and 36% from behind the arc) but struggles on defense and is invisible on the boards.
Kampe's Grizzlies have run an offense that is, more often than not, predicated on screening away from the ball, rather than the modern trend of ball screens. He does this to maximize his best offensive player in Bader. The rub is that Oakland's posts, particularly Petros, can't play out on the wing, so the offense tends to speed up on his side as he looks to set a down screen and pivot on to the block. Still, if Petros can consistently gain inside position on Parker and Wear, then he could be a match-up nightmare.
Honestly, the best defense for this Oakland team would be a box-and-one. When Ben Howland was coach in Westwood, everyone including the blind knew that UCLA would not even conceive of running that kind of a ‘junk' defense. With Alford, however, you never know.
When Kampe brought Oakland to Pauley back in the beginning of the 2006-2007 season, it took the Bruins most of the game to slowly pull away. Even though UCLA won by 21, the game was in single digits until the second half. That was a Bruin squad with Collison, Westbrook, Mbah a Moute and Mata, just to name a few. The Bruins had difficulty because Kampe threw multiple defensive sets at the Bruins and UCLA struggled to adapt. Whether the Bruins adapt this time remains to be seen (this Bruin team looks to run far more than that Final Four squad did seven season ago) but they can count on Kampe giving them different defensive looks.
Oakland doesn't have the talent or depth to truly stay with UCLA, so there may not be much in the way of competition to glean from this game. Again, Oakland was down by almost 40 at the half to Carolina. UCLA isn't North Carolina, but they should still be too much for Oakland. The biggest thing for UCLA fans to look for during this game is the type of intensity and urgency that the Bruins have on defense. They will win regardless, but the Bruins will certainly play much tougher competition down the road.