After a quick succession of cream-filled cupcakes in Oakland and Sacramento State, the Bruins will be hosting an Eagles squad that is closer to the Drexel team that UCLA had to hold on to beat in the season opener. There are some real concerns coming into this game for the Bruins, namely on defense, and Morehead State has players that can hurt the Bruins enough to pull off the upset.
Morehead State plays in the Ohio Valley Conference, where the consensus had the Eagles 4th in the preseason conference polls. It is important to realize that the top teams in the OVC, schools like Murray State, Austin Peay (famous for the student chant, "let's go, Peay") and Belmont, have been traditional architects of upsets over ranked teams. Belmont knocked off North Carolina in Chapel Hill just last week and did so rather easily. This year's version of Morehead State currently sits at 4-1, with its only blemish being a relatively uncompetitive loss to a ranked Xavier team. The four wins have come against some mediocre to poor mid-major teams.
The Eagles and Head Coach Sean Woods, a former standout player at Kentucky, have five good to very good players they can count on to produce on Friday. A quick word about Woods: he is intense, bordering on unreasonable. Forget sitting, he almost never stands still. He may actually walk a few miles each game with the pacing he does. He is also pretty volatile. He was suspended last season for shoving one of his players during a game. He routinely is in the faces of his players and if you have young children and choose to not have them learn certain vocabulary yet, it would be a good idea not to sit too close to the Eagle bench. Still, the Eagles play very hard for their coach and they are an intense and physical team, which is what Woods asks of them.
The leading shooter, scorer and the player averaging the most minutes is junior guard Angelo Warner (6'2" 195 lbs.), who averages 17 PPG and 5.6 RPG, good for second best on the team. He is effective both going to the rim and shooting from outside, and is an 80% free throw shooter. He is relatively athletic, certainly more so than the guards that UCLA has seen since the game against Drexel. In fact, Warner could easily pass for Drexel's Chris Fouch. Warner's greatest attributes are his strength and the attitude he displays. He is stronger than almost any guard he goes up against, and will have a pretty significant strength advantage on both Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford. Norman Powell will also be at a strength disadvantage but Powell is a better athlete and, so far this season, appears to be the one Bruin who has played with some intensity on defense. Jordan Adams may also be asked to guard Warner and although Adams is bigger than Warner, there is some question of Adams' ability to make Warner work. If UCLA shuts down Warner then UCLA wins going away.
Powell may be busy guarding diminutive junior point guard Kareem Storey (5'10" 190 lbs.). Storey may not be very tall, but he also isn't the jitterbug-quick point guard that has given UCLA trouble the past few seasons. Like Warner, Storey relies more on strength than quickness. He isn't much of a scorer, at 6 PPG, and he is a poor shooter (only 35% from the field for the season), but he gets the ball consistently in the hands of the players who can shoot and score. He has an almost 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. The Bruins could conceivably play off Storey, but rather than take bad shots, Storey will simply view it as an opportunity to find his teammates in good positions without fear of defensive harassment.
The Eagles have size in the paint in the form of senior Chad Posthumus (6'11" 265 lbs.). Posthumus isn't very athletic, doesn't have a diversified skill set, but he can rebound very well, averaging almost 12 RPG. Tony Parker and Travis Wear, who will be playing in his first game after an emergency appendectomy a few weeks ago, will have their hands full with Posthumus on the boards. Posthumus is a credible shooter in close and averages 9.8 PPG, but it is his rebounding that really adds to Morehead's chances. The Bruins simply have to keep him off the glass, especially on the offensive end.
Senior Bakari Turner (6'4" 200 lbs.) provides scoring and athleticism, but looking deeper into his game it is apparent that he is struggling. His shooting percentages are pretty poor, being less than 40% from the field overall and less than 30% from behind the arc. He is averaging 13.6 PPG but he is getting those points by throwing up a lot of shots. If he continues to shoot poorly and UCLA can get him to be one of the top two offensive options for the Eagles, then, again, UCLA should win easily. Turner doesn't start but plays starter's minutes.
Sophomore Brent Arrington (6'3" 180 lbs.) averages 12.2 PPG but is much more efficient than either Warner or Turner. Of the three double-digit scorers, Arrington is the most natural athlete. He is also, arguably, the best defender on the team.
The fifth starter is usually senior Drew Kelly (6'6" 230 lbs.). Kelly is more of a "glue guy" than anything else, although he works hard and does rebound decently. The fact of the matter is that UCLA should be able to take advantage of Kelly when he is on the floor, whether it's with one of the Wear brothers playing bigger than Kelly or Kyle Anderson going right at him.
The only other players who get real minutes for Woods are juniors Luka Pujkovic (6'3" 200 lbs.) and Billy Reader (6'10" 260 lbs.). Pujkovic is not the typical eastern European gunner, although he will take his share of threes, but he does like to drive to the hoop. He has been to the line 24 times this season but is only hitting 67% of his free throws. Reader is strictly a substitute to keep Posthumus fresh. It is doubtful that Woods would go with a lineup of both big men on the floor at the same time. The lack of athleticism on Morehead's part, at that point, would be staggering.
When Morehead has the ball, they are going to look to run a variation on the dribble-drive motion. The key idea is that they are going to try to get isolation match-ups, especially with Warner. This kind of offense will be even more in focus when Turner comes in and Kelly goes out. At that point the Eagles will be going with one post and four guards. The Eagles have certainly scouted UCLA's man defense and probably feel a bit confident of running an offense against it. However, UCLA has shown that under Coach Steve Alford the Bruins will be in a defensive system that will help it win particular games. Alford has put the Bruins in zone defense many times so far this season and the game against Morehead screams for a zone on the part of the Bruins. The Eagles are woeful from outside, shooting only 28% from behind the three-point line as a team. In fact, Morehead is only shooting 42% from the floor on the season. The perfect strategy for this game would be to play zone, even have it sag a bit on Posthumus and focus on making sure the Eagles only get one shot at the basket per possession.
When the Bruins have the ball, they need to look to run and Morehead should oblige them, at least somewhat. The Eagles play a style of defense that has its roots in Rick Pitino's Kentucky teams of the 1990s. They look for steals and creating turnovers. That should mean a lot of easy looks for the Bruins if they take care of the ball. However, the Eagles are forcing their opponents into over 20 turnovers per game. The Bruins are only turning the ball over 11 times per contest. If the Eagles can't get the Bruins to turn the ball over, then this will be a blowout.
Of course, trying for so many steals leads to a rising of the opposition's shooting percentage, and predictably, Morehead's opponents are shooting better form the floor than the Eagles, 45% to 42%. The big difference, besides the turnovers, is the dominance Morehead has shown on the boards. The Eagles do average more than 10 RPG more than their opponents.
Finally, Morehead may be 4-1, but they were rolled by the one decent team they've played, Xavier. The other four opponents are pretty mediocre. In fact, both Drexel and Oakland are far better than any of the teams Morehead has defeated. Heck, Sacramento State is probably better than at least two of them.
At first glance, this game could be a bit scary for Bruin fans. However, on closer inspection of the statistics and the tendencies of the two teams, the likelihood of a blowout win for the Bruins is greater than that of a close game. The Cal Poly game from last season was also like that, so anything can happen, but it is unlikely.
Morehead lost at Xavier by 23, and the game was pretty much over at the half. UCLA is arguably a bit better than Xavier on the offensive end and worse on the defensive end. That means the score should be similar, but because of this probably being a faster paced game, the overall score will be higher.
Morehead State 64