Coach Steve Alford's UCLA men's basketball team continues its run through the land of Hostess on Sunday night when the Bruins play yet another ‘cupcake' at Pauley Pavilion. The Tennessee-Chattanooga Moccasins come to Los Angeles for a 7 PM PST tip-off that will be televised on the Pac 12 Network. The Hostess reference is, of course, a bad joke, but the reality is that it is apropos considering the poor level of competition, Drexel notwithstanding, that the Bruins have faced in the first four games of the season. Chattanooga does nothing to raise the profile of UCLA's early season schedule. In fact, the Mocs will rank right up there with Sacramento State as arguably one of the worst teams on the Bruin schedule. As has been the case for at least three of the first four Bruin games, the questions surrounding the game come down to UCLA's intensity on the defensive end and the Bruins' ability to own the glass.
Coach Will Wade's Mocs currently sit at 2-3 overall and have lost to two mediocre low-major programs in Radford and Kennesaw State. To their credit, the Mocs lost a close contest to Nevada on Friday night, 83-81. Nevada is UCLA's opponent on Thanksgiving night in Las Vegas.
Both of Chattanooga's wins have come against non-division 1 competition. When removing those two games from the Mocs' statistics, there are some alarming facts that stand out. First, Chattanooga's defense is very suspect, allowing over 50% shooting in its three losses. Greg Hicks pointed out in his review of the Morehead State game that UCLA's offense appears to be one that can score literally at will, certainly against low major competition. The combination of Chattanooga's porous defense and UCLA's offense is not a recipe for success for Wade's team.
The Mocs also suffer at the offensive end when playing against D1 teams. Much of that has to do with Chattanooga's reliance on mid-range to long-range shooting. Exactly 1/3 of Chattanooga's shots have come from beyond the arc and in their three losses the Mocs have shot 26% from beyond the arc as a team. This is clearly the result of Chattanooga having virtually no inside game. The Mocs will be one of the smallest teams the Bruins face this season.
Wade does have four players that average in double figures, although their statistics are skewed by the two games against non-D1 teams. The problem for Wade is that all four players are wings/guards and don't provide much of an inside presence.
The leader of the team is sophomore Gee McGhee (6'4" 205 lbs.). He leads the team in scoring at 16.4 PPG and is shooting 51% from the floor. However, McGhee has so far this season been a one-trick pony. He is most successful when getting into the lane where he gets good shots or finds himself getting to the line, where he shoots 83%. When opponents have limited McGhee's driving opportunities, though, his shooting falls off precipitously. He is shooting just 25% from behind the arc. McGhee isn't terribly athletic, relying more on his strength than his quickness. When the Bruins play man-to-man defense, both Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson should not be exposed by a more athletic player, provided the Bruins play with defensive intensity.
McGhee doubles as one of the team's two nominal point guards along with freshman Greg Pryor (6'1" 195 lbs.). Pryor averages 13 PPG and has been solid at taking care of the ball. Pryor's weakness has been his shooting. He is at less than 40% from the field overall and less than 20% from behind the arc. Like McGhee, he isn't going to overwhelm the Bruins with athleticism so Norman Powell and any other Bruin guarding Pryor should be able to keep the young Moc out of the lane.
Pryor and McGhee are probably Chattanooga's best defenders, too, with each tying for the team lead in steals and generally being able to at least challenge their individual opponents.
Senior Z. Mason (6'6" 235 lbs.) provides the Mocs sole post presence. He is a former football player at Ole Miss and not surprisingly, his game is predicated on strength rather than athleticism. He is averaging 15.2 PPG and a team-leading 8.2 RPG. He shoots well from the floor, at 52%, but he, too, easily gets enamored with the outside shot. He has taken more than 33% of his shots from behind the three-point line and is only connecting on 23% of those attempts. He is active around the hoop, but after being abused by Morehead's bulky but athletically challenged posts, UCLA's Tony Parker will be happy know that he will have a size and length advantage over Mason. Taking advantage of this will depend on Parker's intensity and activity. For Parker, the competition in the post in this game will more closely resemble Sacramento State and Oakland, two teams against whom Parker had some success.
The last double-digit scorer is sophomore Casey Jones (6'5" 200 lbs.) who averages 10.4 PPG and 5.8 RPG. Jones seemingly recognizes that he isn't a great outside shooter and as a result has only attempted 2 ‘3's this season, missing both. He is shooting 57% from the floor, a result of his shots coming from in the lane. He is also athletic enough to block shots, averaging a little over 1 BPG, (Mason leads the team in this category). Jones is more athletic than the probable Bruin guarding him, whether its Anderson or one of the Wear brothers, but Jones will be facing between a 4 and 5-inch height disadvantage. UCLA should be able to take advantage of this, certainly at the offensive end.
Wade's bench will go four deep, but it will provide no size for the Mocs. Sophomore Eric Robertson (6'4" 200 lbs.) and junior Lance Stokes (6'7" 225 lbs.) will get the bulk of the minutes off the bench, with Robertson providing some scoring punch and Stokes giving some help on interior defense and on the glass. Wade may find himself having to look to Stokes for more minutes than usual in this game simply because the Bruins will have such a size advantage.
If the Mocs do need offense off the bench, then Wade will turn to junior Martynas Bareika (6'5" 215 lbs.). The Lithuanian player is almost solely a three-point specialist, having attempted 18 of his 26 shots from outside the arc. He is a feast or famine player in terms of his shooting and Wade will quickly give him the hook if his shooting seems off. That's because Bareika's shooting is really the only reason he plays, as he is very much a defensive liability.
Sophomore Alex Bran (6'1" 180 lbs.) provides backcourt depth and averages over 7 PPG, but that is the result of the minutes he got in Chattanooga's two blowout wins. He is averaging more that 2 turnovers for every assist and one has to think that if Wade had a more reliable option off the bench that Bran wouldn't play nearly as much.
Like most low to mid-major teams, Chattanooga will mix in both zone and man defenses. However, Wade is a proponent of man-to-man defense and will probably put the Mocs in man defense for much of the game, recognizing that his team's chances of winning are almost non-existent. The problem for the Mocs is that UCLA's offense is much better against man defense than zone, so it is quite the ‘Catch-22' for Wade in terms of what he wants to do.
With UCLA stepping up somewhat in competition starting Thursday, this game offers the Bruins a good opportunity to start playing with purpose on the defensive end of the floor. Alford clearly recognizes his team is at best inconsistent on the defensive end, and at worst, completely disinterested, having said essentially as much in his Morehead postgame press conference. Alford needs to get his team to buy in to playing defense with intensity or else the Bruins are going to learn some hard lessons in the next few weeks. As Tracy Pierson has written in the past, there will be games where UCLA's offense isn't firing on all cylinders and UCLA's commitment or lack thereof to defense will dictate the outcome of games.
This game is the type that good teams use to start to tighten things up in order to get ready for more difficult competition in the future. That really is the question surrounding this game, whether the Bruins will start playing with collectively urgency on the defensive end of the floor. Beyond that, the Bruins will clearly continue to fill up on their Hostess-provided diet of cupcakes.
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