The Bruins and Wolfpack will tip off at 4:30 PM PST with the game televised on ESPN 3. Coach David Carter's Wolfpack come into the game reeling a bit, having started the season 3-3, with two of those losses coming to low-major to mid-major teams, Cal State Bakersfield and Morehead State. That would be the same Morehead State team that UCLA beat relatively comfortably last week even though the Bruins didn't play very well in that game. To further illustrate the point, one of Nevada's victories came on a buzzer beater against a Chattanooga team that UCLA just beat by 41 points. Finally, Nevada's strength and depth as a team is in its backcourt, while its frontcourt is very much a work in progress. Quite simply, UCLA is a bad match-up for Nevada.
Nevada does have some talent and it starts with lead guard, senior Deonte Burton (6'1" 190 lbs.), a high-volume shooter that was, at one time, someone that UCLA was looking at as a solution to the point guard situation late in Ben Howland's tenure. Burton, who hit the game winner against Chattanooga, leads the Wolfpack in scoring (24.5 PPG), shot attempts (91), Three-point attempts (32), steals (12) and turnovers (16). Burton is one of those players who is just as apt to shoot his team out of a game as he is to keep them in it. Make no mistake, Burton could light up the floor on Thursday, but he could also be the catalyst to a team meltdown that would help the Bruins win in a laugher. Which Burton will show up is hard to predict. He has clearly said in the past that he has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to several of the schools in the Pac-12, specifically UCLA, for not recruiting him more seriously. Some players can utilize that frustration to help raise their games. Others tend to force things and take their squad out of the concept that basketball is a team game. Burton isn't overly quick and he isn't long, but he is fairly strong and doesn't lack for confidence. Still, the combination of defenders that Alford will throw at him when UCLA is in man defense will be much better and more athletic than anything he has seen yet this season.
There is a drop-off after Burton, although that could be because Burton is so much the offensive focus of the team. Michael Perez (6'3" 190 lbs.) is second on the team in scoring at 11 PPG, but his shooting has been poor. He is below 35% from the field and from behind the arc. Admittedly, he is more of a shooter than a scorer, but still, Carter certainly wishes he was getting better shooting from the junior. Like Burton, Perez doesn't rely on his athleticism much. He generally utilizes screens and becomes the first option that Burton looks for when Burton drives and feels as if he needs to kick out (which isn't often). Again, if Alford chooses to go man defensively, the Bruins should be able to lock down Perez if they give effort on the defensive end. The Bruins certainly still have a ways to go to show that they can bring a consistent defensive effort every night. Perez will split lead-guard duties with Burton.
The third guard in Carter's three-guard starting line-up is, at least in terms of size, Nevada's answer to UCLA's Kyle Anderson. Senior Jerry Evans Jr. (6'8" 210 lbs.) has really been putting in work in the paint rather than on the perimeter. He isn't scoring much, but Carter isn't asking him to do so. He plays hard on the defensive end and leads the team in rebounds at 6.2 RPG. His shooting has been mediocre overall and, for a player expected to play on the perimeter on the offensive end, his three-point shooting has been dreadful. However, in order to ensure that Evans Jr. continues his pattern of poor shooting, the Bruins must work hard to close him out. They certainly want to close out well in general, but when a team is facing a shooter whose confidence is down, that team doesn't want to give that shooter open looks so that he can shoot his way out of it. On the defensive end, Evans Jr. will probably be asked to guard Anderson when Nevada is in a man defense. Evans Jr. hasn't seen anyone with Anderson's unique skill set and style and the Nevada senior, who is averaging almost 4 fouls per game, may find himself fouling out of this contest.
The frontcourt is strikingly thin both in terms of numbers and talent. There is some real athleticism, but it is very raw. Senior Ai Fall (6'9" 250 lbs.) is strictly a low post player, while sophomore Cole Huff (6'8" 205 lbs.) has been asked to play a bit out of position, being that he is on the slight side. Huff has actually been a pleasant surprise in that he is shooting decently from both the floor (48%) and from behind the arc (38%). He is averaging 10.8 PPG and 5.3 RPG. Fall gets his minutes because he is one of the few true ‘big' bodies that carter has on the roster. To give an idea of the talent discrepancy between what the Bruins have in the frontcourt compared to Nevada, think back to when UCLA played Morehead State. Chad Posthumus, the big post from Morehead, really outplayed UCLA's Tony Parker. That must have been the appetizer for the Eagle big man, because he absolutely destroyed Nevada on the boards, coming down with 16 in that game and really altering anything Nevada wanted to do inside the paint. Fall and Huff combined for 8 rebounds in that game. The long and short of it is that it is very unlikely that Nevada is going to hurt the Bruins much in the paint on either end of the floor.
Fall's other failing is that he struggles in an up-tempo game. It's clear that UCLA is going to try and push the pace and if it looks like the Bruins are winning the pace battle, then look for Carter to go small, pulling Fall off the floor in favor of sophomore Marqueze Coleman (6'3" 195 lbs.) or true freshman D.J. Fenner (6'6" 205). Coleman is an athlete, but he is still a bit raw and, quite frankly, he hasn't been playing well. Carter wants him to be more aggressive and to use his outside shot. Coleman is a slasher, but he hasn't been to the free throw line as much as Carter would like, settling for too many mid-range jumpers, and he's only attempted 5 ‘3's on the season. He will play hard on defense, although a bit out of control, and he does have the kind of athleticism that will show up when the proverbial "light bulb goes off".
Fenner is almost strictly a post presence, even with his slight build. He has better rebounding numbers than Fall and he is long enough that he is second on the team in steals. He struggles on the offensive end, though, averaging only 2.8 PPG.
There are three factors that bode well for the Bruins and don't bode well for the Wolfpack. First, the Pack really struggles to rebound. Even with five games against low-to-mid major teams and one against a non-division 1 school, Nevada is getting outrebounded. One area of concern for the Bruins is their ability to stay competitive on the glass. That shouldn't be an issue in this game; in fact, the Bruins should own the boards.
Next, Nevada just isn't a good defensive team. While the Wolfpack shoot 45% from the floor as a team, they are giving up 48% from the field. Against a team like UCLA, who likes to run and looks to be a fairly strong offensive squad, that's not a recipe for success.
Finally, Nevada doesn't cause turnovers. In six games the Pack has only forced 84 turnovers. That number becomes more concerning when removing the 16 turnovers the Pack forced against Montana Tech. UCLA doesn't turn the ball over anyway, but if Nevada can't hold UCLA to one shot or make them work particularly hard on offense, then they have to turn the Bruins over and it just doesn't look like that will happen.
This game is setting up to be a 20-25 point victory for the Bruins. However, there are two caveats. The first is whether UCLA brings anything approaching its ‘A' game, even if just in spurts. If UCLA show disinterest then this game could be much closer than expected. The second caveat is UCLA's shooting. Carter will more than likely play a lot of zone, or at least mix in some with his sagging man defense, and if UCLA simply isn't shooting well from outside or the Bruins are settling for too many outside shots, then things could get closer.
However, there is so much that would need to go right for the Wolfpack to even make this game competitive, that the chances of that are remote. Perhaps UCLA will be thrown off by having to play away from Pauley Pavilion, but it's not as if UCLA is traveling to play UNLV in Vegas. In fact, some in the crowd may root for the Bruins simply because they are not going to root for the school from Reno.
Chattanooga was able to control tempo and UCLA should be able to do the same. Conservatively, UCLA should be able to put up 85 on Nevada, and let's go with that. Let's also assume that Nevada ups its game a bit and starts playing closer to the level that some expected coming into the season.