UCLA finishes up its trip to Las Vegas tonight when the Bruins play the Northwestern Wildcats of the Big 10. The Bruins, who defeated Nevada last night in easy fashion, are now 6-0 on the season, while Coach Chris Collins' Wildcats are 4-3 after last night's loss at the hands of the Missouri Tigers. Much has been made of UCLA's very easy early season schedule and, quite frankly, even though Northwestern is a Big 10 team, the Wildcats don't figure to substantially raise the quality of competition the Bruins have faced. The game will tip at 8:30 PST at the Orleans Arena and will be televised by ESPN 2.
Collins is in his first year in Evanston and although he figures to be an upgrade over the past 2-3 years of former coach Bill Carmody, the reality is that Collins did not walk into an enviable situation. Collins brings a philosophy of a spread halfcourt offense and stifling man-to-man defense. He learned that style under his Duke mentor and former coach, Mike Krzyzewski . The problem for Collins is that he inherits a roster that is more suited to Carmody's Princeton-style offense and gimmicky defenses. Collins was able to sign a pretty good class in the November sighing period but those reinforcements won't arrive until the summer. For now, Collins is stuck trying to put square pegs in round holes.
If Collins does have anyone on the roster that has taken to his philosophies, it's senior Drew Crawford (6'5" 215 lbs.) and junior Jershon Cobb (6'5" 205 lbs.). Crawford, coming off a lost 2012-2013 season due to injury, is clearly Northwestern's best player and the one Wildcat who could single-handedly keep Northwestern in the game. Crawford is averaging a team-leading 14.3 PPG and 6.9 RPG. He is shooting well from the floor from both inside and outside the three-point line. He is the kind of athletic player who could give UCLA defensive fits. Jordan Adams, for as crafty as he is on the defensive end, simply isn't athletic enough to stay with Crawford on a consistent basis. Freshman Zach LaVine has the length and athleticism to stay with Crawford, but he is not nearly strong enough to defend Crawford should the Wildcat senior decide to post him up. However, this may all be a moot point as Crawford left yesterday's game with back spasms in the first half, returned a bit later but found the discomfort to be too great. He started suffering the spasms on the flight out to Las Vegas and there is a real question as to whether he'll be available tonight. Even if he is, there is every reason to believe that Crawford's back will cause him to play more stiffly on both ends of the floor, thus making him far less effective.
Cobb is averaging 14.1 PPG and is almost a carbon copy of Crawford. He is averaging 4.9 RPG and shoots just about as well from the floor as Crawford. Interestingly, in Northwestern's three losses Cobb has led the Wildcats in scoring with 19, 19 and 22 points respectively. He's also second on the team in assists with 21. He will also be a difficult match-up and based on Northwestern's allocation of minutes, there is every reason to believe that Kyle Anderson or the aforementioned Adams or Lavine will guard Cobb.
The Wildcat point guard is junior Drew Sobolewski (6'1" 180 lbs.). Although he's averaging 10.6 PPG, he's really only playing big minutes because Collins doesn't have someone better on the roster. Sobolewski doesn't shoot well (about 37% from the floor and less than 29% from behind the arc) and is turning the ball over about as much as he is getting assists. Defensively he is a liability when Northwestern plays man defense. This is a spot on the floor where UCLA should have a real advantage with Norman Powell having the ability to force Sobolewski into turnovers. Even UCLA's Bryce Alford should find that he can play with the Wildcat point guard.
The other two starters should be sophomore Romanian Alex Olah (7'0" 265 lbs.) and freshman Sanjay Lumpkin (6'6" 210 lbs.). Olah starts and plays a lot of minutes because Northwestern is very thin up front. Olah isn't much of an athlete or an offensive threat. Further, he doesn't play as big as his size, garnering only 4 RPG. He does have 13 blocks on the year, though, and will guard the paint well. Perhaps Collins will make Olah more of a focal point on offense tonight because of UCLA's perceived defensive weakness in the paint. However, if the game becomes fast-paced, Olah becomes almost useless.
Lumpkin, the son of former NFL defensive back Sean Lumpkin, is a decent, though not great athlete. He is the player who will do the dirty work to help the Wildcats to be successful. He is second on the team in rebounding at 5.7 RPG and plays pretty good defense. He shoots the ball very well from the floor, but he doesn't shoot nearly enough for Collins' liking, playing almost scared with the ball in his hands. Lumpkin has also fouled out of 3 of Northwestern's 7 games.
Northwestern only has two players who get significant minutes off the bench, sophomore Tre Demps (6'2" 193 lbs.) and freshman Nate Traphorn (6'7" 190 lbs.), who is the only signee from last year.
Demps will play a lot and shoot a lot, but his less than 40% shooting isn't helping his team. He also has had a hard time absorbing what Collins wants from him on the defensive end. Demps may end up being a nice player but he's not there yet.
Traphorn is going to be a pretty good Big 10 player, but he's undersized right now for the power forward spot, which is where Collins is playing him. In fact, Northwestern is so thin up front that Crawford has been the starting power forward. He isn't shooting well but that's probably the result of his being physically overmatched on the low block. He tends to do much better when he can pull his opponent out to at least 12 feet.
If Crawford doesn't play then this game is going to be another blowout win for the Bruins. As it is, the statistics point to UCLA being able to do what it wants to Northwestern when the Bruins have the ball. Northwestern's team defense is holding its opposition to about 40% from the field, but when you remove the four low-major teams Northwestern defeated and only look at Missouri, Stanford and Illinois State, Northwestern is allowing almost 50% shooting. Further, although Northwestern is averaging more rebounds per game that its opposition, the reality is that they've gotten beat up pretty bad on the glass in the three losses. The Wildcats were outrebounded last night 35-19. Much of that had to do with the loss of Crawford, but again, if Crawford doesn't play tonight then UCLA will find rebounding that much easier.
Even if Crawford plays, expect Collins to play some zone defense. It may be the only way he can get UCLA to slow down. In fact, don't be surprised if Northwestern dropped two players back off of every Wildcat shot so as to keep from being beaten in transition, and then fall into a zone hoping UCLA doesn't shoot well. It isn't what Collins ultimately wants but he wants to win now and this may be the only way to do it tonight. If Crawford doesn't play then expect a lot of zone from the Wildcats.
Overall, this appears to be a very tough season for the Wildcats. UCLA will make it tougher as the Bruins may be the second-best team on Northwestern's schedule outside of Michigan State. Tracy Pierson wrote in his Nevada game review that this Bruin team might be pretty good, especially considering the poor play seen around the college basketball landscape so far this season. The one caveat is that UCLA really hasn't had to play intense and focused, sustained defense yet. Now, the Bruins may not have to do that more than a handful of games this season and much of it may be because of the mentality of the opposition. If Northwestern does have Crawford, the Wildcats could spread the floor with him and Cobb and see if UCLA is committed in any way to defending. It would be nice to see if the Bruins could do it if asked sooner rather than later.
The reality is that Northwestern is probably not nearly as good as Drexel and may even struggle with Morehead State. Without Crawford, Northwestern isn't as good as Nevada, a team UCLA could have beaten by 40 last night. The name may be that of a Big 10 team, but like most cupcakes, there isn't much once you get past the nice looking exterior. Once again, the Bruins get to have some dessert in the desert.
Things should get considerably tougher next week with UCSB and the trip to Missouri on the docket.
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