Perhaps Coach Steve Alford can see the benefits of going with the junk defense for at least part of Saturday's game against Missouri. The game, which will be UCLA's first true road test of the season, will tip at 9:30 AM PST and be televised nationally on CBS. The visit to Columbia represents an opportunity for the Bruins to show the nation, and probably themselves, that their 8-0 start is not a fluke…even if it is a start filled with cupcakes.
Missouri also comes into the contest with an identical 8-0 record, and like UCLA, Missouri's victories have been against some real fluff opposition. On Thursday, the Tigers defeated West Virginia in Columbia by 9. The game wasn't truly that close, as Missouri had a solid double-digit lead at the half and held it for much of the game. However, here's the thing…West Virginia is a bad team this year. In fact, of the 14 combined opponents (both UCLA and Missouri faced Nevada and Northwestern in Las Vegas), the best one so far has clearly been Drexel, followed relatively closely by UC Santa Barbara.
This contest is going to come down to a set of factors, all of which could ebb and flow from moment to moment, but which should be the major influences on the game. However, there are some individual match-ups to explore.
Missouri Coach Frank Haith, who recently returned from a six-game suspension handed down by the NCAA for events that took place while Haith was the head coach at Miami (Fla.), does not have a deep team. By comparison, the Bruins have the depth of the Marianas Trench. The Tigers essentially play six men and, of the six, only three contribute to the scoring column. Oddly, those three are all transfers.
The point guard is junior transfer from Tulsa Jordan Clarkson (6'5" 193 lbs.). Clarkson is the team's leading scorer at 20.1 PPG and is shooting very well from the floor (53%). He is more of a lead guard than a point guard, with a scoring mentality more than a passing one. He will be very difficult to guard for the Bruins, but he is only mediocre at taking care of the ball. He loves to drive to the basket, but that may be because of his other weakness…more on that in a bit.
Perhaps the best player on the Tiger roster is junior Jabari Brown (6'5" 214 lbs.), a transfer from Oregon. He averages 19.1 PPG, is shooting 50% from the field and 44% from behind the arc. That last number is particularly important. He is more of a shooter than a scorer, as more than half his shot attempts have been from the three-point line, but he can score in a variety of ways. However, Brown is also very average when it comes to valuing the ball.
The third player in Haith's three-headed monster is senior Earnest Ross (6'5" 228 lbs.), a transfer from Auburn. Ross is a poor man's Brown; he turns the ball over as much, takes about the same percentage of his shots from outside the arc and has about the same rebounding numbers. The big differences are that Ross averages 13.8 PPG and that Ross shoots 29% from three. Clarkson is even worse, at 21%. In fact, outside of Brown, Missouri is a very poor outside shooting team. Rewind to the opening of this preview…because Brown is the only reliable outside shooter on the Tiger roster, wouldn't a box-and-one make sense? After all, Alford could throw a combination of Norman Powell, Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine at Brown, keeping the Bruins fresh and wearing out Brown.
About the only other player on Missouri to truly look at is true freshman Johnathan Williams (6'9" 208 lbs.) because he is averaging just a shade less than 8 RPG, leading the team. He isn't a great shooter, being less than 45% from the floor and barely 50% from the free throw line.
The other two players who see the floor for double-digit minutes recently are true freshman Wes Clark (6'0" 171 lbs.) and senior Tony Criswell (6'9" 240 lbs.). Clark is at least a true point guard, almost matching Clarkson for the team lead in assists while averaging 11 less MPG. He is actually a decent shooter but he hasn't done it enough this season, clearly preferring to defer to the big three of Clarkson, Brown and Ross. Criswell is a concern not because of his scoring, which is almost non-existent, but because of his board work. He averages about the same number of rebounds as Brown and Ross in half as many minutes.
Finally, senior Ryan Rosburg (6'10" 252 lbs.) has started every game but his minutes have plummeted over the past two weeks. He's basically playing about 9 MPG right now. He is the only Tiger in the rotation that won't be attempting a three-point shot in the game.
More than the individual match-ups, the situation surrounding the game should have a dramatic effect, one way or another, on the outcome. First is the tip-off time. UCLA will be playing a game that is starting at essentially 9:30 AM for them. In the past, UCLA has not responded well to playing so early. However, that was under Ben Howland. With Alford at the helm, it remains to be seen if the Bruins will be as asleep at tip. Until proven otherwise, the assumption must be that the Bruins will start slow.
The revenge factor should certainly play a part. Many Missouri fans felt last season was a disappointment and that started with Missouri's loss at UCLA. Missouri was highly ranked at the time and the overtime loss in Pauley really seemed to set them back for a few weeks. The Missouri players that were on the roster for that game (Criswell and Ross) definitely remember and are surely reminding their teammates of the tough loss on the coast.
The last 8 minutes of the UCSB game aside, UCLA's defense has been really bad so far this season, and Missouri is the kind of team that can feed off that poor effort. Missouri is athletic, more athletic than any team UCLA has yet seen this season. If UCLA can play defense for the majority of the game as it did for the final 8 the other night, then UCLA stands a very good chance of winning.
Not everything is lining up against the Bruins; Missouri will be playing on a day when most of the state will be getting ready for the SEC football title game or the NCAA tournament volleyball match. There have been pundits that have said and written that Missouri should consider itself lucky if it can get Mizzou Arena to half capacity for the game. The point is that the gym is going to be relatively empty because of the unique circumstances surrounding this particular Saturday.
The Missouri roster is almost completely turned over from last season. Ross is the only one of the starting five who was on the active roster last season. The Tigers have yet to face a good opponent, which is usually when cracks formed by lack of familiarity tend to show. UCLA, mostly because of Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson, have played, at least offensively, like a team that knows itself and its individual parts.
However, of all of this, perhaps the most important factors in the game are rebounding and turnovers. Missouri is going to be arguably the best rebounding team UCLA faces this season, period. The Tigers average over 40 RPG and 10 offensive RPG. They destroyed West Virginia on the boards 40-32. UCLA will be very hard pressed on the glass. Missouri is averaging 11 more RPG than its opponents. Think about that; that's 11 more possessions or another 33 points conceivably on the floor for the Tigers.
In spite of this factor, Missouri has struggled to put some teams away, primarily because the Tigers are one of the worst BCS conference teams in the country at taking care of the ball. They have 92 assists on the season, good for a respectable 10.5 APG, however they have a whopping 103 turnovers. That's almost 14 TPG. That more than cancels out the 11 RPG advantage the Tigers have against their opponents. UCLA has forced 118 turnovers this season, or almost 15 per game, which is very good.
The issues of rebounding and turnovers will be the ones that dictate the outcome of the game. Certainly, if they cancel each other out then the other factors, such as the early start or the possibility of a half-empty gym, will come into play. However, if either the Tigers or Bruins can keep the other from dominating their area of weakness, then the rest of the factors won't matter much.
The Bruins will probably force enough turnovers to keep the game close, but UCLA can't keep playing defense the way it has and expect to be successful against better teams. That's why Alford's choice of defense is critical. As much as UCLA needed to go man against UCSB to offset the outside shooting of the Gauchos, the Bruins need to do the opposite against Missouri. The Tigers have better athletes and will relentlessly get into the lane against the Bruin man defense. However, the Tigers, outside of Brown, have proven to be horrible from the outside. UCLA could give up the kind of open looks it did in Las Vegas and Missouri should fail to take advantage of that, that's how poor the Tigers are from the outside, aside from Brown…thus the suggestion of a box-and-one.
Things truly could go any way, with a missed free throw or a bad bounce dictating the outcome of the game.
Because it's UCLA's first true road game, the winning streak will end in Columbia, but expect it to be close. In fact, don't be surprised at overtime for the second straight year.