Montana State Preview

Nov. 13 -- UCLA opens the season at home with one of their weakest opponents, Montana State...

The UCLA men’s basketball team begins its 2014-2015 regular season when the Bruins host the Montana State Bobcats of the Big Sky Conference on Friday night at Pauley Pavilion (9 PM, Pac-12 Network).

With all due respect to the top-ranked UCLA women’s soccer team (which opens NCAA play on Friday night at 7 PM) and the women’s basketball team (which begins its season with a 10 AM tip-off at James Madison), the fact that the UCLA football team has a bye-week means that the majority of the focus of the UCLA athletic fan community will squarely be on the men’s basketball program on Friday. Coach Steve Alford is entering his second season in Westwood and he and his staff have faced quite a bit of scrutiny since the somewhat disappointing loss to Florida last spring that knocked the Bruins out of the NCAA Tournament.

Since that loss, Alford and the program have seen five key players leave the program, either because of graduation or early entry into the NBA draft, including first-round selections Kyle Anderson, Zach LaVine and Jordan Adams. In addition, Travis Wear has made the initial New York Knicks roster and is getting some playing time. That’s four NBA players that Alford is looking to replace. To say that the team is going to have numerous ‘unknowns’ going into the season is a massive understatement.

Alford will be closely studied by fans this season as he figures out rotational minutes, in-game adjustments, and defensive principles with his players. While there were quite a few personnel losses, the Bruins are not devoid of talent. It will be up to Alford to get the best out of that talent and help the Bruins earn a relatively unexpected NCAA bid by March.

In fact, the problem with the Bruins isn’t so much a lack of talent as it is a lack of depth, specifically in the backcourt. The Bruins will start sophomores Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton, both of whom will be responsible for point guard duties, and senior Norman Powell. After those three the Bruins really only have sophomore Noah Allen as depth off the bench for three spots.

The frontcourt has much more depth but actually has less experience than the backcourt. Junior Tony Parker is set to start in the low post alongside true freshman Kevon Looney. The depth will be supplied by freshman Thomas Welsh and sophomore Wannah Bail. Because of the lack of backcourt depth, Looney may even be asked to occasionally play the ‘3’ spot on the floor. Alford has seemed almost giddy in the preseason at Looney’s ability to handle the ball, going so far as to recently state that Looney has the proverbial green light to be the primary ball handler off of rebounds in order to initiate some quick offense. To be fair to Alford, the coach did not state that Looney would be running the point or that Looney was the recently departed Anderson, but he did say they have some similarities.

For the most part, those eight players will make up the Bruin rotation for the season. There is not a great deal of depth because of the frontcourt-heavy talent, and the team does not have a true scholarship point guard, but the team does have talent.

After the exhibition win over Asuza Pacific and the reported demolition of UNLV in a ‘secret’ scrimmage, Powell appears ready for a dominant year. His slashing ability on offense coupled with his lock down defensive presence should see Powell win all-Pac 12 honors. Expect Powell to lead the Bruins in scoring this season.

Bryce Alford is a very good spot-up shooter that, when he plays within himself and is put in good positions, can be a real weapon (look at the Oregon game at Pauley last season after Coach Alford moved Bryce off the point). The coach has been solid in his praise of his son since practice began in October. If the younger Alford has improved both as a decision-maker and a defender, then this Bruin team will have the potential to surprise.

Hamilton was a high-volume scorer in high school, and while he is trying to curb his tendency to also be a high-volume shooter, the fact is Hamilton has the potential to score close to 20 points on any given night. A big key to the season will be how Hamilton transitions to the point guard role.

Looney has the most ‘NBA’ talent on the roster and could be the best pure rebounder the program has seen since Kevin Love wore the UCLA uniform. He has the potential to be a match-up nightmare for opposing teams.

Parker was hailed as a top prep post player and could see the proverbial ‘lightbulb’ come on in this, his third year in the program (although only his second with Alford), and Welsh comes in with the reputation of having a very polished game and understanding of any freshman.

Norman Powell.
There will be lingering questions that will continue throughout the season, namely whether the Bruins can get any significant contributions from Allen and/Bail, which will go a long way to alleviating the fear that this squad stands a good chance to tire-out come February, not to mention the possibility of fatigue-induced injuries. There will also be questions about how the offense will perform without Anderson to bail out poor possessions, or how the defensive intensity will be, seeing as how last year’s team defense was spotty at best.

However, the answers to those questions, and probably a great deal more, will begin to clarify starting Friday night when a very unproven Bobcat squad comes to Pauley.

Montana State is coming off a pretty mediocre season, finishing last season at 14-17 and being bounced in the first round of the Big Sky Conference Tournament. Head coach Brian Fish is entering his first season in Bozeman after having served many years as an assistant with Oregon’s Dana Altman. He is leading a roster that lost five of its top six statistical players off that 14-17 season. Further, Fish, at least publically, is espousing a pressure defense with a high-tempo offense, and the MSU roster was built to contest passing lanes in the halfcourt and use the majority of the shot clock.

Fish does inherit a relatively solid, yet diminutive backcourt in junior Marcus Colbert (5’11” 180 lbs.) and senior Michael Dison (5’9” 160 lbs.). Colbert is a returning starter and will more than likely be the leading scorer. Last season he led the Bobcats in three-point attempts and assists. His 9.4 PPG were tempered by the fact that he didn’t attempt that many shots compared to some teammates and he really didn’t get to the free throw line. About half of his shots came from beyond the arc. He also led the Bobcats in turnovers. He did lead the Bobcats with 19 points in their exhibition victory over Montana Western.

Dison is a virtual carbon-copy of Colbert, only a bit shorter and without as deft of a shooting touch. He does get to the line more often as a percentage of his shots than does Colbert, but he isn’t a great free throw shooter, averaging only 54% last season. He scored 15 points in the exhibition win.

After those two, Fish’s rotation is anybody’s guess. Junior post Danny Robison (6’8” 225 lbs.) looks likely to start in the low post, but he is a very average athlete and his skill set doesn’t translate well to Fish’s preferred up-tempo style. He isn’t a great rebounder but will play physically on defense.

Senior post Eric Norman (6’9” 220 lbs.) could also start in the post, and he is the leading returning rebounder at 4.4 RPG last season, but he didn’t feature in the exhibition game.

Although there are many newcomers that Fish is counting on to contribute, there are two freshmen that are of particular interest, Zach Green (6’4” 195 lbs.) and Quinn Price (6’9” 205 lbs.). Green may be the focal point of the offense in two years, having a decent stroke and athleticism. He is a natural ‘3’ player and is about the same kind of player that Noah Allen was coming out of high school.

Price is a face-up ‘4’, although he needs to develop his shot. However, he has a great motor, is a natural rebounder and has the kind of bounce that should make him the most natural shot blocker on the Bobcat roster.

Finally, look for sophomore guard Stephen Holm (6’3” 175 lbs.) to be a spark off the bench with his outside shooting. He is the one player that will have the ability to hit for more than 50% from behind the arc if the Bruins leave him open.

Montana State is going to be among the least talented opponents on the Bruin schedule and one of the least experienced. That lack of experience showed in their exhibition win over Montana Western, where the Bobcats were down at the half. More significantly, the Bobcats were beaten pretty badly on the glass throughout much of the game. The Bruins should dominate the boards against MSU, with Looney standing a good chance at a high double-double.

MSU’s style of play also should play into UCLA’s hands. If the Bruins struggle on offense, it will be in the halfcourt. Teams that force the Bruins to work the ball against the clock should see success, especially early in the season. If UCLA upsets a team in the non-conference schedule, there’s a good chance that team allowed the Bruins to get out for easy buckets.

Even if MSU is ultimately able to properly pressure opponents into turnovers and easy points, the chances of that happening against the Bruins is remote at best. Fish is asking a team with numerous newcomers to adapt to a system that even the veterans haven’t seen yet. That’s a recipe for a lopsided affair.

Look for the Bruins to hiccup a bit as they transition Hamilton and Looney into the starting line-up and try to get Bail and Allen plenty of early minutes. However, with MSU facing even more issues than the Bruins, and UCLA having dramatically more talent across the board, look for UCLA to ride to an easy opening win.

UCLA 81
Montana State 57

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