After thrashing Montana State on Friday night, the UCLA men’s basketball team faces a sterner test on Sunday night when the Bruins host the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers at Pauley Pavilion (7 PM; Pac 12 Network). Coastal comes into the game off a Friday night victory of its own, having defeated NCAA Division II Trinity Baptist, 79-36.
The victory over a mediocre Division II school didn’t really provide any insight into the Chanticleers in much the same way the Montana State victory probably said little about the Bruins. Make no mistake, though, Coastal Carolina is a very good mid-major squad, one that should give UCLA head coach Steve Alford a clearer picture of things as the Bruins get ready to travel to the Bahamas next week.
Coastal is led by head coach Cliff Ellis, who is in his 8th season as the head of the Conway, South Carolina, school. Ellis has seen his share of the limelight in his coaching past, having been the head man at both Clemson and Auburn and having some success at both. During his stay at Clemson, Ellis steered the Tigers to an ACC regular season title, while he reached the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament in 1999 at Auburn. Ellis, in fact, has quite the resume, having also been the head coach and athletic director at South Alabama and Cumberland College earlier in his career. While Ellis was known for coaching teams that somewhat underachieved in the postseason, he is also known for taking middling basketball players with good athleticism and turning them into a cohesive team of winners. His tenure at Coastal has been no different in terms of his ability to blend players of disparate talent.
Coastal is the defending Big South champions and gave ACC champion Virginia all it could handle in the 2014 NCAA Tournament before falling in the second round. The vast majority of the roster that played the Cavaliers so closely returns, so the Chanticleers have quite a bit of big-game experience. The fact that the game is in Westwood should be of little consequence as far as the Chanticleers are concerned.
Four of last season’s top statistical players return for Ellis, but the one loss is a big one; El Hadji Ndiequene was far and away Coastal’s leading rebounder last season and the one true post player they had on the roster. He was a defensive presence who allowed Ellis’ three-guard line-up to play ball-denial defense knowing Ndiequene could clean up things if one of the guards was beaten. There is no one on the current roster that has Ndiequene’s set of physical gifts, specifically his 6’10”, 240-pound frame.
The three guards do return and they provided almost all of the offensive firepower for the Chanticleer offense last season. Sophomore shooting guard Elijah Wilson (6’4” 205 lbs.) led the Chanticleers in scoring last season at 15.8 PPG. However, he has been a below-average shooter, hitting on only 43% of his shots from the floor and less than 31% of his three-point attempts. He was also slightly less than 70% from the charity stripe. In some ways, his point totals were the result of his being a high-volume shooter. He is a decent rebounder, averaging 4.1 RPG last season, and a solid, though not great defender. It will be interesting to see whom, when the Bruins are in man-to-man defense, Alford assigns to guard him. Wilson only had 2 points in the season opener.
Senior Warren Gillis (6’3” 205 lbs.) is the lead guard. He was second on the team in scoring last season at 14.7 PPG. He led the team in assists with 106, and in steals with 56. He was and is the key to the team. He’s not a true point guard, looking for his own shot as much as not, but he is experienced and knows how to get his teammates involved. He was the MVP of last season’s Big South Tournament and a second team All-Big South selection. While he didn’t average as many points per game as Wilson, his shooting percentages were much higher from both the field and behind the arc. Gillis is also an excellent free-throw shooter, averaging 85% from the line last season.
The third guard is senior Josh Cameron (6’1” 175 lbs.), who averaged 13.8 PPG last season. Cameron didn’t start Friday night’s game, but he plays starter’s minutes and is a key to Coastal’s success this season. Although his game is very much like Wilson’s in that he takes about the same percentage of his overall shot attempts from behind the arc, he is much more successful from three. He averaged about 38% from long distance last season and has the capability of being a zone-buster. However, he struggled a bit in the past against zone defenses that had length. He led the team with 16 points on Friday night, and half of his shot attempts came from behind the three-point line.
The other starting guard is redshirt sophomore Shivaughn Wiggins (5’11” 180 lbs.), a former Northeast Conference Rookie of the Year when he was at Mount St. Mary’s. His game is much like Gillis’ in that he is more of a lead guard than a true point. That means that Ellis is going to be able to put two ball handlers on the floor for much of the game on Sunday night. Friday night was his first game in 16 months and he ended up with an efficient 12 points and 3 assists in 26 minutes.
Coastal’s frontcourt is probably going to see a three-man rotation for the two post spots. Junior Uros Ljeskovic (6’8” 240 lbs.) has inherited Ndiequene’s starting spot and he is athletically a major drop-off from the former Coastal big man. He did rebound very well on Friday night, pulling down 12 boards in only 19 minutes, but that was very likely due to the competition level. He is a below-average shooter and is historically poor from the free-throw line, hitting only 47% last season and 50% in the season opener. Perhaps most importantly, he isn’t the defensive presence that Ndiequene was and his lateral quickness is much like Montana State’s Danny Robison.
Junior Badou Diagne (6’7” 220 lbs.) is the best interior player on the squad. He averaged 6.5 RPG last season and 8 PPG. He is also an accomplished shot blocker. He is a very good athlete and is reminiscent of UCLA’s Wanaah Bail, only more polished. Diagne is a solid offensive player and has the ability to hit outside shots with regularity. When Ellis chooses to play man defense, he will almost certainly have Diagne guard UCLA’s talented freshman Kevon Looney. That should be an excellent match-up.
The final piece of the frontcourt is junior Michael Enanga (6’5” 215 lbs.). He can be a defensive force and knows how to hit the glass, but unlike Diagne, he has a very raw offensive game. Like Diagne, he is a very good athlete.
Ellis likes to vary his defenses, but the Bruins should expect to see fullcourt pressure at times. Handling that pressure, or making quick adjustments when the pressure forces turnovers, will be a key for the Bruins and for Alford. Ellis likes to put pressure on the ball and is a classic up-the-line, on-the-line man-to-man defensive coach. The Bruins have the ability to beat this defense mainly because Ndiequene isn’t manning the paint for the Chanticleers. In fact, Coastal is much smaller than the Bruins so UCLA should be able to shoot over the Chanticleers on a regular basis. Further, Coastal’s three guards don’t include a player that can single-handedly guard UCLA’s Norman Powell. It remains to be seen how Ellis will address that mismatch.
Coastal will look to push the ball on offense, but nothing like UCLA does. They will run a secondary break but the Chanticleers have a great deal of confidence and experience in their halfcourt offense. They will vary from ball screens to screening away in the classic motion offense. They are also good at recognizing open shooters off drives in the paint. What Coastal doesn’t do is shoot well as a team from outside. Tracy Pierson and Greg Hicks have both opined multiple times leading up to this season that UCLA’s line-up, both in terms of talent and lack of depth, is conducive to playing a zone defense. UCLA has much more length than Coastal but Coastal is quicker and more experienced. If there were a game early in the season where UCLA should play almost exclusively zone, this is it.
There is another key to UCLA’s defense. Although Montana State was able to put up 78 points and shoot just under 50% for the game, there is an argument that can be made that UCLA’s first-half defense, which forced the Bobcats to shoot only 39%, was much more active than most of UCLA’s games from last season. The Bruins aren’t going to be a great defensive squad, but they seemed more engaged on the defensive end on Friday night, at least in the first half, when the game was essentially decided. The 78 points partially came from the tempo of the game, which was much higher than I anticipated in the Montana State preview, and the higher shooting percentage MSU displayed in the second half came with UCLA clearly dropping off considerably in its defensive intensity level.
Again, UCLA is not nor will it be a great defensive team, however the effort the Bruins displayed in the first half of Friday’s victory could prove to be difficult for Coastal’s offense to break down…if the Bruins use a zone as their primary defense.
Another factor looming large in this game is turnovers, and the fact that Coastal is not great at taking care of the ball. The Chanticleers had more turnovers than their opposition, which isn’t good considering the Big South is filled with low-major teams, and things didn’t seem to improve much on Friday as Coastal had 17 turnovers against a bad D II squad. If Coastal doesn’t value the ball then UCLA will have an opportunity to get out on the break much like the Bruins did against Montana State.
The last big factor should be rebounding. Coastal is not a big squad, relying on athleticism to make up for a lack of size. If UCLA can take advantage of its size against the Chanticleers, both in terms of holding Coastal to one-shot possessions and in terms of offensive rebounding, then UCLA should be able to dictate things for much of the game.
This is an intriguing match-up in that Coastal Carolina clearly won’t be intimidated by playing at Pauley Pavilion and they have a great deal of talented experience. On the other hand, UCLA should win the turnover battle and should shoot at a higher clip than the Chanticleers. Rebounding should help tilt the balance one way or the other.
Ellis wants the game in the high 60s or low 70s, while UCLA’s Alford would like to see the Bruins get into the 80s. If Coastal is to pull off the upset then the Chanticleers need to limit UCLA’s transition opportunities, which is difficult for a team that struggles with turnovers.
Tracy Pierson predicted this to be UCLA’s “bad” non-conference loss, but the match-ups, at least on paper, favor UCLA. Long Beach State, who the Bruins face next week, have a line-up that seems more likely to beat the Bruins, if either can actually do it. The X factor is going to be how UCLA handles facing some adversity, as should happen at times against such an experienced squad. This is where Norman Powell needs to lead his younger teammates and keep them calm when things go pear-shaped.
Coastal Carolina 72
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