The UCLA men’s basketball team returns to action on Thursday night when the Bruins host the Nicholls State Colonels at Pauley Pavilion (8 PM, Pac 12 Network). The Bruins are coming off a relatively comfortable 13-point win over Coastal Carolina, while the Colonels lost their season opener by 17 at North Texas.
Nicholls State, which is located in Thibodaux, Louisiana, is a member of the Southland Conference and has been an NCAA Division I program since the late 1980s. Since their move from NCAA Division II to Division I, the Colonels have had a small run of success in the mid-90s, with two NCAA Tournament appearances. They lost both times in the first round by lopsided margins. Since 1998, when the Colonels last appeared in the Big Dance, they have been pretty consistently mediocre to poor. Last season the Colonels finished 14-15, and their two best players have graduated. That has left head coach J.P. Piper with a massive rebuilding job.
The one thing that the Colonels have had is consistency. Piper is in his 11th season in Thibodaux and his overall record is almost 80 games under .500. That would get most coaches their walking papers, but it’s pretty clear that athletics are not a primary priority to the university leaders.
While Nicholls State is a pretty bad low-major squad, it isn’t quite Montana State-bad. However, it’s close, and that’s mostly because of the inexperience on the roster. Almost all of Piper’s most talented players are in their first or second year of college basketball. A notable exception is the best returning statistical player, junior T.J. Carpenter (6’4” 200 lbs.). Carpenter is built more like a power forward from the waist up and it’s not surprising that he is the most accomplished rebounder on the roster. He is strong but not very quick or fast. He should take the majority of shots for the Colonels, although he was 2-11 from the field in the opener, including 1-8 from behind the arc. As the season progresses, Carpenter will more than likely fill the same role he had on last season’s squad: that of a solid complimentary player who can perform relatively well at a number of skills. However, his skill set does not fit that of a team’s go-to guy.
That role may fall to redshirt sophomore Ja’Dante’ Frye (6’4” 180 lbs.). He is a much better athlete than Carpenter and can play both guard positions. He is a decent mid-range shooter who can get to the rack, but most of his game is played inside the arc. He had 14 points in the opener while going 7-13 from the field. He is still an unproven player at the college level as he was used sparingly last season.
Two Australian players will man the low block in junior Sam McBeath (6’7” 190 lbs.) and sophomore Liam Thomas (6’10” 195 lbs.). Both are slight, though they have good court awareness. McBeath can be counted on to rebound more while Thomas provides a low post scoring presence. To give an idea of Thomas’ slight build, he is only 2 inches shorter than UCLA’s Thomas Welsh, who doesn’t exactly look hefty, yet Welsh weighs 55 pounds more than Thomas.
The one player that Piper and the Colonels look to be missing is senior point guard Schane Rillieux (6’2” 190 lbs.). He was far and away last season’s assist leader for the Colonels. He doesn’t score much, but he did a good job of keeping turnovers to a minimum, both for himself and his teammates. He was injured early in the Colonels’ exhibition game at the beginning of the month and didn’t play against North Texas. It remains to be seen if he will dress for Thursday’s game.
The remainder of the roster is dotted with true sophomores and juniors who are junior college transfers. The squad generally lacks athleticism and size, and those who do have some bounce and quickness are inexperienced and played out of control this past weekend in Texas.
Piper’s teams have some interesting statistical anomalies over the years. The Colonels tend to force more turnovers than they commit, but they don’t shoot well and they have been dominated on the glass. The first game of the season was no different as Nicholls State committed 17 turnovers but forced North Texas into 21 turnovers of its own. However, the Colonels shot 33% from the field, 20% from behind the three-point line and 57% from the free throw line. North Texas wasn’t any great shakes, either, hitting 34% from the floor and only a single three-pointer. However, the Mean Green hit 34 free throws while Nicholls State only attempted 18. Additionally, the Mean Green outrebounded Nicholls State 36-22.
Much like Coastal Carolina’s Cliff Ellis, Piper would like to see the game in the low-to-mid 60’s — at worst in the low 70’s — so the Colonels will slow the pace as much as they can and prioritize getting back on defense so as to prevent UCLA fast break and secondary break buckets. They will play some man, but the Bruins do have a significant talent advantage when operating their man offense, so expect to see the Colonels in a variety of zone defenses much of the game. Their one hope for an upset lies in their ability to mix up their zones so as to confuse the Bruins, slow the game down and hope that UCLA has a really off shooting night.
Nicholls State doesn’t have the kind of shooters it would take for the Colonels to fully take advantage of the holes in UCLA’s team and individual basis. For this game to be close, let alone see a possible upset, UCLA would have to have a historically bad collective shooting night.
There is no one on the Colonel roster who can remotely hang with UCLA’s Kevon Looney. Both Norman Powell and Isaac Hamilton will have a significant talent advantage and, in Powell’s case, a significant athletic advantage.
This is the type of game where Alford needs to continue to develop the bench players. They will be much more needed next week when UCLA travels to the Bahamas to challenge its team identity. Until then, UCLA should load up on another cupcake.
Nicholls State 62
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