After feasting a bit on two very bad “cupcakes” and one “muffin” (Coastal Carolina), the UCLA men’s basketball team should get its first real test of the season on Sunday night when the Bruins host the Long Beach State 49ers at Pauley Pavilion (7 PM; Pac 12 Network). This will be UCLA’s final game before the Bruins travel to the Bahamas to face three difficult games while taking part in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
UCLA will enter Sunday’s game with a 3-0 record, with all three wins coming against two very poor low major teams in Montana State and Nicholls State and one decent mid-major, the aforementioned Coastal Carolina. While still a mid-major, Long Beach State is a step-up from what has been up to now an easy schedule for the Bruins.
Head coach Dan Monson’s 49ers enter the game fresh off a Friday night home victory over Kansas State of the Big 12. While the Wildcats are nothing like they were just a few seasons ago under Frank Martin, it was still a win over a solid high-major program., one that should finish in the top half of the Big 12. LBSU’s overall record is 2-2, with the two losses being a lopsided loss at a good Xavier team and a very close loss at BYU.
This is the first game for the Bruins where UCLA will have to take advantage of some key match-ups because some of the game minutiae will clearly favor Long Beach State.
When predicting the struggles UCLA should face this season, one of the first and most consistent issues that is addressed is UCLA’s lack of overall athleticism and how the Bruins could struggle to defensively contain teams that are more athletic than the Bruins. Long Beach State is the first opponent that UCLA will face that should be more athletic than the Bruins.
That athleticism, not to mention experience, starts with senior guard Mike Caffey (6’0” 175 lbs.). Caffey is runs the offense, but isn’t a true point guard, being more of a scoring lead guard. That suits the style of offense Monson likes to run. Caffey leads the 49ers in every major offensive category, including 18 PPG, total field goal attempts and three-point shooting percentage. His 46 attempts from the floor is almost double his closest teammate and his 56% clip from behind the arc is excellent. More, he is hitting 58% overall from the floor. He has a very good inside-out game, being able to get into the lane and make shots or at least draw contact. His offensive numbers would be even more significant if he were hitting better than his current 67% from the charity stripe. Further, Caffey leads the team in assists at 4.3 APG, and his 10 steals are far and away the best on the squad. That last statistic is significant because it is more than likely that UCLA’s Bryce Alford will find himself guarded by Caffey throughout the game. It will be the first real test for Alford as the primary UCLA point guard. If Alford is in anyway dominated by Caffey’s defense then expect a Bruin loss; period.
The second of LBSU’s three-guard starting rotation is senior and former Bruin Tyler Lamb (6’5” 205 lbs.). Lamb has only played in two games but is second on the team in scoring at 11.5 PPG. Although Lamb is averaging that point total, more should be expected of Lamb. He hasn’t shot the ball well at all, averaging 43% from the floor overall and a poor 20% from behind the arc. His defense has been spotty and he isn’t rebounding particularly well, although that is a problem that plagues the entirety of the LBSU roster. However, much of those statistics can be thrown out the window. Lamb will surely be motivated to play well in this game. He left UCLA when Ben Howland was still the head coach and did so after the 2012-2013 season had started. The perception was that Lamb felt as if he wasn’t treated well by Howland during his time in Westwood and there is a good chance that Lamb will feel that this game is a good chance to prove to UCLA that losing him was not good for the program. Based on the fact that Caffey will probably guard Alford, expect Lamb to primarily match-up on Isaac Hamilton. Hamilton is the more talented player of the two, but Lamb is probably more athletic and is certainly stronger than the 6’4” 185 lbs. Hamilton. Additionally, it is very unlikely that Hamilton will bring the level of intensity that Lamb will bring to the floor. If there is one hesitation on Lamb being able to fully contribute in a positive manner on Sunday, its that Lamb had a tendency to make some poor, almost immature decisions on the floor in the past and his play up to this point in two games has done nothing to really change that perception. If he is too amped-up for this game it could actually lead to some silly early fouls which will lead to his having much less of an impact than he could otherwise have.
The third starting guard will be senior sharpshooter McKay LaSalle (6’3” 185 lbs.). LaSalle’s game is a statistical anomaly in that through LBSU’s first four contests, he is 11-22 from the field with every shot coming from behind the three-point line. To emphasize just how predicated LaSalle’s game is on outside shooting, he’s only been to the line twice in four games. He is very good at finding open spots on the perimeter and being ready to shoot when Caffey kicks the ball out off of penetration. LaSalle is the kind of player that can devastate UCLA’s poor defensive closeouts because of his accurate outside shooting. However, because he is a very one-dimensional player, a defensively engaged Alford has a realistic chance to effectively guard LaSalle. That will be critical for the Bruins because LBSU’s very good 49% team shooting from behind the arc could very well force UCLA head coach Steve Alford to abandon zone defense for much of the game and opt for man defense in order to better account for Long Beach State’s outside shooters.
Backcourt depth is provided by sophomore Branford Jones (6’1” 175 lbs.), who’s game is very much like Caffey’s, and freshman Deontae North (6’4” 190 lbs.), who plays similarly to Lamb. They are both competent players, although North has been a poor shooter overall to start the season.
Quite frankly, LBSU’s three starting guards have a match-up advantage against UCLA’s three starters, Alford, Hamilton and Norman Powell. Powell’s defense on Caffey when the Bruins play man defense will be critical because Powell is probably the most athletic player of either team’s starting backcourt and arguably the best on-ball defender. However, even if LBSU has an advantage on the wing, the match-ups shift significantly in UCLA’s favor when examining the respective frontcourts.
Monson’s frontcourt is neither as big nor as skilled as UCLA’s. The 49ers rely primarily on seniors David Samuels (6’7” 225 lbs.) and Eric McKnight (6’9” 220 lbs.), with true freshmen Jack Williams (6’8” 195 lbs.) and Temidayo Yussuf (6’7” 260 lbs.) spelling them.
Samuels averages 10 PPG and a team-leading 5.3 RPG and generally plays with a mean streak, something that could clearly offset UCLA’s post advantage. UCLA’s Tony Parker, Thomas Welsh and especially Kevon Looney have to win the low-post match-up with Samuels.
Like Samuels, McKnight averages about 20 MPG as Monson will often opt for a four-guard line-up. McKnight and Samuels collectively average well over 50% shooting from the floor and combine to give LBSU an effective enough inside game that opponents cannot ignore them in order to focus on the backcourt. However, Xavier’s defensive game plan focused on forcing the LBSU inside players to beat them and Long Beach State’s style isn’t reliant on its inside game as anything more than a compliment to its guards. Further, none of the four posts is a threat to shoot from distance, with only Samuels having attempted a three-point shot this season and he only has tried three.
Long Beach State’s calling card is its ability as a team to shoot the ball very well coupled with its shooting percentage defense. The 49ers average almost 52% from the floor while holding their opposition to 44% from the field. The Bruins don’t play particularly good defense so chances are that Long Beach State is going to shoot at or above its season average. The key for the Bruins will be rebounding and turnovers, areas where LBSU has struggled this season.
The Bruins don’t have to shoot the ball at a 60% clip from the floor to win the game, although that will certainly help, but by dominating the glass and forcing LBSU into turnovers, the Bruins can lessen the impact of LBSU’s probably high shooting percentage and will give UCLA more offensive possessions. In their win over Kansas State, the 49ers were able to match the Wildcats on the glass and essentially offset their own 18 turnovers by forcing the Wildcats into 15 of their own. The 49ers didn’t shoot particularly well, at 44% for the game, but they help the Wildcats to 32% from the floor. If KSU had been able to win the rebounding battle or cut down on the turnovers, there is every reason to believe the outcome would have been different despite the poor shooting of the Wildcats. That just emphasizes just how critical it is that UCLA dominates the boards and keeps its turnovers to a minimum.
Long Beach State will play a variety of defenses, but expect the 49ers to play a great deal of ball denial man defense predicated on pressuring UCLA’s Alford. There isn’t a superlative ball handler on the UCLA roster so the Bruins need to be smart and decisive with their passing, especially when UCLA has a chance at easy transition points. For instance, Alford simply cannot try any of the acrobatic, behind-the-back or through the legs passes he has attempted in the previous three games. That will only lead to turnovers and lost opportunities.
The ‘X’ factor for this game, though, will be UCLA’s Looney. Watching him through the first three games it has become apparent that Looney will have the opportunity to be the best player on the floor in every game involving the Bruins this season. That doesn’t mean that he will be; only that he has that kind of talent. LBSU simply doesn’t have anyone or schematically anything that can truly stop Looney if he decides to impose himself at both ends of the floor. He should be able to single-handedly dominate the boards and get to the free throw line with great frequency. Although the LBSU posts have greater athleticism compared to UCLA’s opponents thus far, the size and talent advantage that Looney has is pretty significant. Lastly, LBSU will almost certainly try to extend the floor defensively. This may be the game where the idea that Looney can do some of the same things as former Bruin Kyle Anderson will be tested, namely his ability to bring the ball up against pressure or to relieve pressure.
If Looney isn’t the best player on the floor, then Powell probably will be. His combination of size, strength, athleticism and experience should be too much for any one 49er to handle, but in terms of personnel, the game may very well be decided on how Alford and Hamilton respond to how Long Beach State will almost certainly key on them. Looney, Parker and Welsh can only be effective if the guards are getting them the ball and UCLA struggled doing that in the first half of the Coastal Carolina game. UCLA has to start the game with the intent on offensively involving its inside players.
Tracy Pierson predicted that UCLA would lose one game against a mid-major during the non-conference season, and this game appears to have the highest likelihood of that happening. LBSU’s athleticism will challenge UCLA in ways the Bruins haven’t seen yet. Further, Alford and Hamilton will be playing against three seasoned veteran seniors, one of whom should be highly motivated to play well and beat the Bruins. While Looney may be the best player on the floor, he can’t play all five positions. The game will be close, and, to be honest, Long Beach State is a better team than some of the squads that will be in the Bahamas, (although not Oklahoma), not to mention better than the bottom third of the Pac 12. Even though LBSU likes to play at a faster pace than any of UCLA’s previous opponents, which should help the Bruins, this will be the game where UCLA slips up.
Long Beach State 86
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