UCLA’s men’s basketball team continues its run in the Battle 4 Atlantis on Thanksgiving evening when the Bruins face the North Carolina Tar Heels in the consolation bracket of the Bahamas-based tournament (4:00 PST Axs TV). The Bruins lost their first round game to Oklahoma by 10, while the #5-ranked Tar Heels were bested by the Butler Bulldogs, 74-66.
The Oklahoma game preview mentioned that UCLA had a real shot at winning two games in the Bahamas. The reasonability of that happening has dropped considerably. The Bruins lost a game they easily could have won and now have to face one of the two most talented teams in the field in head coach Roy Williams’ Tar Heels.
This is the first game this season where the Bruins will be facing a bigger team. UNC’s frontcourt is built around sophomore Kennedy Meeks (6’9” 270 lbs.), who will make UCLA’s Tony Parker look incredibly svelte by comparison. Meeks is the leading scorer and rebounder on the squad, averaging a double-double for the season. He did have a very quiet 7 points against Butler, but still hauled in 10 boards. He will be very difficult for UCLA to handle in the post.
The other players who receive significant minutes are juniors Brice Johnson (6’9” 228 lbs.) and J.P. Tokoto (6’6” 200 lbs.), as well as sophomore Isaiah Hicks (6’8” 230 lbs.). The three of them average nearly 17 RPG, with Johnson being second on the squad behind Meeks. Johnson is the team’s second-leading scorer, while Hicks had a good game against Butler. Tokoto has had a very slow start to the season, with Williams bringing him off the bench to start one game.
The Tar Heel backcourt revolves almost completely around junior point guard Marcus Paige (6’1” 175 lbs.). He is, quite frankly, much better and quicker that either of UCLA’s “point guards,” Bryce Alford or Isaac Hamilton. Paige is the engine that makes North Carolina go, but he is very much prone to frustrating games where he essentially takes his team out of contention for a victory. He was frustrated by Butler’s man-to-man defense to the tune of a 5-17 shooting night and many of those shots, especially later in the game, were bad decisions. However, Paige is the team’s best outside shooter and it’s not close. He has almost as many three-point attempts as the rest of the team and he hits his deep shots at a 42% clip. Further, he is an excellent free throw shooter, although he had a rough day at the line against Butler.
The Bruins are almost certainly going to play a 2-3-zone defense for the majority of the game, and if there were a team where that defense might be effective, the Tar Heels are it. They hit barely 26% of their three-pointers on the season and outside of Paige, they really don’t have a gunner. If the Bruins go man-to-man, expect the Heels to try and pound the ball inside where they will have a decided advantage against the Bruins.
While North Carolina has talent, they were definitely overrated at #5 coming into the tournament. UNC definitely has holes in its game, ones that UCLA is capable of exploiting on a regular basis, but the Tar Heels also do some things that could lead to a 20-point victory over the Bruins.
North Carolina doesn’t have a deep bench, but the second unit was able to ensure that only Tokoto and Paige played over 30 minutes against the Bulldogs. Paige played 36 and it should be noted that he looked to suffer a knock at the end of the Butler game. It remains to be seen if that has any impact on his play.
UCLA saw four players log over 30 minutes, with Bryce Alford playing 37. At some point, if it didn’t against the Sooners, those kinds of minutes are going to greatly fatigue the Bruin starters. Now the Bruins will face a team that likes to press and play up-tempo. Granted, Butler had all five starters play at least 28 minutes, with four of them playing at least 31, but the Butler bench made some meaningful contributions (By the way, don’t be surprised if the Bulldogs lose to the Sooners, with fatigue being a big factor).
UCLA will be facing that same fatigue factor, but, unlike Butler, UCLA only has a few players who are used to handling the ball, and UCLA has yet to prove that it can handle the ball as efficiently as the Bulldogs. This fatigue and lack of ball handlers could be the deciding factors of the game.
If the game does go well for the Bruins, then it is highly probable that one factor influenced a Bruin victory: rebounding. UCLA outrebounded Oklahoma while North Carolina was simply destroyed on the boards by Butler to the tune of 57-40. More specifically, Butler had a whopping 29 offensive boards. This bodes well for UCLA’s Kevon Looney, who proved against Oklahoma that he will probably be the best rebounder in virtually every Bruin game this season. Those offensive boards totally offset what was a poor shooting performance by the Bulldogs.
If rebounding wasn’t the key factor (it was), then Carolina’s free throw shooting was, and while it wasn’t as painful as UCLA’s 43% shooting from the free throw line against Oklahoma, the Tar Heels did miss 14 charity shots. In all honesty, Carolina will probably shoot at a similar percentage from the line on Thursday as the Heels’ 18-32 performance wasn’t that much worse than Carolina’s 65% team average for the season. UCLA should expect to be better from the line against the Tar Heels.
One BRO member posted after the Bruin loss on Wednesday that Oklahoma looked to be a better team right now than Carolina, and that may not be far from the truth. However, North Carolina is more athletic than Oklahoma and the full court press Williams likes to employ could be a recipe for disaster for the Bruins. Still, something is missing from this North Carolina team.
It could be that all the publicity surrounding the academic scandal in Chapel Hill is wearing on the Tar Heels. The scandal is front and center in the Charlotte media, which dominates the news markets in the state. If the players watch any television at all then they have seen or heard about the scandal at least once on a given day.
Perhaps UCLA’s zone and poor North Carolina shooting will make for a competitive contest, with UCLA also winning the rebounding battle by enough to put the Bruins over the top towards a victory. However, the more likely scenario is that Carolina has a better shooting performance than on Wednesday, while the Bruins start out better but begin to tail off as fatigue sets in.
Butler was able to slow downh the Tar Heels enough to get them out of their rhythm, but UCLA looks like it wants to run, so don’t look for a low-scoring affair.
The Bruins can win this game, but for many of the same reasons that led to the defeat against Oklahoma, the Bruins will be playing in the 7th place game on Friday, while the rest of the Bruin nation is taking in what will hopefully be a successful football game against Stanford.
North Carolina 85
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