Alabama-Birmingham Preview

NOV. 28 -- UCLA has more talent but will have to overcome its lack of depth and fatigue -- after playing three games in three days -- to win...

After running out of gas against Oklahoma and simply being overwhelmed by North Carolina, the UCLA men’s basketball team will try and salvage something from the Battle 4 Atlantis when the Bruins take on Alabama-Birmingham in the 7th place game of the Bahamian holiday tournament on Friday (7:30 PM AXS TV).

In many ways this game is the proverbial no-win situation for the Bruins. Granted, the losses to Oklahoma and UNC were not unexpected and certainly aren’t “bad” losses, but UCLA certainly had an opportunity to get one “good” out-of-conference win against the Sooners. As it sits now, UCLA must win on Friday to at least avoid a “bad” loss on what will surely be a fence-riding NCAA Tournament resume. Losing to 2-4 UAB would definitely constitute a “bad” loss.

UAB already has losses to Louisiana-Monroe and South Florida, both in Birmingham, to go along with a blowout loss at the hands on Wisconsin in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis and a closely fought loss to Florida on Thanksgiving. UAB has already shown that it will be a middling Conference USA squad and suffering a loss to the Blazers will negatively affect UCLA’s RPI for the remainder of the season.

The Blazers struggle in many statistical areas. They don’t shoot well, averaging a shade over 40% from the field as a team and less than 29% from behind the arc. Thursday’s loss to Florida actually represented a good shooting night for head coach Jerod Haase’s Blazers as UAB finished at 43% from the field.

The Blazers are a solid defensive team and actually held Florida to 34% from the floor for the game on Thursday. In fact, UAB had the lead very late in that game, with only some ill-timed turnovers giving Florida the game with less than 3 minutes to play. The difference in the game was turnovers, where UAB committed 16 to Florida’s 9, and free throw shooting. Florida was only 13-23 from the charity stripe while the Blazers only got the free throw line 7 times for the game.

Even with their solid defense, the Blazers have been statistically much worse than their opponents in the first 6 games. They are being outrebounded significantly, seeing the opposition pull down 5 rebounds per game more than they are averaging. Their shooting woes extend to the free throw line where they only hit 69% as a team, but some key players are well below 70%. About the only area where UAB has had a statistical advantage is in turnovers.

Part of the problem is that UAB’s offense is predicated on long distance and mid-range jumpers. The Blazers’ inside game definitely takes a back seat to jump shots and the Blazers simply haven’t been good in that area. Conversely, UAB’s opponents are only taking about 25% of their shots from distance because of the advantage that the opposition has had in the paint. It is that area that UCLA must exploit in order to avoid a loss.

Haase starts a three-guard line-up that lacks size. The leading scorer is junior Robert Brown (6’5” 190 lbs.), who leads the team in that category because he takes the most shots more than anything else. He is only averaging 11.3 PPG. Almost half of his shots come from the three-point line and he’s been poor from behind the arc, hitting only 27% of his shots. He is also one of several Blazers who average a bit more than 4 RPG. He is a pretty good free throw shooter, though he doesn’t get to the line much comparatively speaking.

Brown’s backcourt mates are sophomore Hakeem Baxter (6’2” 170 lbs.) and true freshman Nick Norton (5’10” 175 lbs.). Baxter starts mostly because Haase doesn’t have anyone better to put in his place. He doesn’t do anything particularly well, although he is a marginally better shooter than Brown. He is a defensive workhorse and will provide a challenge to UCLA’s Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton on that end of the floor.

Norton is the team’s point guard and does a good job of running the offense, having a better than 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He isn’t much of a scoring threat, having taken only 22 shots on the season with 18 coming from behind the arc. His role is definitely to initiate the offense. If UCLA can force him to try and create then that bodes well for the Bruins.

The frontcourt has length but little bulk. Senior C.J. Washington (6’8” 219 lbs.) and sophomore Tosin Mehinti (6’9” 213 lbs.) start at forward with freshman Chris Cokley (6’8” 216 lbs.) being the primary back up. They are all similarly thin players, with Mehinti and Cokley being exclusively inside players and Washington having the ability to step out and hit shots from behind the arc. Washington also leads the team in rebounding at 4.7 RPG, but none of the three excel at cleaning the glass.

The frontcourt is where UCLA needs to focus its offense as Tony Parker, Kevon Looney and Thomas Welsh give the Bruins a decided low-post advantage. The key will be getting them the ball as UCLA has either been unable or unwilling to give the post players touches early in games.

Although this will be the third game in three days for both teams, Haase’s squad is deeper than UCLA’s and presumably will have more energy in the tank for this game. Bruin coach Steve Alford did lower the minutes played on his starting five on Thursday, with both Looney and Parker playing less than 30 minutes, although in Looney’s case that probably had more to do with his first-half foul trouble than anything else. Bryce Alford still played 35 minutes in a game that was essentially over right after the half, which speaks volumes about UCLA’s point guard issues among other things.

Haase will certainly have seen UCLA’s lack of depth and will try to exploit it knowing that it gives his Blazers their best chance at a victory. UCLA started its first two games well, having leads against both the Sooners and Tar Heels before foul trouble and a lack of depth caught up to the Bruins. That doesn’t even take into account Carolina’s superior athleticism, which certainly rose to the fore as Thursday’s game progressed. Haase, who likes to see his team involved in games where the score is in the low 60s, may throw that out the window in order to force an already tired Bruin team into turnovers and poor shots. Some of the Bruins have already proved on this trip that they struggle with shot selection.

If the Bruins had several days of rest before this contest then the outcome would be much closer to a foregone conclusion, but the fatigue that UCLA must surely be facing will make this game far closer than it would normally be. In fact, there is a real danger that UCLA will lose this game. There is no way to measure the possible sense of defeatism the Bruins could collectively feel after losing their first two games of the season against high-major competition. If the Bruins are in any way feeling sorry for themselves then that will only give more fuel to a possible upset.

UCLA should win, but it will be much closer than expected with a loss not out of the question. The game should be at a slower pace, with both teams suffering tired legs and UCLA showing that they aren’t shooting well at all in this tournament.

Regardless, hopefully the Bruin fan base will be in a buoyant mood after the football game on Friday afternoon.

UAB 68

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