Head coach Steve Alford’s UCLA Bruins begin a series of games against mid-major schools on Wednesday night when the Bruins host the Cal State Fullerton Titans at Pauley Pavilion (9 PM; Pac 12 Network).
The Bruins are coming off a 1-2 performance in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, losing a close game to Oklahoma, beating Alabama-Birmingham and getting their doors blown off by North Carolina. The UNC game was particularly disconcerting because the Bruins essentially stopped giving any real competitive effort in the middle of the second half. The Bruins responded the next day with perhaps their best, most team-oriented half of the season against UAB.
The Titans come into the game with a 3-4 record, having lost to New Mexico (by 8) before the Lobos lost leading scorer Cullen Neal, and to USC by 4, among others. While head coach Dedrique Taylor’s Titans aren’t nearly as talented as Long Beach State or even Coastal Carolina, they certainly aren’t as bad as Nicholls State or Montana State. In fact, the Titans are talented enough to beat the Bruins should UCLA not play a focused game.
The outcome of the game will say more about UCLA than it will about Fullerton, regardless of the talent level of Taylor’s charges. Taylor, who is in his second season, has a roster filled with transfers, from junior college or other four-year schools. Of the 15 players players on the Titan roster, 13 are transfers of one form or another, and one of those transfers, junior Lanerryl Johnson (6’1” 165 lbs.), is Fullerton’s best and most dynamic player. He is averaging 18.1 PPG and his game is an antithesis of itself. Half of Johnson’s shots have come from behind the arc, where he averages 44% shooting, and almost the entirety of the other half of his shots come from driving to the glass, attempting surprisingly few mid-range shots. He leads the team in free throw percentage at 81% and has the team lead in steals with 9. He is quick and deceptively fast and if UCLA plays man-to-man defense, then the Bruins will struggle to guard him.
The starting point guard is senior Alex Harris (6’1” 180 lbs.), who is more of a scoring lead guard than a point guard. His 12.9 PPG is good for second on the squad and he also averages 3.7 RPG, which is great for his height. However, unlike Johnson, Harris has been a poor shooter from distance, averaging 23% on his three-pointers this season.
Senior Josh Gentry (6’4” 180 lbs.) and sophomore Shelden Blackwell (6’5” 175 lbs.) provide backcourt depth, but like the starting duo of Johnson and Harris, neither is a point guard. Fullerton and UCLA share two common traits; they’re both in California and neither has a true point guard. Unlike UCLA, though, Fullerton hasn’t been able to hold onto the ball. The Titans have a whopping 34 more turnovers to assists on the season, and that statistic alone may lead UCLA to an easy victory. The Titans simply struggle to hold onto the ball, which is saying something considering Taylor likes to have the score in the low-to-mid-60s.
With Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Norman Powell at the three wing positions, UCLA will actually be a bit smaller than the Titans when viewing the three forward/post positions. The five players who get doled out the most minutes by Taylor are seniors Moses Morgan (6’6” 220 lbs.), a DePaul transfer and third-leading scorer on the team, and Steve McClellan (6’7” 250 lbs.) a strictly inside player who is a physical defender and rebounder, sophomore Joe Boyd (6’9” 240 lbs.), the team’s leading rebounder, junior Kennedy Esume (6’10” 245 lbs.), the team’s shot-blocking leader, and freshman Jamar Akoh (6’7” 240 lbs.), a younger and more athletic version of McClellan. The first three on the list have started the past few games, but Taylor has used some combination of all five throughout every game.
Morgan, more of a wing with three-point shooting range, is the only proven scorer of the group. The remaining four average 14 PPG…combined. It’s a safe assumption that Fullerton’s offense won’t really look to the low post for scoring. Further, the post players really don’t touch the ball. Akoh has 3 assists and that leads the group, discounting Morgan’s 6. What this group does is clog the paint and rebound well. UCLA may find that the going is tough with regard to interior offense. That and the fact that Fullerton is going to try and slow the game down means that UCLA may see sagging man defenses and mixed zones…sort of like the Bruins do in practice. That means that Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton might start looking to shoot early and often, which is what happened in the North Carolina game, especially with regard to Alford.
Really, that’s what this game is about -- the Bruins are going to face some middling competition in the next week, with San Diego and UC Riverside on deck next, before the Bruins take on the daunting challenge of Gonzaga and top-ranked Kentucky. The Bruins, specifically certain individual players, need to start understanding their respective roles and playing into them or these next three games might represent the best opportunity for the Bruins to put together any sort of winning streak.
First, Bryce Alford needs to understand that, as the point guard, it is his primary job to get the ball in good shooting positions for his teammates. That means making the right pass off a curl or fade by Powell and Hamilton, and getting a good, angled pass into the low post for Kevon Looney, Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh. As a point guard, Alford’s shooting should only happen after the defense is forced to react to his initiation of the offense. Alford leads the team with 12.4 shot attempts per game, while Powell is second at 12.3…yet Alford is only making 5.1 SPG, while Powell is hitting 5.7. If Alford isn’t being made aware of this then that’s a coaching decision. Regardless, Alford’s play will likely dictate the success or lack thereof for the Bruins moving forward.
Hamilton did a nice job of playing within himself against the Blazers last Friday. He needs to continue to do that and work on his distribution for those fleeting minutes when Alford is off the floor and Hamilton is required to run the point. Hamilton’s three-point shooting percentage is at about 40%, despite the goose egg against the Tar Heels. He is the most efficient long distance shooter on the team, and needs to continue to be so and show that the Carolina game was an aberration.
Defensively, the Bruins need to show consistent effort. The first half of the UAB game in which the Bruins forced a mediocre shooting opponent to shoot horribly was a good start, but there will be better shooting teams on the Bruin schedule. On Wednesday, the Bruins will face a better shooter in Johnson than perhaps anyone they faced in the Bahamas. That’s not an exaggeration. The difference between Johnson and the high level athletes on Oklahoma and UNC is on the defensive end of the floor. Johnson probably won’t be able to shoot the Bruins out of the game even if UCLA allowed him a great deal of time to get his shot off, but he could make things interesting.
UCLA will face a very good shooting team in Gonzaga in two Saturdays, and if UCLA’s defense doesn’t at least learn to give concentrated effort, then the Zags will shoot the Bruins out of Pauley Pavilion.
As it is, Fullerton won’t shoot the Bruins out of the arena. Even with Johnson’s ability to shoot, the reality is that the Titans turn the ball over far too often to effectively go after the Bruins. Further, there is no one on the Titan roster than can guard Parker, let alone Looney. If Coach Alford were seeing the same Fullerton team, then he will focus on demanding the ball get into the low post on offense. Lastly, the Bruins should win the rebounding battle by a wide margin.
However, it will be interesting to see what kind of players Alford and Hamilton develop into over the next week and a half, or if they simply remain who they are…and if the UCLA defense can step up its intensity.
Cal State Fullerton 62
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