The UCLA men’s basketball team’s 2014-2015 schedule has been littered with low-major programs looking to get a nice financial addition to their athletic programs as well as enjoy the fine southern California weather. UCLA’s opponent on Sunday night, the San Diego Toreros, don’t fit that low-major, “cupcake” description and not because USD is a mere two-hour drive down I-5. San Diego is actually a decent squad and has several players who could really hurt the Bruins (4 PM tip-off, Pac 12 Network from Pauley Pavilion).
USD head coach Bill Grier is in his 8th season with the Toreros and has built a solid program that occasionally has been able to challenge West Coast Conference powers Gonzaga and St. Mary’s. The success that USD has seen during Grier’s tenure has been because Grier has instilled an ethic of hard work and runs a system that fits his players. When USD is playing the system well, the Toreros are hard to beat. However, because San Diego generally lacks the kind of talent needed to compete with Pac 12 and Mountain West schools, when the Toreros don’t stick to a given game plan or don’t play disciplined basketball, they find themselves on the wrong end of the score.
Although San Diego doesn’t have elite talent, the Toreros do have two players who could hurt the Bruins and be the leaders of an upset. Senior shooting guard Johnny Dee (6’ 185 lbs.) and his interesting hair style will be the most difficult player for the Bruins to defend on Sunday, while junior post Jito Kok (6’9” 232 lbs.) has the size and, more importantly, the motor, to be able to more than hold his own against the Bruin forwards.
Dee is clearly the leader of the team, averaging a team-leading 20.5 PPG and 4.3 RPG, which ranks third on the team. While he is a high-volume shooter, he has shot the ball well, especially from behind the arc. He is averaging 49% from the floor overall and 46% from behind the three-point line. Dee isn’t an imposing physical specimen. In fact, he is the poster boy for what three years of experience can do for a player’s game. Much of Dee’s offense is predicted on knowing just the right time to drive and when to use his screens to open himself up for a jumper. He uses screens about as well as any player UCLA has yet seen. He is smart enough and good enough to beat the Bruins by cutting when they go over the top of screens. If the Bruins start going underneath screens then Dee will flair and burn the Bruins with his outside shooting. Dee is also an excellent free throw shooter, averaging 88% from the charity stripe.
Unlike Dee, Kok is an imposing physical force. The question with the young Dutchman has always been his focus. He was focused on Thursday night when the Toreros fell to San Diego State in a very ugly game. He was strong on defense and very good on the boards, being the only San Diego player that was matching up with the Aztec inside players. However, he didn’t shoot well, but that was due to SDSU’s interior defense more than Kok not being engaged. He is a good athlete, certainly good enough to play with UCLA’s Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh and perhaps even Kevon Looney if Looney is even the slightest bit off. However, when viewing Kok it’s apparent he should be averaging more than the 8.1 PPG and 4.1 RPG he currently averages. Certainly he has the capacity to be a real force on the glass even if his is a bit raw with his offensive game.
Unlike UCLA, San Diego does have a true point guard, senior Chris Anderson (5’7” 150 lbs.). Anderson is absolutely a pass-first point guard and gets the ball where it needs to be, namely to Dee, but more importantly, he does a great job of controlling tempo. He has an almost 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and big-name opponents don’t intimidate him. Anderson’s problem is shooting…from everywhere. He averages 40% from the field and only 34% from deep. Further, he is only 50% from the free throw line. He is Grier’s best on-ball defender and it’s a good bet he’ll match up on UCLA’s Bryce Alford. This may be the key match-up of the game as Anderson has the experience and moxie to get into Alford’s head, force Alford to speed up things or into poor passes and shots. Anderson doesn’t need to score in order to impact this game. All he really needs to do is to get Alford off his game. If he does that then fans might witness the kind of body language seen in the North Carolina game.
Kok has two solid but unspectacular partners in the post in senior Thomas Jacobs (6’6” 220 lbs.) and sophomore Brett Bailey (6’6” 205 lbs.). While both will step out and hit the occasional three, that’s not their game. They are mid-range to low post players and they are workmanlike in their approach and effort. Jacobs in particular does a fine job on the offensive end, hitting over 57% of his shots and being perfect at the free throw line this season. He and Kok have about the same shot attempts on the season. The difference in their offensive numbers is based on Kok’s getting to the line more frequently. After Dee, Jacobs and Kok are clearly the next options in San Diego’s offense.
Bailey is no slouch himself, averaging 46% from the floor mostly on mid-range jumpers. He has the body of a natural small forward, but he plays a more physical defensive game and struggles against even decent athleticism. Bailey and Jacobs average about 11 RPG between the two of them, good for the top two statistical spots on the squad.
The Toreros have no real frontcourt depth, but the backcourt has three other players who can play all three of the wing positions. Junior Chris Sarbaugh (6’3” 200 lbs.) can play either the ‘2’ or the ‘3’ spot, although he only plays the latter in a pinch, while true freshmen Marcus Harris (6’ 165 lbs.) and Vasa Pusica (6’5” 210 lbs.) round out the rotation. Harris is a tough defensive player who is more in the mold of a shooting guard a la Dee rather than a point guard. Pusica appears to have the skills and ability to possibly become the focal point of the offense after Dee graduates. He only averages 3.5 PPG but much of that is because Grier didn’t play him nearly as much early in the season as he is now.
This game will be a battle in styles, with UCLA looking to get out into the open floor while San Diego wants the score in the low 60s. The Toreros have been involved in four games this season where at least one team scored more than 70 points and they have lost three of those games. If UCLA can control tempo then that will bode well for UCLA being able to cruise to a victory.
However, the most important aspect of the game will be rebounding. UCLA has a decided advantage on the glass. Looney is averaging more rebounds than the top three Toreros combined. Working the glass has been USD’s bugaboo this season and a good indicator of there success or failure in a given game. San Diego sits at 4-4 on the season and in their four loses, the Toreros have been hammered on the boards. For a team that doesn’t force many turnovers compared to what they commit, the Toreros have to be able to hold their own on the glass or the game will go south quickly. SDSU outrebounded the Toreros by 8 on Thursday and that had a great deal to do with the Aztecs coming out and staking an early double-digit lead and holding a lead for the entirety of the game. That game’s final score was deceptively close as San Diego State played its bench for a lot of minutes and they were pretty sloppy. Had Steve Fisher gone with his primary line-up the majority of the game, the outcome would likely have been far worse for USD.
Interestingly, San Diego really hasn’t been blown out yet this season, although the San Diego State game easily could have fit that description. Much of that has to do with San Diego’s ability to control tempo, but outside of the Aztecs, San Diego hasn’t really played anyone of note. Xavier is probably the best team that San Diego has played other than the Aztecs and the Musketeers just lost to Long Beach State. San Diego will probably find controlling tempo against UCLA much more difficult.
San Diego can’t match up with the Bruins in the post in terms of rebounding unless Kok has a very good game, and even then, if UCLA’s Looney is focused he’ll dominate the glass. Look for San Diego to drop at least two players quickly into the defensive half after every Torero shot so as to minimize UCLA’s ability to get easy points and push tempo. Further, look for San Diego to play a great deal of zone to try and offset UCLA’s size advantage in the paint. Anderson will probably harass Alford all over the court, but once UCLA gets in the half court, then Anderson will drop into his spot on top of the zone. However, if Alford starts getting fazed by pressure, expect San Diego to adjust quickly and defensively attack him and Isaac Hamilton.
San Diego is not as good as Long Beach State, but the Toreros are probably a but better than Coastal Carolina and about the same as UAB. This will be a good game for the Bruins and head coach Steve Alford to tune-up the halfcourt sets for the more difficult games coming up in a week. However, UCLA must focus in this game because even though it is unlikely, San Diego would have a puncher’s chance if the Bruins were leisurely in their approach.
San Diego 63
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