NCAA Tourney Preview: SMU

Mar. 18 -- UCLA takes on the higher-seeded Mustangs, but SMU hasn't seen much of UCLA's level of talent...

The UCLA men’s basketball team received new life on Sunday afternoon when the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee unexpectedly placed UCLA in the 2015 version of the Big Dance. The Bruins are the #11-seed in the South region and will play the #6-seeded SMU Mustangs on Thursday in Louisville, Kentucky (12:10 PM; TrueTV).

The invitation may have also given a reprieve to Bruin head coach Steve Alford from the pressure he has been under. However, should the Bruins get run off the floor, then the cries for Alford’s dismissal will grow loud again.

The Mustangs are coached by former Bruin head coach, Larry Brown, the only coach in history to win both an NBA and NCAA title. Brown is arguably the greatest tactician in the history of the sport. He will be going up against UCLA’s Alford, who has guided the Bruins to their third straight NCAA Tournament bid. Alford has proven to be an average tactician at best, so for UCLA to be successful on Thursday then some match-ups have to go UCLA’s way to offset what Brown will be able to do with four days to prepare for the Bruins.

There really wasn’t a team on UCLA’s regular season schedule that matched the style and talent of the Mustangs. The closest was probably Utah. However, the Utes are more disciplined than SMU and the Mustangs are more athletic. However, both squads tend to play controlled offense in a grind-it-out style, with very good and intense defense. Utah showed towards the end of the season that, when the focus of the Utes wasn’t absolute, they simply were an average team. SMU, while more talented, has some defensive holes.

On the other hand, SMU really hasn’t played anyone like the Bruins. The closest would probably be Memphis, who the Mustangs swept, but Memphis is more like UCLA in style, especially on offense, with that kind of “green-light motion” that Tracy Pierson described aptly near the beginning of this season, than in terms of personnel. UCLA is as talented a team as SMU has played all season. The key is going to be if Alford can get UCLA to play up to its potential in this game. Honestly, outside of stretches this season (the two Arizona games come to mind), Alford has yet to have achieved that coaching goal.

In terms of personnel, the most important players for the Mustangs are going to be two guards, senior Ryan Manuel (6’4” 185 lbs.) and junior point guard Nic Moore (5’9” 170 lbs.) (Picture above). Manuel is the team’s defensive stopper and will almost certainly be assigned the task of guarding UCLA’s Norman Powell. Manuel has shown over the course of the year that he is very good at forcing his man into bad shots, unless that player is a strong penetrator. Powell is every bit the style of player that Connecticut’s Rodney Purvis is, and Purvis lit up SMU (and to a certain extent, Manuel) in the AAC Conference tournament final this past Sunday. He did it by getting to the basket early and forcing Manuel to have to defend him differently. This allowed Purvis to make some jump shots later in the game. Powell is stronger and, frankly, better than Purvis. The concern is that, whether because of his teammates taking too many shots or Powell being too passive, the Bruin senior has offensively disappeared at times this season.

However, except for a bit of an intensity hiccup that Powell showed while UCLA was going through its December swoon, Powell has been better than solid on the defensive end. That’s a good sign for UCLA, because if Manuel is able to slow him on the offensive end, it will be vitally important for UCLA’s chances at a victory that Powell is able to do the same to Moore. If Manuel is the best Mustang on defense, then Moore is clearly their offensive catalyst. When Moore struggles, so do the Mustangs. The game against UConn on Sunday was a perfect example. Moore had a horrible shooting day, going 3-14 from the floor and 1-7 from behind the arc, and SMU struggled to put away a Husky team that, outside of Purvis, really didn’t have the players to compete with SMU. Honestly, SMU should have won the game by 15-20 points, especially with UConn’s Ryan Boatright off more than a bit because of an injury he suffered early in the game. The reason SMU struggled was because Moore struggled. If Powell can not only force him into bad shots, but force him into bad decisions, then UCLA’s job will be defensively easier.

The bad decisions, or at least making life difficult on Moore, is important because of the presence of junior post Markus Kennedy (6’9” 245 lbs.). Much has been made of Kennedy’s strength and ability to score since his return from academic suspension after the first semester this past fall, but the reality is that he hasn’t faced anyone with the promise of UCLA’s Tony Parker, and Parker has shown lengthy flashes of that promise this season. Regardless of whether the malaise that Parker tends to go into is a result of his immaturity or the frustration he must feel at not getting consistent touches, or a combination, the reality is that UCLA is barely a high-major team when he is disengaged. If he is disengaged on Thursday, then Thomas Welsh will have to step up. The Bruins suffer no drop-off with Welsh in the game, but they do defensively, compared to an engaged Parker. Kennedy doesn’t start; that honor goes to senior Cannen Cunningham (6’10” 225 lbs.), but Kennedy gets almost all the significant minutes.

The other post is long and lean senior Yanick Moreira (6’11” 220 lbs.), who will be involved in an interesting match-up against UCLA’s Kevon Looney. To be blunt, Looney will be the most talented player on the floor, period. His ability to hit three-point shots will be huge because Moreira is clearly the shot blocker that drives SMU’s pressure defense. Don’t be surprised to see Kennedy on Looney when he comes in, thus leaving Moreira in the paint against Parker or Welsh. That way, even if Looney can drive by Kennedy, Moreira will be in the paint waiting for him. However, Looney has to hit some shots. If UCLA can use Looney like Arkansas used Bobby Portis when Arkansas beat SMU in Dallas, then Brown won’t have any option but to use Moreira further out on the floor, which will hurt the entire Mustang defensive concept. However, Portis was able to hit some mid-range shots in that game and that is one area where Looney still needs to prove himself. Perhaps giving him the ball at the elbow and letting him create is something Coach Alford should consider…but that’s been suggested before to no avail.

Moreira and Kennedy against UCLA’s front line will be another key simply because, for all their length, the Mustangs don’t rebound well.

Sophomore guard Sterling Brown, (6’6” 200 lbs.) is going to be a difficult match-up for the Bruins. Brown is an excellent outside shooter, averaging almost 47% from distance. He and Moore form a potent one-two outside shooting punch. Assuming Powell guards Moore, the question becomes, who guards Brown? He is too tall for Bryce Alford and unless he shows consistent effort, Isaac Hamilton is too lackadaisical on the defensive end to properly close out. With Moore shooting over 40% from behind the arc, it does leave Alford in a quandary. This isn’t to advocate that Powell should guard Brown; he shouldn’t, because Brown simply doesn’t shoot enough. Sure, perhaps he takes 18 shots on Thursday, but the reality is that he is fourth offensive option. However, his accuracy coupled with Moore’s almost 41% from the three-point line means that UCLA would be asking for serious trouble if Alford decided to play a zone defense against the Mustangs. Manuel would probably add to the defensive woes as he’s hitting 40% from beyond the arc, but he’s only attempted 10 shots.

The two “Bens” will supply the rest of Brown’s depth, sophomores Ben Emelogu (6’6” 205 lbs.) and Ben Moore (6’8” 205 lbs.). Moore is very solid and if the Bruins don’t keep an eye on him, he’ll put up 10 points. He is strictly a low post offensive player, although is a very good passer. He is also a very good rebounder, averaging the most rebounds per minute played on the team. He is also very foul prone, having fouled out of 4 games this season.

Emelogu is an athletic but raw player who hustles on defense and that is where he earns his minutes. If the Bruins could force him into 8-10 jumpers, then UCLA is doing a good job on the defensive end.

Brown’s offense is very methodical, so if UCLA plays man-to-man defense then all the Bruins will have to fight through screens. It helps that neither Moreira nor Kennedy are three-point threats, thus ensuring that all of UCLA’s post players can essentially stay in the paint and clog the lane. However, the Mustangs will use up most of the shot clock if necessary. The thing is, SMU is not the most fundamentally efficient team. To be blunt, the Mustangs take some really dumb shots on occasion, so their offense isn’t nearly as good as it could be. In fact, that lack of discipline could be the Mustangs’ tactical undoing. This is a team that turns over the ball a great deal, especially when factoring in the much easier overall schedule that SMU played this season. The question is whether UCLA can convert those turnovers into easy points.

SMU’s defense should be a concern. Although the Mustangs haven’t had to face offensive juggernauts throughout the season, their defense is reminiscent, in intensity and focus, of Ben Howland’s early UCLA teams. The Mustangs play a heavy ball pressure man-to-man defense, daring opponents to put the ball on the floor. Their guards and wings then funnel the offense into the paint where help is waiting in the form of Moreira, Kennedy and the rest. It also put the Mustangs in generally good rebounding position.

If Coach Alford can get Bryce and Hamilton to focus on post entry passes, SMU has struggled some against bruising post players, and even thought Looney isn’t a bruiser, he is probably the most talented natural frontcourt player that SMU has seen this season (even if he only gets “garbage points”).

Parker, Looney and Welsh could provide UCLA with a significant advantage in the post, one that SMU’s backcourt advantage can’t overcome, especially if Powell is forcing Nic Moore into a bad game. It can’t be repeated enough: as Moore goes, so goes SMU. This is where analytics and “eye-test” should meet. Moore’s statistics look really good, but when faced with a longer athletic defender, he really struggles because he generally can’t see over that defender.

This game should come down to UCLA, though. The Bruins have four players, including three starters, who have Tournament experience. SMU, on the other hand, is in its first Big Dance since 1993. There are bound to be jitters. Further, SMU doesn’t have experience with very good teams this season. The Mustangs’ non-conference schedule wasn’t too full of creampuffs, having played Indiana (loss), Gonzaga (loss), Arkansas (loss) and Michigan (win). It’s the conference schedule that has led a decently talented SMU team to have a gaudy overall record. Had USC and Washington sans Upshaw been in the AAC, both would have likely finished in the middle of the pack. Cincinnati is a good team, Tulsa had a good year, Memphis plays tough and UConn is always dangerous, but that set of schools probably wasn’t as good as Arizona, Utah, Oregon, UCLA and Stanford. This will be a step up in competition for the Mustangs. Certainly their effort, intensity and talent could run the Bruins off the floor, but not if UCLA meets that intensity.

The coaching of Brown should add a few points to SMU’s total, regardless of whom he’s facing, especially with four days of preparation. Alford will have to be at his best just to keep Brown’s advantage to a minimum. That’s not a criticism of Alford; that’s simply how good Brown is at his craft.

SMU and UCLA are alike in that both are far more successful at home than on the road. SMU lost four on the road including all of its non-conference “tough” games. This really is no different than the Bruins’ road performance, so this may be a wash.

This game really could go either way. If UCLA plays with the intensity of the two Arizona games or the Oregon game at Pauley, then UCLA wins. If the Bruins play like they did at Arizona State or home against Wazzu, then SMU wins.

For the prediction, let’s go with the more consistent team. However, if the Bruins win, don’t be surprised.

SMU 64

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