NCAA Tourney Preview: UAB

Mar. 20 -- The Bruins faced Alabama-Birmingham back in November, but they've added perhaps their best player since...

The UCLA men’s basketball team continues its NCAA Tournament run on Saturday when the Bruins face the UAB Blazers in a Round-of-32 game in the South Region (9:10 AM; CBS).

The 14th seeded Blazers upset 3rd seeded Iowa State (and crushed my bracket in the process) on Thursday by the identical 60-59 score that UCLA defeated SMU.

As most BROs know, the Bruins and Blazers met earlier this season in the Bahamas in the consolation game of the Battle 4 Atlantis in November. UCLA won, 88-76, in a game that really wasn’t that close. However, this is definitely a “my-how-things-change” situation.

Coach Jerod Haase’s Blazers, who received an NCAA bid by virtue of winning the Conference USA postseason tournament, are now 20-14. They got hot at the right time, winning their three conference tournament games after going through a two-game losing streak to close the regular season. The conference tournament wins were by 1, in overtime and finally a comfortable 13-point win in the Conference USA final game.

Of course, then there was the Thursday win over the Cyclones, who were arguably the hottest high-major team in the country. Let me be clear on this, though, without taking anything away from UAB: I have watched Iowa State play at least 10 times this season and the Cyclones were horrifically bad on Thursday. Without getting into detail, the Cyclones clearly looked like a team that completely expected to make the Round of 32 by simply showing up. Think about this -- UAB outrebounded ISU by 15 and still only won the game by one point.

Those of us that saw the UCLA-UAB game back in November saw a Blazers squad that didn’t have a great deal of relative talent, had poor shot selection and was a pretty poor defensive team.

The difference now, really, comes down to the emergence of freshman William Lee (6’9” 210 lbs.). Haase wasn’t playing Lee many minutes in the beginning of the season, in fact, Lee didn’t play against UCLA in the Bahamas, but Haase has steadily gotten Lee into more and more action. Lee is arguably now UAB’s most complete player and most valuable player. He finished with 14 points and 12 boards against Iowa State. Even if UCLA’s Kevon Looney doesn’t score a point he will truly have a good game if he can keep Lee off the boards and make sure that the Blazer frosh struggles from the field.

Junior Robert Brown (6’5” 190 lbs.) is UAB’s leading scorer, but he often takes a lot of shots to get his points. Brown scored 21 on Thursday in an untypical shooting performance. Typically Brown is less than 40% from the floor and barely over 30% from behind the arc. He was 37% from the floor, which was right in his statistical wheelhouse, but he was almost 50% from behind the arc. UCLA defeated SMU almost in spite of some of Head Coach Steve Alford’s defensive decisions. It is still shocking that Norman Powell isn’t always guarding the opposition’s best wing player. SMU’s Nic Moore went off for the first time in more than 3 weeks against the Bruins because he was facing Isaac Hamilton. Against UAB it doesn’t matter what Alford’s reasoning is with regard to whom Powell guards, he should absolutely start and end the game on Brown. If that happens, the guess here is that UAB will really struggle on the offensive end.

Unlike Lee, Haase has started taking minutes away from starting point guard, freshman Nick Norton (5’10” 175 lbs.). Norton is the team’s best three-point shooter after Lee, but has really struggled the last month or so. He only played 13 minutes against ISU, although some of that was because he was up against a bad match-up, as Haase opted for sophomore Denzell Watts (6’2” 207 lbs.) who played 29 minutes and had 6 assists.

The real outlier in Thursday’s win over ISU was the play of sophomore guard Tyler Madison (6’4” 225 lbs.), who had 9 offensive rebounds in 14 minutes. That’s just nuts.

UAB shouldn’t expect that to happen again.

In fact, Thursday is what makes the NCAA Tournament the best event in American sports, especially the two days that make up the Round of 64. UAB had an historic day on the offensive boards while Iowa State was worse than I have seen them since Coach Fred Hoiberg took over. That was a different situation than Baylor’s loss to Georgia State on Thursday, where Baylor coach Scott Drew’s inexplicable decision to try and take the air out of the ball too early clearly cost his team in the long run.

The chances of UAB having the kind of game on Saturday that the Blazers had on Thursday is unlikely.

However, UCLA’s Bryce Alford shouldn’t be expected to have a 9-13 shooting day from the floor.

If UCLA is to win the game, a few simple things need to happen. First, UCLA has to rebound enough to at least even things out with UAB, who clearly are being coached to crash the offensive boards.

Next, one of the post players -- Tony Parker, Looney or Thomas Welsh -- needs to be a true and consistent offensive threat. Parker was really bad on Thursday. However, SMU’s game plan was clearly to not allow UCLA’s forwards to get comfortable in the paint.

Another factor is Norman Powell. He simply needs to be, well, the Powell of the second half of the season. He was virtually unguardable for much of Thursday’s game.

Even if UCLA cannot do those things, either collectively or individually, UAB would have to play at a “magical” level in order to take advantage of it all (Sorry, but with Coach Steve Alford having snuck in the NCAA Tournament after underachieving all year and now having the bracket open up to where getting to the Sweet 16 is very realistic, I had to sneak in a thinly-veiled Steve Lavin reference).

Lee is a good player, but Looney, even with the face mask, is better. The rest of the match-ups really favor UCLA. Lastly, UAB’s upset was born with Haase having four days to prepare for the Cyclones. He’ll have no such luxury against the Bruins. The one concerning thing is that UAB’s defense has really stepped up in the last ten days, having held its last four opponents to 60 points or less in regulation.

However, UCLA’s offense, for all its many faults, will be the best that UAB has seen since probably December. Iowa State is not a great halfcourt offensive team, relying on rebounding and turnovers to generate easy buckets. The Cyclones were really lazy yesterday and paid for it with the end of their season. If UCLA is going after loose balls and hitting the boards, this could get ugly. The hustle factor is the only way UAB can win this game, and then, that’s only if UCLA doesn’t at least try to match the intensity of the Blazers.

Plus, this will be the fifth time that an 11-seed has played a 14-seed in the NCAAs and the 11-seed has won every game.

Now, imagine if somehow Gonzaga goes down before the Sweet 16. At that point we could be talking about a coach who was on a very hot seat actually leading UCLA to the Elite 8, and that would really leave the BRO Premium Message Board divided for a very long time.

UCLA 74
UAB 64

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