Story by BRO Contributor Rob Carpentier.
The UCLA men’s basketball team opens its 2015-16 regular season on Friday night when the Bruins host the Monmouth Hawks at Pauley Pavilion (8 PM PST, Pac 12 Los Angeles). UCLA is coming off its second Sweet 16 appearance in as many years of the Steve Alford coaching era, while Monmouth is coming off an 18-15 season that ended in the second round of the MAAC Tournament.
As David Woods wrote in the first part of his season preview of the Bruins, the team will be a bit of an enigma primarily because of the unknown aspect of three of the newcomers: true freshmen Aaron Holiday and Prince Ali as well as sophomore Jonah Bolden. The Bruins lost Norman Powell and Kevon Looney from last season’s roster and Alford will be looking to the three aforementioned newcomers to be the players who make up that lost production.
Coach King Rice’s Monmouth squad is actually pretty good and will arguably be the strongest mid-major team on UCLA’s schedule. That’s what makes this game troubling; UCLA will be trying to integrate several new moving parts into its line-up while the Hawks will have an upperclassmen-dominated line-up that has individuals used to playing with each other. As one BRO poster pointed out this week, the Hawks were moments away from defeating West Virginia (don’t let the final 10-point spread fool you), Rutgers and Maryland, all on the road. The maturity of Rice’s squad should help them win one of the games against UCLA, Notre Dame, Georgetown or perhaps one of the high major schools the Hawks will face in an Orlando holiday tournament which, incidentally, includes USC.
Rice inherited a moribund program that was at the bottom of the Northeast Conference four seasons ago. Rice, who played for Dean Smith at North Carolina, has turned the program around and brought it back to respectability in a much more demanding conference, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, or MAAC. The preseason media and coaches polls have Monmouth as the second-place pick in the MAAC behind perennial mid-major power Iona.
Like his mentor, Rice is an advocate of pressure man-to-man defense with a quick-strike offense. The Hawks will run several different types of offensive sets that are predicated on both ball screens and floor spacing, while other sets will look more like a traditional motion offense with screening away from the ball. Monmouth’s offense wasn’t very efficient last season mainly because the Hawks struggled to rebound well and because they weren’t a very good shooting team. Both statistics should improve this season — certainly the shooting — but this isn’t a roster that is built to dominate the glass.
Defensively the Hawks will mix zone with man, but even in man the Bruins should expect the Hawks to be more of a lane-denial team than a ball-denial team, although the Hawks can play both. The Hawks forced 13 turnovers per game last season, which is a very good total, but they also held opponents to 40% shooting from the field. The lane-denial defense looks like a zone and forces the opposition into the lane where there is usually ample help. Monmouth’s opposition attempted almost 44% of their field goals last season from beyond the arc. The Hawks have been known to pressure the ball up the floor and then drop into the lane-denial set. The key for the Bruins will be recognizing when the Hawks are in a lane-denial man-to-man defense and when they are in a zone. Although certain offenses can effectively attack either defense, there are subtle differences in each style of defense that can force an inexperienced player into turnovers, and the Bruins will be playing Holiday and Ali quite a bit.
Monmouth’s two best players are senior Deon Jones (6’6” 220 lbs.) and junior Justin Robinson (5’8” 175 lbs.). They led the team in scoring last season, and Jones was second in rebounding while Robinson led the team in assists and steals. Rice appears to be running a four-guard line-up this season, although the only game we have to go on was a lopsided victory over Georgian Court, a bad Division II school in southern New Jersey. That game probably wasn’t the greatest of indicators as none of the starters, including Jones and Robinson, played more than 19 minutes.
Jones is a solid athlete who is decent at many aspects of the game but isn’t great at any one of them. He was only a 43% shooter last season and was below 30% from behind the arc. However, he is quick enough to be able to cause UCLA some issues when the Bruins play man-to-man defense, except for those moments when Ali is on him.
Robinson is probably the most talented player on the team. Arguably, if he were 4 inches taller he’d be playing in a high-major conference. Like Jones, he struggled a bit from the floor, but he was much better (37%) behind the three-point line than his senior teammate. Robinson’s strengths are his vision and his quickness. Jitterbug guards have consistently given UCLA fits since the Ben Howland era, but the Bruins may have finally found a player in Holiday who can limit diminutive, quick point guards. Robinson had a very solid 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio last season.
The Hawks have a typical mid-major roster in that even most of Monmouth’s taller players are not truly “post” players. The two exceptions are juniors Chris Brady (6’10” 250 lbs.) and Zac Tillman (6’10” 280 lbs.). Tillman started 29 of 33 games last season but he came off the bench in the exhibition game last Saturday. Brady started, and it’s probably because he offers a bit more to Rice on both ends of the floor. He is a more mobile, athletic defender, and can hit a mid-range jumper and is more active on the floor. Brady did play more overall minutes than Tillman last season so perhaps Rice was just making a natural switch against Georgian Court. Significantly, neither is a shot blocker by nature. Because Monmouth goes with a 4-guard line-up, the Hawks can afford to have one of the posts to be in foul trouble. However, if they both pick up a couple of early whistles then Monmouth will become very small very quickly.
Sophomore Aaron Tighman (6’1” 230 lbs.) was Robinson’s primary back-up last season, but he started in the exhibition game. He is a solidly built wing/guard who has a good feel for the game but is not very athletic. In fact, if UCLA’s Bryce Alford puts some effort into his defense then he has the capability to thoroughly limit Tilghman. Tilghman is almost strictly a distributor so limiting him means defending his passing ability.
The remainder of the Hawk line-up has a group of players who are all between 6’5” and 6’8” and play very similarly. They are guards and wings rather than players comfortable in the paint, and all are medicare shooters with average to below-average athleticism. However, as a hallmark, they play smartly, are experienced in the system, and will play very hard.
As with most games where high-major schools are matched with mid-majors, UCLA clearly has more talent. If there is a concern, and it is a realistic one, it’s that the Bruins have little to no experience playing with one and other. That lack of chemistry could be an issue in this game because of Monmouth’s bevy of experience. If this game were in one month then UCLA probably wins easily. The Bruins certainly can win this game easily, but it’s less of a sure thing this early in the season because of the experience issue.
That really means that in many ways the outcome of this game will come down to UCLA and how the new players fit into their roles and into the system. It also will depend on how various returning players fit into their respective roles. Of the impact returnees, only Isaac Hamilton and Tony Parker will play in a position that they’ve played before. Thomas Welsh will be asked to play the ‘4’ at times while Bryce Alford is likely to see some significant time off the ball (perhaps 10 to 15 of his minutes per game).
Because Monmouth will play the 4-guard system, UCLA will almost have to play a zone when Parker and Welsh on the floor together. However, when Bolden comes into the game at the ‘4’ and Holiday and Ali are also in the game, it would benefit Coach Alford to have the Bruins play man-to-man just to see what his most athletic line-up is capable of doing defensively. With those three on the floor, it really doesn’t matter if Parker or Welsh are in the low post or Bryce Alford or Hamilton are on the wing, it will be UCLA’s best defensive line-up.
Look for the Bruins to try to play the game from the inside-out. Parker and Welsh have a distinct advantage on the Hawks in the low post and, as I wrote previously, it would really be advantageous to UCLA to get both Brady and Tillman in foul trouble. If the two Bruin big men can establish their offense early then it should open things up for the guards to get open looks from the perimeter. This doesn’t appear to be a great shooting Bruin team, and outside of Bryce Alford it may not even be a decent one, so expect Monmouth to recognize where he is on the floor at all times and stretch a bit to prevent him getting his feet set. In fact, don’t be surprised if Monmouth institutes a game plan that sees them inviting Bryce to put the ball on the floor and shoot on the move. The younger Alford is much less effective that way.
The Hawks will look to run when they can, but their below-average shooting and their tough defense mean that most of their games should be played in the 60s. The only two squads that were able to really force the pace against the Hawks were Manhattan and Iona and both are known for speeding the game up. The Hawks were able to slow the game down against West Virginia and Maryland mainly because of their defense. The Bruins need to be focused for that kind of lane-denial defense and not settle for outside shots.
The new aspect of this game will be the 30-second shot clock, which shouldn’t really bother UCLA based on last year’s offense, but it could bother a team like Monmouth in certain situations. An educated hypothesis is that fans of college basketball are going to see more upsets at the beginning of the season than usual as teams (like Michigan State and Virginia) that want to be patient offensively now have 5 fewer seconds to institute their respective offenses. The new clock should also encourage even more full court or ¾ court pressure. The shot clock is now short enough where pressure will be effective if it simply burns seconds off the clock, even if it doesn’t generate turnovers.
This game is probably going to be much closer than many casual fans realize. Monmouth is fully capable of claiming the upset. However, when the dust settles, the fact that Monmouth is a poor rebounding team that doesn’t shoot well enough to fully take advantage of its opponents mistakes means that UCLA should dodge a bullet.