Story by BRO Contributor Rob Carpentier
After Friday night’s disastrous offensive performance to open the season, the UCLA Bruins have now put themselves in the position of having to win every other non-conference game this season against the remaining mid-majors or risk missing the NCAA Tournament in March.
The Bruins lost to a good mid-major team in Monmouth on Friday at Pauley Pavilion and, in a pretty blatant use of “I told you so,” I wrote in that game preview that Monmouth was good enough to beat the Bruins, specifically because of the experience the Hawks brought to the floor coupled with some inexperience on the part of the Bruins. That really showed up at the end of the game as, with the Bruins holding a 5-point lead with roughly two minutes left in overtime, the Hawks calmly sank a series of free throws while the Bruins had four very poor offensive possessions in a row. I also wrote that Monmouth’s defense was going to try and force the Bruins, specifically Bryce Alford, to take bad shots. The Bruins and Alford obliged and went away from the low post game that dominated Monmouth earlier in the game when the Bruins focused on getting the ball inside to Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh.
The Bruins return to the court on Sunday night in a quick turnaround game when UCLA hosts the Cal Poly Mustangs at Pauley Pavilion (7 PM PST, Pac 12 Network). Monmouth was an opponent that has a real chance to beat one or two other high-major teams this season and win the MAAC’s automatic NCAA bid come March. The Mustangs aren’t nearly as good as Monmouth, but they are experienced. However, Coach Joe Callero’s team is nowhere near as talented as the Hawks. Still, UCLA, including Coach Steve Alford, need to learn the lessons of Friday’s loss, specifically that UCLA’s offensive strength is in the low post and that the Bruins really need to have an inside-out focused offense.
The Mustangs are coming off a close 2-point loss at UNLV on Friday night in a game that was very reminiscent of UCLA game against Monmouth. It was a very close game at halftime (Cal Poly led by 2). UNLV’s talent advantage showed through early in the second half and roughly halfway through the second stanza the Rebels had a 13-point lead (sound familiar?). Cal Poly made a nice comeback over the next seven minutes to tie the game with roughly two minutes remaining but Cal Poly couldn’t hit some open jumpers at the end of the game to pull out the win.
The Mustangs won’t be intimidated by being in Pauley.
However, like I wrote, they won’t be nearly as talented as Monmouth. There are no Justin Robinsons or Zach Tillmans on the Mustang roster.
UCLA was clearly missing sophomore Jonah Bolden, who was suspended for the game. If nothing else, Bolden would have given Coach Alford a bit more flexibility with his line-ups. The Bruins dominated the boards and had no problem scoring inside, so Bolden’s contributions may not have been terribly earth shaking, but he certainly would have been an option at the end of the game after Parker fouled out.
The Mustangs return their top five scorers from last season but there isn’t a devastating offensive player among the five. The big key is that they play within Callero’s system in an unselfish manner.
Senior post Brian Bennett (6’9” 288 lbs.) is statistically the best returning player for Callero but he only played 12 minutes against the Rebels. He was the leading scorer and rebounder last season but that’s not saying much as he averaged 11.5 PPG and 6.3 RPG. He’s not much of a defensive presence in that he doesn’t alter many shots and he is fairly slow.
Senior wing David Nwaba (6’4” 210 lbs.) is the team leader and averaged 11.4 PPG last season. He is the team’s best perimeter defender though it may not mean much in this game because Cal Poly may play mostly zone defense. He is almost strictly a slasher and even though he’ll attempt some three-pointers, his 20% success rate from behind the arc should indicate to the Bruins that they can lay off him a bit and invite him to shoot from the perimeter. He did a nice job of playing within himself against the Rebels, hitting 7-13 field goal attempts with none of them coming from behind the arc.
Senior forward Joel Awich (6’7” 217 lbs.) is probably the best athlete on the team and is probably the squad’s best all-around player. He can play both inside and out, is a decent passer and can hit the three on a consistent basis (36% last season). However, his biggest contribution to the team is probably on the other end of the floor. He is really the only player on the roster capable of altering shots on a consistent basis. He is also sneaky around the glass, so if the Bruins play a lot of zone on Sunday, as they should against a poor shooting team, they have to be aware of him when rebounding on the defensive glass.
Junior Ridge Shipley (6’0” 185 lbs.) is built like a point guard but his role is that of the team’s shooting specialist. All seven of his field goal attempts on Friday came from beyond the arc. He is a scrappy player but a defensive liability and whomever he guards on Sunday when Cal Poly goes man-to-man should be able to exploit him. He was 1-7 on Friday from the floor.
Sophomore Taylor Sutlive (6’3” 194 lbs.) is the ostensible point guard, although generally Cal Poly’s offenses don’t require a traditional distributor. He is a secondary scorer and takes smart shots. He was 3-5 overall on Friday night, including 2-3 from behind the arc. He’s probably the best pure shooter on the squad.
Senior Reese Morgan (6’2” 200 lbs.) provides backcourt depth and averaged 10 PPG last season. He is also one of the best free throw shooters on the west coast.
The ‘X’ factor for the Mustangs is Gonzaga transfer Luke Meikle (6’9” 209 lbs.), a sophomore who is already the most talented big man on the Mustang roster. He only had 4 points and 3 boards against the Rebels, but he logged more minutes than any other Mustang post player and has the most complete game of any of the forwards. He will be a tough match-up for any of the Bruins not named Bolden with his ability to play inside and out.
The Bruins lost on Friday primarily because they couldn’t take care of the ball. They outrebounded the Hawks 60-37. That 23-rebound advantage should have been more than enough of an advantage for the Bruins to win the game comfortably despite their 38% shooting from the floor. However, UCLA committed an obscene 23 turnovers (while the Hawks only committed 7) and allowed Monmouth to score 23 points off those turnovers. The Bruins only managed 5 points off of turnovers. The Hawks scored 8 fast break points (mostly off turnovers) while UCLA didn’t score a single one.
Monmouth’s defense is predicated in large part on turnovers, so seeing them force some turnovers with good defense wasn’t a surprise. However, the Bruins were very lazy with the ball, almost as if they thought they simply needed to show up in order to be victorious, so Alford will need to get the team focused quickly or risk a second loss in three days.
That lack of focus and intensity was the other primary reason for the loss. It was a major issue, especially after the Bruins ran out to a 13-point lead about 8 minutes into the second half. The Bruins clearly played for the next several minutes as if the game was over at that point. Ironically, the last time I watched the Bruins race out to a large lead in the second half and then try and coast home only to lose at the end was three seasons ago against Cal Poly.
Cal Poly will almost certainly play zone defense throughout the game so it will be incumbent on the Bruins to be patient when necessary and work to get the ball to either Parker or Welsh on the low block. That is the area where UCLA will have a distinct advantage. In fact, that advantage will be very pronounced and will mirror the advantage that UNLV had on Friday against the Mustangs. To combat that, Callero decided to go with a small line-up for much of the game, with Awich as the lone post player surrounded by 4 guards. While enjoying an overall rebounding advantage, UNLV didn’t dominate on the glass. If UCLA can dominate the boards the way it did against Monmouth then it may not matter what Callero tries to do. UCLA dominated Monmouth in terms of second chance points and the Bruins should be able to do the same against Cal Poly.
The return of Bolden should help, but the key to this game is the talent gap and the assumption that UCLA should take to the floor with more focus than on Friday. If the Bruins don’t, then some serious questions need to be asked of the coaching staff.
The Bruins have put themselves in a position where they probably have to upset one of the big name teams on their schedule in order to make up a bit for the loss on Friday, but I am very confident that Monmouth will finish in the top 80 or so of the RPI. In that way it won’t be considered a “bad” loss, but it is a game most of us felt that UCLA would win in an already daunting non-conference schedule. Basically UCLA needs to hold serve on Sunday and then next Thursday against a good Pepperdine team. Then UCLA will head out to Hawaii where the Bruins now probably have to win two games (and one of them can’t be Chaminade) in order to get the bad taste of Friday somewhat out of their figurative mouths.
Cal Poly’s experience makes me a bit nervous considering what happened against Monmouth, but the talent gap is pretty significant. It should be enough for UCLA to get the win even if the Bruins play poorly on offense again. In fact, I can realistically see the Bruins learn a bit of a lesson from Friday and blow Cal Poly off the court. If it’s another nail-biter then the Bruins could be in for a long season.
Cal Poly 68