Story by Rob Carpentier.
It is very early in the 2015-16 college basketball season and yet the UCLA Bruins find themselves facing a “must-win” game on Thursday night when the Bruins host the Pepperdine Waves at Pauley Pavilion (7:30 PM PST, Pac 12 Network).
The game is so significant for the Bruins because UCLA already suffered a loss to a mid-major school last week when the Bruins went down to Monmouth in overtime.
Pepperdine will come to Pauley with a record of 1-1, including a close loss to Fresno State, and will not be intimidated by the surroundings or by the Bruins. Pepperdine is probably as good as Monmouth, with different strengths and weaknesses, so UCLA will need to be ready to play from the opening tip.
When Waves head coach Marty Wilson was hired, be inherited a once proud mid-major that had really bottomed out. Now in his fifth season, Wilson has Pepperdine where he envisioned the program would be when he took over. The roster is replete with experienced, solid players. The Waves were picked to finish in third-place in the preseason WCC media poll, and, to be blunt, the Waves are probably better than a few Pac 12 squads.
UCLA’s first two opponents have caused the Bruins’ inexperienced roster fits. The Bruins had solid double-digit leads in both of its first two games and still somehow found themselves down late in the game. Pepperdine returns all of its starters from last season and almost the entirety of its bench, so it has the experience to make a similar end of game run.
The Waves will field a line-up similar to what UCLA saw in its first two games, with very little height and four guards/wings. Thomas Welsh and Tony Parker have responded with very good offensive and rebounding games but they both struggled defensively, when smaller, quicker players pulled them from the basket. The Bruins will see that kind of match-up issue in spades in this game. In fact, this would be a perfect game for UCLA to play a zone regardless of whether it is a 2-3 zone or a 1-2-2 zone.
That’s because Pepperdine’s best and most experienced player is senior Stacy Davis (6’6” 235 lbs.). Davis can score inside and out, although he is more comfortable facing the basket. He is far quicker than Welsh or Parker and because he’ll generally be one of the two tallest Waves on the floor, he will likely be matched up against one of the two UCLA posts when the Waves have the ball. He is a three-point threat but only connected on 29% of those shots last season so if Coach Steve Alford does decide to play man-to-man defense then it would make sense to have Welsh or Parker play off of Davis a few feet.
The most concerning player may be junior point guard Jeremy Major (5’11” 175 lbs.) who has the experience, guile and skill to punish UCLA for defensive mistakes. UCLA’s Aaron Holiday has the ability to successfully defend Major, but the concern should be whether Major gets Holiday in foul trouble or forces the young UCLA point guard into the same offensive mistakes he made against Monmouth. The Bruins need to pay close attention to him as he is the team’s best three-point shooter and is quick enough to create his own shot or the shot of others.
The breakout player so far this season for Wilson has been junior wing Lamond Murray (6’5” 200 lbs.). That may be a bit of an anomaly, though, as Murray’s big statistical game was against San Diego Christian, which is not exactly a defensive powerhouse. Murray is hitting over 60% of his shots, and while that should come down considerably against the Bruins, he still has the ability to score over 20. While he isn’t the player his namesake father was at Cal, Murray is another experienced cog who can hurt the Bruins.
One player who Pepperdine may be missing is sophomore guard Shawn Olden (6’3” 175 lbs.) who was probably one of the two best freshmen in the league last season along with Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis. Olden, while a tough match-up for any squad, has missed the season’s first two games with a high ankle sprain and it remains to be seen if he’ll suit up for Thursday night’s tilt. Even if he does he won’t be a full strength. That means that the Waves could be down a starter for the third game in a row.
Olden attempted more threes than anyone else on the roster last year, but since he’s been sidelined, that role has now gone to junior guard Amadi Udenyi (6’1” 195 lbs.). 9 of his 10 field goal attempts this season have come from behind the arc. He struggles a bit athletically, though, being built more like a linebacker than a guard. There is a chance that if UCLA does indeed go to a man-to-man defense that Bryce Alford would be able to guard him, if he gets in his face and forces him to put the ball on the floor.
The only size, if it can be called that, is senior Jett Raines (6’7” 225 lbs.). Raines is really more of a stretch ‘4’ but he provides the only real inside presence outside of Davis, who is a ¾ hybrid. Davis and Raines led the team in scoring and rebounding last season and much of that had to do with their ability to create mismatches with opposing defenders. That is the concern for UCLA.
There are players with some size on the Pepperdine bench, but they won’t play much unless Pepperdine is getting killed on the boards, which could happen. Pepperdine was not a good rebounding team last season and the small line-up deployed by Wilson isn’t designed to fix that issue. In fact, Wilson is such an adherent to playing his style and to his team’s strengths that he might eschew putting a “big” on the floor even if the Bruins own the glass.
Still, Pepperdine is a concern because of the small, experienced line-up. That’s why UCLA probably has to play a zone. It’s very apparent that Coach Alford’s preferred starting line-up, with the two posts, has a great deal of difficulty guarding smaller line-ups. Pepperdine is not a good outside shooting team, so it would only figure that a zone would conceivably be a more appropriate defense to play.
If Alford does look to play zone then the questions revolves around the kind of zone that UCLA should play. Keep in mind that all zones look the same after the first pass with some subtle variations depending on a team’s strengths and weaknesses. Also keep in mind that all zone defenses want to force the ball around the perimeter and prevent teams from getting the ball into the paint either through passing or dribbling. A basic 2-3 zone puts players in position to easily move to defend the wing but requires communication between players as to who is to defend the pass to the middle at the free throw line. It also tends to be more passive simply because it theoretically requires less defensive movement to get into position to defend the wings. A 1-2-2 zone, which Alford seems to prefer, wants to put pressure on the ball at the point of attack. However, it could leave the wings with a bit more room to operate, especially against a team that moves the ball quickly. Further, it also sacrifices a baseline defender, thus leaving the paint a bit more open if players don’t move quickly enough as the ball rotates. A 1-2-2 works if the defender on the top of the zone is either very long or very quick. UCLA has both in Jonah Bolden and Aaron Holiday, or even Prince Ali if Alford so chooses. The problem is the bottom of the zone requires a great deal of movement in order for those defenders to get out and defend the baseline wing and for the opposite baseline defender to slide into a position to provide help in the paint. Welsh and Parker aren’t terribly quick and thus can get caught a step out of position on the bottom of a 1-2-2. The variation here would be to have the two higher wing players defend all the way to the baseline, but this requires either athleticism or a good defensive sense and, in Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton, the Bruins have struggled in those areas. Having Bolden on the top of the zone with Ali and Holiday on the wings alleviates much of the concern about wing defensive play, and with those players on the floor the Bruins would actually have a much better chance of playing a successful man-to-man defense.
The choices Alford makes in defending the Waves will be key. UCLA should have no trouble scoring if the Bruins focus on getting the ball into the paint where Welsh and Parker provide a massive interior advantage. Pepperdine has only given up 2 three-pointers in 2 games, but much of that has to do with playing San Diego Christian in one of the games. Still, Pepperdine does a good job of defending the perimeter. That being the case, the Bruins shouldn’t rely too heavily on outside shots.
Pepperdine will look to push whenever it can so transition defense will be another key. UCLA’s transition defense has been abysmal in the first two games. One way to alleviate this problem is to avoid turnovers, which UCLA didn’t do in its first game but did fairly well against the Mustangs. Another way to alleviate the problem is with effort, which has been an area where the Bruins have been lacking. Hopefully the reports from Bruin practices are true and Alford has been emphasizing defensive principles and effort.
UCLA should also have a decided advantage on the boards. The Waves struggled on the boards last season and even though they are averaging over 40 RPG, that is, again, a result of playing a vastly inferior opponent in one of their games.
Pepperdine is going to want to win this game badly. Many of the players on its roster grew up in the southern California region and to them a victory over the Bruins would be monumental. UCLA will have to match that focus and the intensity Pepperdine is sure to bring to the floor.
This has all the makings of a high scoring affair. Three games into the season I want to give the Bruins the benefit of the doubt, at least one more time, but I don’t feel strongly about this one. UCLA should be able to own the glass, and that could be enough, on its own, to win this game. Then again, I thought the same thing about the Monmouth game when UCLA outrebounded the Hawks by more than 20 and still lost.