After dispatching Pepperdine last Thursday with relative ease, the UCLA Bruins travel to Hawaii to take on UNLV in the last first-round game of the Maui Invitational on Monday night (8:30 PM PST, ESPN2).
The game represents UCLA’s first opportunity to play against a team with realistic NCAA Tournament goals. The game will also have some subplots, chief among them UCLA facing Rebel true freshman Stephen Zimmerman (7’0” 240 lbs.), who UCLA’s head coach Steve Alford spent a great deal of energy recruiting over the past few years.
This game is critical to UCLA, especially because of the loss at home to Monmouth to open the season. The game is not quite as critical for the Runnin’ Rebels, except in the sense that as losses mount for the Rebels this season, head coach Dave Rice’s tenure in UNLV becomes more tenuous.
More than any of either squad’s first three games (UNLV is 3-0 with wins over Cal Poly, New Mexico Highlands and Southern Utah), this game will be about the individual match-ups and maturity that each team displays. UCLA’s Alford has taken some criticism over his two-plus year tenure in Westwood for his tactical acumen, but that’s nothing compared to the criticism Rice has received since he took over UNLV for the same subject. However, with one notable exception, this game shouldn’t hinge on tactical plans.
UNLV should start a two-post/three guard line-up that is very similar in appearance to UCLA’s starting line-up. Rice will more than likely start Zimmerman and junior Oregon transfer Ben Carter (6’9” 225 lbs.) up front, with senior Rutgers transfer Jerome Seagears (6’1” 180 lbs.) at the point, senior three-point specialist Ike Nwamu (6’5” 210 lbs) at one wing spot and sophomore Patrick McCaw (6’7” 185 lbs.) on the other wing.
UNLV will be the first opponent that UCLA has played where the Bruins won’t have a lopsided advantage in the post. UCLA may play more man-to-man defense in this game than in earlier games because UCLA’s Tony Parker, Thomas Welsh and Jonah Bolden won’t have to chase guards or small forwards around the perimeter all game. It also means that they won’t be able to establish position as easily in the paint or rebound with little resistance from the opposition. Based on body type it would be easy to assume that Coach Alford will put Welsh on Zimmerman and Parker on Carter or the first sub off the bench, Goodluck Okonoboh (6’10” 225 lbs.). However, it might not be such a cut-and-dried decision. Parker is used to moving out to the three-point line to guard players and is more athletic than Welsh, who has struggled when asked to do the same thing. Zimmerman presents a unique challenge in that he has the offensive skill set to be a threat from the perimeter. Carter, on the other hand, is more of an inside bruiser, and while Okonoboh is athletic, he is offensively very raw and tends to spend offensive possessions setting screens and scoring off put-backs. Both Carter and Okonoboh are valued for their defensive and rebounding contributions. Zimmerman, whose recruitment ended when he decided to stay home for college, probably has the most NBA-ready offensive game of any post player on either roster. He is a good passer, sees the floor well and has been relatively unselfish in the first three games. He is shooting 62% from the floor through the first 3 games and would be averaging more than his current 12.7 PPG if he was making free throws at better than his current 50%. He is also, by far, the team’s leading rebounder at just under 10 RPG. However, in the same way that UCLA hasn’t really seen a high-major frontcourt yet this season, Zimmerman has yet to see one either. Additionally, as he pulls himself away from the basket on offense, which is likely in this game, he won’t be in the kind of rebounding position he has found himself in through the first three games. In his two games against Division I competition, Zimmerman has also gotten into foul trouble, so that’s something worth noting.
Carter and Okonoboh will have more value in terms of how they can restrict UCLA’s low post players. While Zimmerman leads the team in blocked shots, Carter, and to a lesser extent Okonoboh, know how to play defense in the post a bit better than their taller teammate. If the game gets physical in the low post it will be because of those two rather than Zimmerman. Carter’s offense is restricted to within 5 feet of the basket, although he is shooting 62% from the floor, and Okonoboh is very poor right now as an offensive player.
The backcourt and wings are very reliant on the three-point shot. Forty of their collective 67 shot attempts have come from behind the arc. They aren’t the best with shot selection, either. In many ways the UNLV backcourt resembles the UCLA guards and wings in that the Rebels probably don’t get their frontcourt teammates as involved offensively on a possession-by-possession basis as they should, especially considering that Zimmerman is unquestionably the most talented player on the team..
Seagars was mediocre when he was at Rutgers, but much of that could be the mediocre coaching he received from the disgraced Mike Rice (no relation to the UNLV coach). Seagars often played out of control, looking more like a shoot-first point guard in his time in New Brunswick. It remains to be seen if he’s matured any since his move from New Jersey. He’ll now be matched up against UCLA freshman point guard, Aaron Holiday. The very promising Bruin has an edge in athleticism over Seagars and is also just a more competitive player, with a better overall makeup. If the two are matched on each other, it will be interesting to see who is more thrown off their game.
McCaw has been the “find” of the early season for Rice. UNLV is a flat-out poor outside shooting team but McCaw has been the exception. He’s hitting 57% from beyond the arc and his length has made the UNLV offense more difficult to defend. He is also the team leader in steals and is second on the team in assists. He is truly the one player that UCLA doesn’t have a natural match-up for in terms of personnel.
Nwamu tends to sit outside the arc waiting for kick-outs, which is probably one of the reasons he seems to have a nasty tendency to take some ill-advised shots. He is not one of the top offensive options, yet he shoots at times as if he wants to pad his own stats. Even though he is two inches taller than UCLA’s Bryce Alford and a better athlete, Bryce can actually match-up with Nwamu.
Freshman Derrick Jones (6’7” 180 lbs.) and sophomore Jordan Cornish (6’6” 215 obs.) provide depth to all spots but the posts. Jones has been a pleasant surprise, coming in and actually averaging over 13 PPG, good for second on the team. Cornish started the Cal Poly game and while he wasn’t necessarily bad in that game, someone had to make way in the starting line-up for McCaw and Cornish was the person chosen.
Clearly UCLA wants UNLV (outside of McCaw) to shoot from outside. As I wrote, this is not a good outside shooting team. In order to make that happen, UCLA should play a great deal of zone defense and as Coach Alford showed in the Pepperdine game, he likes the 1-2-2. It was and will be especially effective if Alford continues to play Bolden at the high point of the zone with a combination of Prince Ali, Holiday and Bryce manning the two high wing spots. It is pretty obvious after three games that there’s been no demonstrable improvement in Isaac Hamilton’s game. Coach Alford is going to be left with an interesting decision over the coming days as it is already seems clear that Ali’s upside probably deserves more minutes on the floor, and those minutes would probably come at the expense of Hamilton. Obviously, making that kind of move requires a deft touch so as not to upset team chemistry, so it will be interesting to see if, when, and how it happens.
In terms of the outcome of the game, the only real comparison to make is through Cal Poly as a common opponent. Both squads had difficulty with the Mustangs, although UNLV’s win was a bit closer than UCLA’s. Still, that was UNLV’s first game and Cornish started instead of McCaw. As much as this may be UCLA’s first game against high major interior competition, the same is true for the Rebels.
UNLV turned the ball over quite a bit (19) against Cal Poly, but hasn’t committed nearly as many in the last two games. Truth be told, though, UNLV’s last two opponents are quite poor; New Mexico Highlands won 5 games last season and has had one winning season since 2005. Southern Utah is one of the worst programs right now in NCAA Division I.
It bears repeating that the Bruins need this game more than UNLV does. UCLA needs two wins in Hawaii to offset the damage done by the Monmouth loss and one of those wins can’t be Chaminade, which is very unlikely to beat Kansas in the first round of the tournament. At the very least, a win over UNLV would give UCLA the probable date with Kansas and after that a game with probably Indiana or Vanderbilt, either of which would look good as a win when the selection committee meets in March.
As another note, the Lahaina Civic Center, the small gym where the game will be played, takes some getting used to in terms of shooting. The team that does a better job adjusting will get a big leg up on the other.
UCLA needs the win more than UNLV, the Bruins run a zone defense that could give the Rebels real trouble, and UCLA has the better coach in this match-up. Between those three factors, UCLA should earn a date with Kansas on Tuesday.