SG Bryce Alford (USA Today)

Maui Invitational: UCLA vs. Kansas Preview

Nov. 24 -- UCLA advanced to the second round of the Maui Invitational with their win over UNLV, and will now face No. 5 Kansas...

With UCLA’s win over UNLV late Monday night, the Bruins advanced into the semifinals of the Maui Invitational, where the Bruins will face the #5 Kansas Jayhawks (7PM PST, ESPN). It was tough to gauge the talent level of Bill Self’s Jayhawks after their 51 point dismantling of tournament host, Division II Chaminade, but Kansas will certainly be a big step up in competition for the Bruins. The good news for UCLA is that the Bruins are in a win-win situation.

If anyone wanted a visual example of why athleticism in college basketball should be such a valued commodity then they saw it last night in the first five to seven minutes of the Bruin-Rebel game. UCLA really struggled against the faster pace of UNLV and against its athleticism. UCLA was able to turn a 9-point deficit into a 9-point cushion during the first half because the Bruins could hit free throws and because Aaron Holiday and Jonah Bolden, two of the three best athletes on the squad, were able to control sizable portions of the game. UCLA probably won’t make 23/24 free throws again for a while and Kansas has every bit the athleticism that UNLV possesses, although the Jayhawks’ bench isn’t as deep as UNLV’s.

If there is a blueprint to beat the Jayhawks then it was provided by Michigan State and Coach Tom Izzo last week when the Spartans upset the favored Jayhawks. The plan for Sparty was simple: slow the game down and then pound the ball inside. Of course, Michigan State’s calling card under Izzo has been very physical play, and that clearly bothered the Jayhawks. UCLA will probably not slow the pace, as that isn’t Coach Steve Alford’s wont, and the Bruin green light offense isn’t designed for that. However, the Bruins have the capacity to get the ball into the paint and cause some damage.

Thomas Welsh had a very nice game, but it wasn’t a very physical game, at least not on the offensive end. Welsh is almost automatic from the short corner of the baseline and he had some nice put-backs, and he was able to finish some nice passes from Aaron Holiday, but he wasn’t able to really back down any of UNLV’s frontcourt on the low block. Tony Parker has that capacity, but he got into serious foul trouble and was a non-factor against the Rebels.

One of Kansas’ weaknesses is that it isn’t a big team. Senior forwards Perry Ellis (6’8” 225 lbs.) and Jamari Taylor (6’8” 220 lbs.) provide the only size in the starting line-up. Ellis is arguably one of the most complete forwards in the nation, and although he isn’t great at any one aspect of the game, he is good at most of them. He even has shooting range out to the three-point line. Traylor is the low post presence and ‘banger’ of the two. Parker is a better low post athlete for the Bruins, but he sometimes really struggles on defense. That showed against UNLV and was one of the biggest reasons he got into foul trouble. Welsh was often the only UCLA ‘big’ in the low post (Bolden was playing the top of the zone) and he didn’t do badly against UNLV’s collection of big men, which included Stephen Zimmerman. However, if Parker or Welsh get into real foul trouble again then UCLA will get run off the court by the athletic Jayhawks. True freshman and former UCLA recruiting target Carlton Bragg (6’9” 220 lbs.) provides low post depth, but he’s only been playing about 13 MPG and has had a slow start to the season.

If UCLA can hang with the Jayhawks in the frontcourt, the backcourt could be a very different matter. Self starts three good-to-very good players at the guard/wing positions. The best of the three is junior Wayne Selden (6’5” 230 lbs.) who is the team’s second-leading scorer and top three-point threat. He is the one player on Kansas that UCLA doesn’t have a natural counter for defensively. Selden can play out of control at times, but he would probably be one of the top two athletes on UCLA’s roster were he on it.

Junior Frank Mason (5’11” 185 lbs.) shares the point guard duties but is a good scorer in his own right. Like Selden, he can hit the outside shot, and on top of his jitterbug-like movements, he is a good athlete. He will probably share time defending/harassing Holiday. His partner in that will be sophomore Devonte' Graham (6’2” 175 lbs.). Graham is probably the least talented of the three backcourt starters, although keep in mind that is in comparison to very good players. Graham is as talented and athletic as anyone in UCLA’s backcourt. Given the surrounding talent, though, UCLA will probably focus its defense on other players and force Graham to beat the Bruins. He is also a good defender and will certainly be matched on Holiday at times, in addition to Bryce Alford.

For UCLA to be competitive in the backcourt, much will depend on Coach Alford’s distribution of minutes. Quite simply, Isaac Hamilton is a train wreck right now. It was great that he hit the three-pointer that ultimately put UCLA in front last night, but the Bruins would never have been in that position if he had been simply mediocre. Last night was arguably Hamilton’s worst game in a Bruin uniform, and that includes last year’s disasters against North Carolina and at Oregon State. Hamilton’s physical limitations have been well-documented, but he appears to be in quite a bit of a mental funk. Prince Ali was not great last night, as his butterfingers and loose ball security demonstrated, but he is light years better than Hamilton on the defensive side of the court. Should Alford choose to play Hamilton more than 25 minutes against the Jayhawks then UCLA should start planning early for the third-place game.

UCLA’s 1-2-2 zone clearly caused UNLV issues last night, and while Rebel Coach Dave Rice didn’t really adjust his players until after halftime, the part the Rebels were never able to really solve was Bolden on the top of the zone. UNLV has more height than Kansas in the backcourt but Kansas has better shooters. There were many times that UCLA’s defensive effort contested some of UNLV’s three-pointers and that had an effect on the Rebels as well, but the Bruins are going to need to sustain that effort tonight in order to remain competitive. Kansas will probably have some issues against the Bruin zone when Bolden is on the floor simply because his length and athleticism make it difficult to get the ball to the slipping post in the lane when ball screens are set on Bolden. However, Alex Olesinski is not nearly as athletic or long as Bolden and UNLV was able to get much better looks with him on the top of the 1-2-2. Still, this should be the defense the Bruins play most of the game as it would be very difficult for UCLA to match up athletically with Kansas in man-to-man.

While Self will go 10 players deep in his rotation, there is a drop-off after Bragg. There isn’t another guard on the roster that Self truly trusts, although the closest is freshman LaGerald Vick (6’5” 175 lbs.). The Bruins will also need to keep an eye on sophomore shooter Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (6’8” 195 lbs.) because he is capable of hitting deep shots in bunches. However, the Kansas defense suffers quite a bit when he’s in the game because of his very limited athleticism.

UNLV was able to stifle Bryce Alford for much of the second half last night by having his defender trail constantly. To his credit, Alford didn’t force much but he did force some. He was really an offensive afterthought much of the night and finished with 20 points because of his free throw shooting. Kansas has the quickness to harass him into bad shots or no shots for long stretches.

The Bruins are essentially playing with house money tonight, which is why the game should be closer than some BROs are expecting. If the Bruins lose, well, they were expected to lose, so no harm, and if they can somehow win, then tomorrow’s title game would be frosting on the cake and allow them to fly home from Maui with two very good wins. Alford could be key, either positively or negatively based on how much he lets the game come to him.

If UCLA can have Bolden and Parker stay out of foul trouble then they have a puncher’s chance in this one. It should also help that the officials seem to be much tighter in calling the first few Maui games. UCLA is a better free throw shooting team than the Jayhawks. If the Bruins can stay within 10 at the half then the game will be anyone’s guess. The worry is that Kansas will come out of the gates like UNLV did last night only this time the Bruins won’t recover.

Kansas 81

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