SG Isaac Hamilton (USA Today)

Maui Invitational: Wake Forest Preview

Nov. 25 -- UCLA will try to notch a second win in Maui on Wednesday when the Bruins take on Wake Forest...

Sometimes I allow my fandom to get in the way of objective analysis when creating a UCLA game preview. Such was the case before last night’s embarrassing 19-point loss to Kansas that was much, much worse than the score indicated. I certainly allowed myself to be swayed by UCLA’s talent on paper and the thought that, after all, this was UCLA. However, as was the case in last season’s loss against Kentucky, the Bruins were outplayed in every facet of the game, gave little real defensive effort and were outcoached across the board. Of course, the superior athleticism and team play of the Jayhawks only brought UCLA’s serious deficiencies into even more focus, and the worry now is that, for the third time in as many seasons during head coach Steve Alford’s tenure in Westwood, the Bruins will struggle to consistently be anything above mediocre. Granted, Alford’s UCLA teams have gotten better in the past two years as the seasons wore on, but unlike the past two seasons, the Bruins need to overcome a loss to a mid-major squad. That loss to Monmouth in the season’s opening game now means that today’s game at the Maui Invitational is almost a must-win, as UCLA will certainly struggle with its three remaining out of conference high major opponents once the Bruins return from the islands.

UCLA will face Coach Danny Manning’s Wake Forest squad in today’s Maui Invitational third-place game (4:30 PM PST, ESPN2) and the Bruins should be able to have success. Wake Forest is very much a Bruin-esque (Steve Alford’s Bruins) team in that the Demon Deacons often play out of control on both ends of the floor, can lack focus and intensity at times and struggle to play up to their perceived talent level. However, Manning has shown to be a solid coach, taking Tulsa back to the NCAA Tournament when he was in charge after a spell of bad seasons in Oklahoma. Now, Manning seems to have Wake Forest on an upward trajectory after years of terrible basketball.

The similarities between Wake Forest and UCLA are actually quite poignant. Both have an established starting five and typically receive little scoring help from the bench. Each team has one starter that is probably in over his head in terms of playing at the high major level, yet both teams have enough talent on their respective rosters that their fans should reasonably expect to have a competitive program.

While Wake Forest was dismantled in its Maui semifinal by Vanderbilt in very similar fashion to the way UCLA was crushed by Kansas, the Deacons have a win over Indiana on Monday to hang their hat on right now. That is certainly more eye opening than UCLA’s best win, over UNLV on the same night. There are two big questions surrounding this game: first, whether Wake Forest will be content with the Indiana win and come out unfocused, as the Deacons did against the Commodores, and, second, whether UCLA will be motivated by the embarrassing loss to Kansas. There is every chance that if both teams come out disinterested that this game will be at least as ugly as UCLA’s game against UNLV on Monday.

The five starting Deacons should be senior Devin Thomas (6’9” 245 lbs.) and sophomore Dinos Mitoglou (6’10” 245 lbs.) in the post with sophomores Mitchell Wilbekin (6’2” 175 lbs.) and Greg McClinton (6’7” 200 lbs.) on the wings and freshman Bryant Crawford (6’3” 200 lbs.) running the point.

Thomas is the team’s best player, leading the Deacons in both scoring (17 PPG) and rebounding (10.6 RPG). He is strictly an inside player, but he is very good in the low post. He dominated Indiana’s more heralded frontcourt on Monday, but was taken out of his element against Vanderbilt by Vandy’s ability to quickly move the ball and focus their defense on him. That focus on Thomas may be a blueprint for how to defeat the Demon Deacons. If Thomas has an Achilles Heel (or two) it’s that he’s not a great athlete and he struggles from the free throw line, averaging only 57% for the season from the charity stripe. If UCLA plays man-to-man defense, then Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh have a very realistic chance of handling the Wake Forest senior.

Mitoglou gives Manning rebounding size and outside shooting ability but he is very limited athletically. He is second on the team in rebounding at 8.8 RPG, but he was able to build that statistic against lesser competition. He was clearly overmatched against the quickness of the Commodores. He can hit the occasional three-pointer, but it’s not as if he’s a serious threat, having hit only 30% of his long distance shots this season.

Wilbekin, whose older brother Scottie was the talented point guard for Florida when the Gators knocked the Bruins out of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, is strictly a shooter. He is not blessed with the same athleticism as his older brother and he really struggled against Vanderbilt. Wilbekin’s trajectory is eerily similar to UCLA’s Isaac Hamilton in that Wilbekin is a defensive liability and while he can occasionally have big scoring games, he can also throw up goose eggs as he did last night against Vanderbilt.

McClinton is the definition of ‘garbage man’ in that he does the little things that help his team. He’s the player that will gladly accept the dirty work of diving on the floor, defending solidly and helping wherever necessary. His offensive game is limited, though, in that he has low post skills in a small forward’s body.

Crawford is a good player and the one Deacon (assuming Thomas doesn’t go off) that can turn the game. He is the team’s best overall player and certainly the team’s one real three-point threat. He leads the team in several statistical categories, including assists, but he also has more turnovers than assists. The individual battle between him and Aaron Holiday should help decide the game, and while the young Deacon is a good player, Holiday is better. Holiday should be smarting from the way Kansas’ Frank Mason was able to outplay him last night.

Manning’s team really only goes seven players deep and the other two players who see the floor regularly are junior Trent Van Horn (6’3” 215 lbs.) and freshman John Collins (6’10” 225 lbs.). Van Horn actually plays more minutes than McClinton but that’s because he’s the only bench option for the guard position. Van Horn has much the same game as Wilbekin while Collins has actually been a solid contributor in the frontcourt. However, like Thomas and McClinton, Collins is strictly a low post threat. Manning often has little choice but to play Collins with a combination of Thomas, Mitoglou or McClinton, and that line-up really struggles on the defensive end.

Wake Forest is a solid rebounding team, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering its size, but the Deacons struggle in many other areas of the game. The opposition shoots better than the Deacons and they have almost twice as many turnovers as their opponents. Their defense is often disjointed and will truly remind Bruin fans of UCLA’s defense in the Alford era. UCLA should see many open looks from behind the arc. Obviously the Bruins need to knock those shots down, but they certainly won’t be as contested as they were against Kansas.

Wake Forest beat Indiana because the Hoosiers offense went into a very selfish mode the last five minutes of the game. Wake Forest wasn’t great defensively, but Indiana imploded on the offensive end. Indiana’s many misses allowed Wake Forest to do what it does best, namely rebound. Vanderbilt was very methodical about moving the ball and looking for open shots, which the Commodores found on almost every possession in the first half. If the Bruins are even somewhat patient and smart on offense then they should be able to score.

UCLA’s defense was downright atrocious against Kansas, often lacking effort. However, even when the Bruins were trying on the defensive end, they collectively looked like a chicken with its proverbial head cut off as they chased the ball haphazardly. Fortunately for the Bruins, the Deacons can be as impatient on offense as the Bruins. Unlike the Bruins, however, Wake Forest is a poor outside shooting team, averaging under 30% from distance on the season. As much as Kansas tore up UCLA’s 1-2-2 zone last night, that zone should give Wake Forest a lot of trouble. The thing is, with Welsh and Parker on Mitoglou and Thomas, Jonah Bolden on McClinton, Bryce Alford or Isaac Hamilton on Wilbekin and Holiday or Prince Ali on Crawford, the Bruins should be able to play some man-to-man defense against the Deacons.

If the Bruins can play focused for even spurts, then they should be able to win this game. The question is whether that will actually happen. There is every opportunity for the Bruins to walk out of Maui with the two high major wins they needed, despite last night’s shellacking.

I was wrong to go with my fan’s heart in calling for a close game last night, unlike my UNLV preview where I was more objective. Channeling that objectivity, my best guess is that fans should be ready for some really poor basketball in the game. If that’s the case then UCLA’s talent advantage should win out. However, if either team comes out focused while the other does not then this could turn quickly into a rout. The worry is that UCLA will be the one to lay the clunker.

Again, though, the chances that either of these squads can go long stretches of focused basketball are pretty remote. That being the case, UCLA should leave the islands with another close victory.

Wake Forest 78

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