SG Bryce Alford (Photo by Steve Cheng)

UCLA vs. Cal State Northridge Preview

Nov. 29 -- UCLA takes on Cal State Northridge today with a chance to get back above .500...

Now that the UCLA men’s basketball team is six games into the 2015-2016 season, the fans and players probably have a good idea of the identity of the squad. The team unquestionably has some talent, and certainly enough talent that the team should probably be better than 3-3 at this point. We can also, after six games, probably question the overall effort level of this team, especially on the defensive end of the floor. Head Coach Steve Alford has now had two-plus weeks to determine what needs to be done to improve the squad going into December, and pretty clearly something needs to be done to demand more effort from the players on a consistent basis.

Alford and the Bruins are now presented with an opportunity to start to create an identity that should benefit the Bruins as the season progresses as UCLA will host a bad Cal State Northridge team on Sunday afternoon (4 PM PST, Pac 12 Network).

Playing against a bad mid-major team allows UCLA to be safe in the knowledge that its talent should be more than enough to win the game. That means that, if he chooses, Alford will have the opportunity to instill some much-needed accountability into the players without risking a loss. In any case, UCLA shouldn't really worry about a loss, because this year's team is probably not a threat to repeat the Sweet 16 runs of the last two Bruin teams.

Head Coach Reggie Theus’ Matador squad will be overmatched in this game, much as it was in a 35-point loss to USC earlier this season. In fact, this Northridge team probably offers the most favorable match-up yet for the Bruins in terms of mid-major opposition. Theus will actually start two ‘bigs’, and even though one is a three-point threat, that means that UCLA’s Thomas Welsh and Tony Parker won’t be forced to chase around an opponent that is much quicker than either of them.

Those two starters are seniors Olalekan Ajayi (6’11” 245 lbs.) and Tre Hale-Edmerson (6’9” 211 lbs.). Ajayi is strictly an inside player while Hale-Edmerson is a bit of a stretch ‘4’. Ajayi is the defensive presence, averaging 8.5 RPG and leading the team with 7 blocked shots. He averages 8.3 PPG on 58% shooting from the floor, but he hasn’t been the focal point of the offense on most possessions.

Hale-Edmerson has shot 5 of 12 from beyond the arc this season, which means that one of the Bruin post players will have to defend him outside the paint. He is hitting on 54% of his field goal attempts overall, but like Ajayi, he isn’t one of the top two offensive options on most possessions.

The Bruins should be able to win the battle in the post. Whomever Hale-Edmerson has to defend should present a match-up issue for the Northridge senior, whether because of Welsh’s length or Parker’s sheer power and size.

The offensive strength of the squad is in the backcourt and on the wing with sophomores Michael Warren (6’5” 180 lbs.) and Tavrion Dawson (6’8” 202 lbs.) and true freshman Jason Richardson (6’2” 210 lbs.). Dawson is the most complete player of the three, having good length, being able to score (12.8 PPG), rebound (7.2 RPG), pass, and play defense. Dawson’s issue is he tends to revert to “hero ball” when things look bleak for the Matadors and he resorts to really poor shot selection. He isn’t overly quick so there is the possibility that with some effort, UCLA’s Jonah Bolden or Alex Olesinski can do a credible job guarding him.

Warren and Richardson are the two leading scorers on the squad at 14.3 PPG and 15.2 PPG respectively. They are decent rebounders and defenders and they do take care of the ball. Warren is the better shooter, but not by much. The key is that neither is overly quick. Again, with some effort, UCLA’s man-to-man defense can handle them.

Only two bench players get any significant minutes: senior Landon Drew (6’1” 182 lbs.) and sophomore Zacarry Douglas (6’8” 205 lbs.). Drew is probably a better distributor than Richardson and certainly a better shooter (44% from three-point range). However, Drew’s downside is that he isn’t a real threat to score (2.7 PPG). Theus has made the conscious decision to go with the younger Richardson and live with the mistakes.

Douglas is a very solid player whose game is similar to Dawson’s. His athleticism is a bit better but he is less refined of a player. Still, he and Dawson on the court together represent a defensive issue for the Bruins. The Matadors would suffer on the defensive end, though, so it remains to be seen if Theus will play the two small forwards at the same time for any consistent minutes.

The reality is that Northridge should be better than its record. Of their two wins, the Matadors beat a solid mid-major in Wright State, but they’ve lost to South Dakota and Loyola Marymount, two of the lesser Division I programs in the country. There is the throttling they suffered at the hands of the Trojans, when they were outrebounded by 23, but perhaps the biggest indication of Northridge’s level right now is its 4-point win over Cal State Los Angeles two weeks ago. That’s the same squad that the Bruins defeated by almost 40 a few days previous to that.

As has been the issue with Alford’s squads since he came to Westwood, the Bruins play with little collective focus at either end of the floor and especially at the defensive end. Help defense is always late or non-existent, the players continually go under screens, allowing either an uncontested three-point shot or giving the ball handler the option of reusing the screen, and the Bruins are very poor on closeouts. That isn’t an issue when playing most mid-majors, but it is when facing high-major competition. Kansas embarrassed the Bruins terribly and UCLA isn’t a program that should regularly be playing teams that take their foot off the gas so as to not totally embarrass the team, as has been the case several times each season since Alford took over. The Bruins are staring another embarrassment in the face on Thursday when Kentucky comes to Pauley Pavilion. Hopefully Coach Alford sees the issues, and uses this game and the week leading up to the Kentucky game to begin to instill a new identity in the program.

Regardless, the Bruins certainly have enough to take care of Northridge on Sunday afternoon. Let’s see if there are any changes in approach or expectation on behalf of the coaching staff. That may seem unlikely, but stranger things have happened.

Cal State Northridge 71

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