C Tony Parker (USA Today)

UCLA vs. Long Beach State Preview

Dec. 6 -- UCLA will look to sustain the effort that brought down No. 1 Kentucky when Long Beach State comes to Pauley later today...

The UCLA basketball season may have taken a major positive turn last Thursday night when the Bruins upset the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats in Pauley Pavilion. It was especially gratifying for the UCLA program that the game was televised nationally by ESPN and the Bruins dominated one of that network’s darling programs. The game really wasn’t close from about the midway point of the first half as the Bruins were the better team when it counted in all facets of the game. For the Bruins, though, now comes the hard part: ensuring that the positive turn to the season continues by validating that victory over Kentucky. The game following such a big victory always is a threat to be a trap game, and on Sunday night the Bruins face a worrisome mid-major in Long Beach State (6 PM PST, Pac 12 Network).

Coach Don Monson’s 49ers are a legitimate threat to beat the Bruins because, like Monmouth, they have talent in the areas that could create match-up issues for the Bruins. College basketball is all about match-ups and for all of its raw talent Kentucky was actually a good match-up, relatively speaking, for the Bruins. Long Beach State, even though it doesn’t have the talent of UCLA, is conceivably a bad match-up for the Bruins. The keys will be the kind of effort UCLA displays on the defensive end of the floor and how focused the Bruins are on the offensive end in terms of ball security. If UCLA plays with anywhere near the focus and intensity the Bruins showed against Kentucky then they will win handily. If the Bruins revert to the poor effort and middling focus of the first seven games of the season then this game could get chalked up as a loss. It’s all up to the Bruins.

As he’s done since he took over at LBSU, Monson has loaded up the 49ers’ non-conference schedule with tough games. Even though LBSU currently sits at 4-4, the 49ers have only been trampled in one game, an understandable blowout loss to Virginia, while barely losing to Oklahoma State twice on the road and San Diego State at home. They have defeated BYU, Colorado State and Seton Hall, the latter two away from home. LBSU is set to travel to Oregon, Arizona and Duke before its conference season begins. Long Beach State certainly shouldn’t be intimidated by playing the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion, unless the atmosphere is similar to the Kentucky game, and that’s highly unlikely.

As with most of UCLA’s mid-major opposition this season, the 49ers will start a small line-up. In fact, it will rival Pepperdine’s for the smallest the Bruins have faced this year. As has also been the case since his arrival, Monson relies heavily on transfers.

Sophomore Loyola Marymount transfer Gabe Levin (6’7” 225 lbs.) and sophomore USC transfer Roschon Prince (6’6” 235 lbs.) are the starting forward tandem with junior Travis Hammonds (6’6” 235 lbs.) and freshman Mason Riggins (6’8” 255 lbs.) supplying depth.

The 49er frontcourt is clearly a group that UCLA should dominate, at least on the offensive end. The defensive end may be another story depending on the effort of Thomas Welsh and Tony Parker. Prince and Riggins are two true low post players and as such won’t ask UCLA to have to closely guard them outside of the paint. However, Levin and Hammonds have the capability of making three-pointers, thus leaving one of the UCLA posts with the responsibility of guarding out to the arc, which has been an area of weakness for UCLA this season. The good news for the Bruins is that Monson’s offense really doesn’t focus at all on low post play, preferring to use the forwards to be screeners. Although he doesn’t start, Hammonds has been the only consistent scoring threat and that’s because he plays more on the perimeter than in the paint.

The focus of the 49er offense is the backcourt, where seniors Nick Faust (6’6” 210 lbs.) and A.J. Spencer (6’3” 210 lbs.) will start on the wings with sophomore Justin Bibbins (5’8” 150 lbs.) starting at the point. All three are equally potent driving or shooting from distance. The latter is what makes this backcourt so dangerous for the Bruins. Unlike Kentucky, the 49ers shoot the ball well from beyond the arc, especially these three starters. Spencer is well over 50% from distance, with Faust, the team’s leading scorer at 16.2 PPG, not far behind. Bibbins is the ‘weak’ shooter of the group, yet even he is shooting better than 36% from the three-point line.

The key to disrupting LBSU’s offense may be making Bibbins uncomfortable. He has more than 1/3 of the team’s total assists, and when he struggles initiating the halfcourt offense, the team struggles. He’ll have to be forced to move laterally but his small size and relatively good quickness will make that difficult. He can slip through small spaces making him dangerous coming off ball screens. Assuming Coach Steve Alford puts Aaron Holiday on Bibbins, it will be up to the Bruin freshman to bring the same defensive fire and intensity to the court as he did when defending Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis.

BRO has seen a steady diet of posters pining for Alford to cut into the minutes of Isaac Hamilton so that freshman Prince Ali can start seeing the floor more. It goes without saying that Ali is the better athlete and defender, and with Faust’s size and offensive capability, a better defender is going to be needed. It will be interesting to see how Alford allocates minutes on the wing, especially if Faust starts getting hot on offense.

If there is a better example for this Bruin team of how sustained defensive effort can positively impact a team than Bryce Alford’s effort against Kentucky, we haven’t seen it yet this season from UCLA. Bryce will never be a good man-to-man defender but his play against the Wildcats was solid. He’ll need another similar effort on Sunday to offset Spencer, who is shooting better than 50% overall from the field, and it’s not as if he doesn’t take many shots. Faust, Spencer and Bibbins have combined to take almost half of LBSU’s total shots on the season.

Because of the uncertainty of UCLA defensive effort, it’s difficult to gauge which defense, man or zone, will work more effectively against the 49ers. They will try to spread the floor, looking to drive and dish for open looks from the arc. A key for UCLA’s scouting will be understanding that the guards cannot give help to help mitigate open jumpers. A good idea would be to park either Parker or Welsh in the paint and allow them to be the de facto help on all drives. It would simplify the defense and probably be as effective as anything else.

Freshman Noah Blackwell (6’2” 190 lbs.) and junior Branford Jones (6’1” 195 lbs.) provide solid offense and quickness off the bench. Blackwell, in particular, is an outside shooting threat, averaging 43% from behind the arc. Regardless of the kind of defense UCLA employs, the Bruins will need to keep the intensity up when Monson goes to his bench.

Not surprisingly, the 49ers struggle on the glass and they will be facing their best rebounding opponent in the Bruins. Besides defense, this will be an area worth watching in trying to determine how engaged UCLA is with its effort. If the Bruins dominate the glass as they did against Kentucky then UCLA probably wins and does so comfortably.

However, LBSU can mitigate the rebounding advantage with its pressure defense. Monson likes to run a variety of presses, from full court to ¾ court to ½ court. If UCLA turns the ball over as it did in the season-opening loss to Monmouth then an upset is not only possible, but also probable. Turnovers allow the 49ers to get out into the open floor on the break and despite UCLA’s solid transition defense against Kentucky, Alford’s teams since he’s been in Westwood have been poor to dreadful in defensive transition.

All other analysis aside, if UCLA rebounds well and limits turnovers then there’s virtually no chance for an upset. That’ll require good effort and focus.

Building on that transcendent victory over Kentucky is critical to move the season in the right direction. Sustaining that sort of effort is something that UCLA has struggled with since Alford started coaching the program. With a good-looking win over Long Beach State on Sunday, UCLA is capable of starting to change that narrative.

Of course, until the Bruins actually prove it on a consistent basis, it is difficult to predict with any certainty that they will show that intensity and focus two games in a row, especially with Pauley probably not anywhere near as raucous as it was on Thursday night.

The Bruins should be able to sustain enough on both ends of the floor, especially with the heavy low post advantage, to win the game, although it probably won’t be comfortable until late in the contest. However, this is all guesswork, certainly more than usual. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bruins win going away or fall to a second mid-major team.

Long Beach State 74

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