SG Isaac Hamilton (Photo by Steve Cheng)

UCLA vs. Louisiana-Lafayette Preview

Dec. 14 -- UCLA will try to avoid a letdown after the big win over Gonzaga when Louisiana-Lafayette comes to Pauley...

For the first time in Head Coach Steve Alford’s tenure in Westwood, the UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team has some real positive momentum this early in the season. Wins against the nation’s then-#1-ranked team will do that for you, as will wins on the road against arguably the top West Coast program. By defeating both Kentucky and Gonzaga in the past 10 days, the Bruins have now changed the narrative on the season. I wrote of that possibility in the Gonzaga preview and David Woods expanded that idea broadly in his Gonzaga game review. In short, the Bruins are now in a position where the fans of the team can worry about seeding rather than wondering if the Bruins will receive an NCAA bid. With wins over Kentucky and, more importantly, on the road at Gonzaga, the Bruins are now arguably one of the hottest teams in the country.

In the immediate aftermath of the Kentucky victory there was concern that UCLA wouldn’t be able to come close to replicating the effort that was required to defeat the Wildcats. Further, the Bruins were going to have to turn around and play a very dangerous Long Beach State team 3 days after the Kentucky game. The situation was ripe for a letdown by the Bruins as the 49ers represented an excellent example of a “trap game.”

Obviously, the Bruins survived the 49ers, but they are now presented with the same issue following the defeat of Gonzaga. The Bruins have to turn around and play again on Tuesday night when they host Louisiana-Lafayette (6 PM PST, Pac 12 Network).

A couple of things before diving deeply into the preview: first, there is a pretty significant talent difference between Bob Marlin’s Louisiana-Lafayette squad and LBSU, with the 49ers being much more dangerous. Second, and more importantly, Louisiana-Lafayette has one of the greatest nicknames in college sports -- the Ragin’ Cajuns.

The Kentucky and LBSU games certainly proved arguably the key component of predicting college basketball games: how the two teams match up against each other. Long Beach State was a bad match-up for the Bruins (and coming on the heels of the Kentucky game didn’t help), but ULL’s strengths are not in areas where the Bruins have struggled.

Marlin’s squad is deep; he has 13 players on the roster who are averaging over 10 MPG and 10 different players have started at least one game. However, he has three players who have started every game in senior post Shawn Long (6’11” 246 lbs.), junior point guard Jay Wright (6’1” 180 lbs.) and sophomore wing Johnathan Stove (6’4” 215 lbs.).

Long, who is a Mississippi State transfer, is essentially a poor man’s version of Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer. He shoots very well from within the painted area (56%) and averages 11.6 RPG and 18.3 PPG, both good for best on the team. However, there’s a reason why I called him a “poor man’s version of Kyle Wiltjer;” while Long is a three-point threat, his percentage is a miserable 29%, and his free throw percentage is a pedestrian 61%. Fortunately for the Bruins, they will be seeing Long right after they faced Wiltjer. More importantly, UCLA’s Jonah Bolden may be coming into his own. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Gonzaga victory was Bolden’s defense on Wiltjer. When the young Aussie was in the game and defending the Bulldog All-American, he essentially shut him down for long periods. The Bruins probably have a pretty good shot at making Long’s life difficult between Bolden, Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh.

Although Wright is a junior, this is only his second year in the program after spending his freshman year at a junior college. He is predictably the leader in multiple categories including assists and outside shooting, but he is a mediocre free throw shooter (52%) and leads the team in turnovers with 18. The main thing about Wright is that he can get forced to play out of control by even a somewhat disciplined defense and he still is developing as a floor leader and passer.

Stove has also started every game and he may be the most complete player on the squad. He is a solid defender, shooter and rebounder. He likes to drive into mid-range jumpers, where he is surprisingly effective. Obviously, a combination of Isaac Hamilton and Prince Ali should be a handful for Stove, but I am still a bit skeptical of Hamilton’s ability to focus on a consistent basis and Ali may be out for the game. Still, that may mean that Stove will be faced with Bolden for stretches, which could provide its own difficulties.

Senior Kasey Shepherd (6’3” 178 lbs.) hasn’t started a game yet this season, but he plays starter’s minutes. If Stove is the most complete player, then Shepherd is probably the most polished. He is an outside shooter by trade and hits a respectable 34%. However, he is very good from the charity stripe, as is Stove, and he is arguably the best man-to-man defender on the squad. He has 13 steals on the season, leading the team. Chances are he will be asked to guard UCLA’s Bryce Alford.

Beyond these four, Marlin has played any number of combinations. Senior Devonta Walker (6’7” 220 lbs.), junior Jevonlean Hedgeman (6’7” 190 lbs.) and sophomore Bryce Washington (6’6” 255 lbs.) all give depth to the frontcourt. Hedgemen is almost exclusively a ‘3’, while Washington is almost strictly a low post player. Walker is somewhere in between the two. Walker is second on the team in rebounding, but none of the three players should strike fear in the hearts of the Bruins. Hedgemen has been a poor shooter this season and while Washington seems effective, Marlin hasn’t played him as much as perhaps he should.

Shepherd and juniors Tyrone Wooten (6’4” 180 lbs.) and Hayward Register (6’2” 175 lbs.) provide the real backcourt depth. Wooten and Shepherd both can play either guard position while Register is another player who tries to ply his trade from beyond the arc. Like the frontcourt players off the bench, the backcourt subs shouldn’t be able to make a huge impact on the game.

The Ragin’ Cajuns play a style that makes this game an even better match-up for the Bruins. They want to get up and down the floor, so UCLA will have an opportunity to run and get easy buckets. ULL has turned the ball over much more often in its losses, which, incidentally, were against the only good teams on the ULL schedule.

ULL shoots well from the floor (48%) but the Cajuns are really poor as a team from distance, hitting less than 28% from three They also allow opponents to shoot almost 40% from behind the arc.

While ULL is +9 per game in rebounds, the reality is that number was built up against some really poor competition. In fact, the 3-4 Ragin’ Cajuns have only defeated one Division I team, and that was McNeese State. In its two losses to high major teams, Miami (Fla.) and Alabama, the games were essentially over by halftime.

ULL’s cross-country travel should be taken into account as the Cajuns haven’t been out of the south until coming to California. Certainly the Bruins may be looking at another “trap game” as this game follows so quickly on the heels of the Gonzaga victory and comes just before the Bruins travel to New York to take on North Carolina, in a game that seems much more winnable than it did when the Bruins were on Maui.

This will be an important game for the Bruins in that they have an opportunity to practice the maturity necessary to win in these types of games, a maturity that very good teams have, and the kind that should make this game an easier victory than the win over Long Beach State.

Louisiana-Lafayette 73

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