Once again the UCLA men’s basketball team is in a position to change the narrative of the 2015-2016 season. The Bruins travel to the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, New York to play the North Carolina Tar Heels in the first game of the CBS Sports Classic on Saturday (10 AM PST, CBS).
Coach Roy Williams’ Tar Heels represent one of the two most complete squads the Bruins will have faced, with the other being Kansas, and the Jayhawks ran over the Bruins in November.
However, because the Bruins have defeated Kentucky, Gonzaga and UNLV (which is a good win as of right now), and because the losses to Monmouth and Wake Forest aren’t “bad,” at least not currently, they are playing with house money, as it were. Regardless of whether the Bruins win the game against arguably the most talented squad in the country, the non-conference portion of the schedule will still be a big success.
And if the Bruins win the game on Saturday, well, then they will have put themselves in a position to begin battling for not simply a Pac 12 Conference title, but probably a top-3 NCAA Tournament seed.
So, it’s really a win-win situation for Steve Alford’s Bruins. The crazy thing, at least compared to what many Bruin fans were thinking four weeks ago, is that the Bruins have a real chance to win this game.
North Carolina enters the game with a record of 8-2. They are a deep and talented squad who was picked by most pundits to be the best team in the land this season. The Heels basically returned everyone off of last season’s Sweet Sixteen team. Still this is a team with some weaknesses, albeit small ones, but ones that have cost the Heels in both of their losses. Since the new Star Wars movie opens this weekend, consider the Tar Heels a bit like the Death Star; very powerful and almost impossible to defeat, but there is a weakness.
For starters, Carolina will be without its starting center, junior Kennedy Meeks (6’10” 260 lbs.) who would have clearly been a force in trying to combat the Bruin post duo of Thomas Welsh and Tony Parker. Meeks is by far the best interior defender that Williams has on the squad. Regardless of Carolina’s depth, make no mistake; this has the potential to be a game-changer. Meeks is suffering from a bone bruise to his knee, a similar injury to UCLA’s Prince Ali, and Meeks is out for about another 7-10 days.
In place of Meeks, Williams started senior Joel James (6’11” 280 lbs.). Don’t let his size fool you; there’s a reason he’s been averaging less than 10 MPG this season. He is a big body but is very slow of foot. He also doesn’t have a great feel for the game. Look for Williams to insert junior Isaiah Hicks (6’9” 235 lbs.) into the game as early as possible, especially if things start well for the Bruins in the paint. Hicks is unspectacular but solid. He can score in the post, rebound and play defense. However, he has nowhere near the impact of Meeks.
Senior Brice Johnson (6’10” 230 lbs.) is the leader and best player of the forwards. He is a stretch-four on both ends of the court. He is averaging 14.6 PPG and 9.2 RPG. He is a match-up nightmare for most teams because of his length and athleticism. Coach Alford may have to have Jonah Bolden on the floor quite a bit in this game to try and control the Carolina forward. The thing about Johnson is that he is such a superior athlete compared to, say, Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer. Bolden did a great defensive job on Wiltjer but some of that was due to Bolden’s superior length and athleticism compared to Wiltjer. The match-up with Johnson is, at best, a wash. If Bolden doesn’t guard Johnson then Parker will have to and while he has the strength to battle Johnson in the low block, he will struggle when Johnson pulls him outside. That doesn’t mean Johnson is going to attempt his first three-pointer of the year, but that he will move to about 12-15 feet away from the rim, thus giving him the space he needs to use his quickness advantage over Parker. Still, Johnson has a history of showing immaturity in his game and if he doesn’t start out well against the Bruins, he could start to force things and become much less of a positive factor for the Tar Heels.
The wing spot will be manned by sophomore Justin Jackson (6’8” 200 lbs.). Jackson has been more than solid this season for Williams, averaging 14 PPG and 4.2 RPG. He is very tough both inside and out and is quick enough to beat many defenders off the dribble. He’s also a very good passer, being third on the team with 37 assists.
It will be difficult for UCLA to guard in the post because of the quickness of the trio of Heels, (assuming Hicks gets more minutes than James). However, this may force Coach Alford to have to play all three of his posts, Parker, Welsh and Bolden, at the same time. While Bolden would be a great match-up on Johnson, Alford may have to put him on Jackson with Parker on Johnson and Welsh on whoever is left.
The problem won’t be as significant on the other end. Welsh brings a great offensive dynamic to the Bruins, especially with his ability to hit mid-range jumpers. Parker is stronger than any of the remaining Carolina posts and Bolden has been getting steadily better. However, the edge overall has to go to Carolina and its 4 posts against UCLA’s 3.
Carolina’s backcourt can cause problems for other teams on the best of days and be deadly when it’s really clicking. The obvious catalyst is Carolina’s all-everything, do-everything player, senior Marcus Paige (6’2” 175 lbs.). Although he has only been able to play in four games because of a broken bone in his hand, he is the unquestioned leader and best player on the team. He leads the team in scoring at 17.3 PPG, is averaging 50% from the floor and 52% from behind the arc. He has 19 assists versus only 3 turnovers on the year and is a heady defender. That headiness, though, goes away from time to time, on both ends of the floor. Paige has made a career of hitting big shots, but he has also made a name for himself by being able to shoot Carolina out of games. He hasn’t done that yet this season, but history says it's coming. He also struggled at times with the tenacious defending of Texas’ guards in the UNC loss in Austin. He will see much of the same in UCLA Aaron Holiday and, hopefully for the Bruins, Prince Ali. It will take more than one player to slow down Paige for any length of time and Ali, even with a bone bruise, presents the best opportunity for that second player to spell Holiday.
The rest of the backcourt rotation can be troublesome if a team focuses too much on Paige. Sophomore Joel Berry (6’ 180 lbs.) has started every game as either the point or the off guard. He averages 11.4 PPG and is the team’s most dangerous outside shooter. He’s the one player that UCLA absolutely wants to close out on and force to put the ball on the floor. He is not an effective shooter off the dribble.
Sophomore Theo Pinson (6’6” 205 lbs.) is a future star for this team, but he still plays a bit too out of control for Williams’ liking. Considering how Paige can play at times and the generally frenetic pace UNC plays with, that’s saying something. Pinson is the team leader in assists and has very good vision. His play and his game are much like that of Berry’s in that he more effective with his feet set behind the arc than he is shooting off the dribble. However, unlike Berry, he is a solid defender and a terrific rebounder.
Junior Nate Britt (6’1” 175 lbs.) is the third similar player in the backcourt rotation. While Pinson can spell any player at three spots, Britt is essentially a 2-guard and only that. He is, outside of Paige, the deadliest shooter on the team. He is hitting 43% from behind the arc.
It’s obvious that UCLA cannot play the kind of pack-it-in man defense that helped the Bruins to defeat Kentucky and Gonzaga. Carolina is simply too good of a shooting team to do that. Think Long Beach State with size and better athletes. However, the Tar Heels often have lacked focus. They had both Northern Iowa and Texas in hand and allowed both games to get away from them, and how that happened is a blueprint for a victory.
First, keep in mind that Carolina wants to run, and to do that the Heels need to dominate the boards and create turnovers. Carolina lost the turnover battle against both UNI and the Longhorns. That kept UNC from getting out for easy buckets and Carolina’s halfcourt offense, outside of Williams’ vaunted secondary break, isn’t anything special.
UNI and Texas also stayed pretty even on the boards, and this allowed them to hang with Carolina when the Heels went on some of their mini-runs. The Bruins have been good on the boards all year and have played relatively turnover-free ball the past two weeks. Kentucky actually pressures the ball more than Carolina, but Carolina has a more diversified offense, at least right now.
The last area harkens back to the secondary break. UCLA Achilles Heel has defensively been transition defense, and a team can’t play poor transition defense and expect to beat UNC. UNC gets out in the open court even after makes as well as Kentucky and Kansas, the two teams UCLA’s played that most mirror the Heels. UCLA was dreadful against Kansas and excellent against the Wildcats. Now, Kentucky isn’t a good outside shooting team, so that tipped things in UCLA’s favor. However, if UCLA can get back in transition and force UNC to work its offense, then the Bruins can win.
So there’s the blueprint; limit turnovers, stay even on the glass and get back in transition. If UCLA can do all three things then there is a good shot at an upset.
The game will be played at 10 AM Pacific time and UCLA has not traditionally played well with early morning games like that. The interesting thing will be how both teams handle shooting in the Barclay’s Center. It is a very dark playing interior, with the lights dimmed considerably on the fans surrounding the court. It makes for some adjusting in terms of depth perception. If UCLA can get its shots going early, it may take Carolina time to get used to the surroundings. Of course, the opposite could happen and if it does then UCLA could be looking at another 20-point loss.
One last thing to keep in mind -- Carolina hasn’t been great away from home. Both losses took place on the road and this game will not be a true road game, but it does take them away from the Dean Dome, a building where the Tar Heels are vastly more comfortable than when they are out of it.
Ultimately, the Tar Heels are not a good match-up for the Bruins. The loss of Meeks will certainly help the UCLA cause, and foul trouble for what is now a 7-man rotation for Williams could be cause for concern, but UNC is simply too athletic and can shoot entirely too well from distance for UCLA to pull off the third upset.
Still, the Bruins should keep things interesting.
North Carolina 86