C Tony Parker (Photo by Steve Cheng)

UCLA vs. McNeese State Preview

Dec. 22 -- UCLA gets one final cupcake in McNeese State before hitting conference play...

The UCLA men’s basketball team closes out the non-conference portion of its 2015-2016 schedule when the Bruins host McNeese State of the Southland Conference Tuesday night (8 PM, Pac 12 Network).

This is a good time to face what should be the biggest cupcake on UCLA’s non-conference schedule. Actually, check that: McNeese State is probably the worst team on UCLA’s schedule this season, including the exhibition opponent, Cal State Los Angeles. Regardless, UCLA could use a breather after being faced with three very tough games in the past two weeks with two solid mid-majors sprinkled in for good measure. UCLA is going to win this game. The only real question is what the final margin of victory is going to be at the end.

McNeese State, located in Lake Charles, Louisiana, is a member of the Southland Conference, a conference that includes Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston State, two traditional mid-major powers. Although the Cowboys have had some minor success in basketball, namely the two NCAA Tournament appearances in the early 1989 and 2002, the reality is that McNeese is a football school. They are a perennial participant in the Division I-AA playoffs.

Coach Dave Simmons’ Cowboys are 2-7 on the season with both wins coming against NAIA schools Dillard University and LSU-Alexandria. The Cowboys barely won both games. To top it all off, the Cowboys dropped a game to Louisiana College in November. Louisiana College is an NCAA Division III team. The Cowboys stayed relatively close to LSU when the two teams played to open the regular season, but the Cowboys have been boat-raced by Oklahoma, Indiana and Louisiana-Lafayette. That’s the same Ragin’ Cajun team that UCLA just beat. McNeese State lost to ULL by 33 points and it wasn’t that close.

McNeese State’s line-up starts small and gets smaller. No one on the roster is over 6’9” and there’s only one player at that height. As one might expect, McNeese gets beat on the boards, although the Cowboys are pretty active so it isn’t as bad as you might think.

The starting line-up lacks height, obviously, but Simmons has almost doubled-down on the small-ball concept he is trying to instill in the Cowboys. The starting post should be senior Craig McFerrin (6’7” 250 lbs.) who has the girth to stay with UCLA’s Thomas Welsh and Tony Parker but not the length. Not surprisingly McFerrin leads the team in rebounding at 7.6 RPG and is second in scoring at 9.6 PPG.

The leading scorer is junior point guard Jamaya Burr (6’ 175 lbs.). Burr averages 14.8 PPG and leads the team with 21 assists, but he also has committed 31 turnovers. That’s always a recipe for disaster, when your point guard has a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. Burr is a poor shooter inside the arc (42% overall) but he’s been good from beyond the three-point line, hitting on 45% of his long distance shots. Aaron Holiday should have a significant advantage in skill and athleticism, not to mention size over the McNeese junior.

The other starters are juniors Tevin Jackson (6’7” 210 lbs.) and Lance Potier (6’6” 200 lbs.). Potier is the better athlete so it’s not surprising that he’s been okay on the glass and leads the team in blocked shots. But he is raw and many times out of control on offense. The one thing about Potier is that he will suffer many floor burns during a game. The young man exudes effort.

Jackson is a pedestrian forward who provides the only semblance of height beyond McFerrin, and that isn’t much. He often finds himself overmatched.

The final starter is true freshman Jarren Greenwood (6’2” 175 lbs.). Greenwood is probably the team’s best defender and has some real potential. I imagine that Simmons sees the same thing and is looking to give the young freshman some real game experience knowing the team’s prospects this season aren’t very good. Greenwood is a solid athlete with good instincts. He is still finding his shot, but you can sense the game slowing down for him. The guess is that he’ll be all-league in 2-3 years.

The only other player with size that plays any significant minutes is senior Austin Lewis (6’8” 235 lbs.) who is simply a player who spells McFerrin and Jackson. After Lewis, no one taller than 6’7” plays.

The idea of small-ball isn’t a bad one, but McNeese is pretty poor in the areas that it needs to be good in order for the small-ball system to work. While it’s obvious that McNeese is going to get beat on the glass night in and night out, they need to force turnovers or at least win the turnover battle. That’s not happening at all. The squad has 30 more TOs than assists this season and is averaging far more TOs than its opposition. However, the worst thing about McNeese State is that the team can’t shoot. The Cowboys average less than 40% from the floor and less than 30% from behind the arc.

Simply put, in terms of talent, this McNeese State team will rank up there with last year’s Montana State.

The question then is whether UCLA can use this game to work on some things. Obviously, the answer is yes. While the team will almost certainly not have anywhere near the intensity of even the North Carolina game, the Bruins and Coach Steve Alford can use this game to give real minutes to Alex Olesinski, who looked horribly out of place against North Carolina. Remember, Olesinski is one serious injury away from being a part of the rotation game-in and game-out.

This could also be a game to give some much needed rest to both Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton. That would mean Noah Allen playing more and while Allen can’t play and shouldn’t play big minutes against a good opponent, he at least wasn’t the disaster that Olesinski was against the Tar Heels.

The guess is that Alford and staff will choose to sit Prince Ali one more game, although it would be nice to try to get him back in the line-up. The same can be said for Gyorgy Goloman, but again, both players will probably be back for the New Year’s Day tilt in Seattle.

The biggest thing is to try to get Holiday on track offensively. He’s been fighting himself since just before the Kentucky game and while his defense is still solid, the Bruins need Holiday to help take some of the backcourt offensive pressure off of Hamilton and Alford. Wouldn’t it be something if the Bruins truly had a three-headed backcourt monster when they travel to the Pacific Northwest in 10 days?

Having Jonah Bolden work on some things on the offensive end would certainly help as well. He has proven to have some real gifts, but fans can see that he’s still struggling to get his offense going. Again, getting him more on the low block would help. Convincing him that by doing that, it would open up his outside game is something Alford has to do.

The game is really a tune-up for the Bruins. Because UCLA will certainly not be “dialed in” for this game, I doubt the Bruins reach 100, nor do I feel they’ll hold the Cowboys under 60 (but the Cowboys really are poor shooters, just wait until you see for yourself). So let’s hope the Bruins suffer no injuries, Bolden and Holiday start getting it again on offense and Olesinki gains some valuable minutes.

A win on Tuesday would put the Bruins at 9-4 as they head into the holiday break.

McNeese State 64

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