Thomas Welsh (Steve Cheng, BRO)

UCLA vs. CSUN Preview

Nov. 13 -- UCLA will play its second game of the season Sunday night against Northridge, and it could be another high-scoring affair...

The UCLA men’s basketball team hosts its second game in three days on Sunday when the Bruins welcome the Matadors of Cal State Northridge (6 p.m., Pac-12 Network). The Bruins are coming off a 119-80 demolition of Pacific, while CSUN opened its season with a 24-point win over Division III Pomona Pitzer. The Bruins will certainly be looking to build on what was an offensive showcase this past Friday, while trying to find a bit more consistency on defense, especially when Aaron Holiday isn’t in the game.

Head coach Reggie Theus’ Matadors are coming off a 10-20 season, but they do have some talent -- perhaps more than what Pacific brought to the floor on Friday. CSUN has five transfers from power conference schools and two of them, to no surprise, are CSUN’s best players. The Matadors also have some size, certainly more than Pacific, and enough to at least make UCLA’s Thomas Welsh and T.J. Leaf work more in the paint. Still, the Matador posts do have some tendencies and some lack of “feel” that should allow the two Bruin post players, especially Leaf, some room to find real success.

CSUN’s strength is in its backcourt, where Theus starts junior Kendall Smith (6’3”, 190 lbs.), a UNLV transfer, and Darin Johnson (6’5”, 191 lbs.), who is in his first year of eligibility after transferring from the University of Washington.

Smith, the team’s point guard, was CSUN’s best player last season, but he has some room for improvement. He may have led last season’s Matadors in scoring at 15.3 PPG, but he shot poorly from the floor, averaging 39% from the field and 27% from behind the arc. He was just under 50% from the field in the opener, but he was 4-5 from behind the three-point line. A good shooting game against a Division III school isn’t the kind to draw conclusions from, but it is a start. Smith is much more of a lead guard than a true ‘1’ but he is clearly the floor leader of this team. He may play out of control at times, although that assertion is more based on last year’s play, but he clearly has talent. Theus simply needs to get his best player to play under control.

Johnson actually has the ability and talent to be the team’s breakout player, and he could absolutely supplant Smith as the team’s offensive focus. He had a nice freshman season when he was at UDub, but his numbers fell significantly during his sophomore season. For whatever reason, Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar lost some faith in Johnson, but Theus was glad he did. Johnson scored 20 points in both the exhibition win against Division II Cal State Los Angeles and in the opener. His size allows him to exploit mismatches in the paint and on the perimeter. He is a combined 7-9 from behind the arc in those two games so the Bruins will need to pay attention to him. It is likely that Isaac Hamilton draws the duty to guard him initially, but expect both Lonzo Ball and Holiday to match up with him from time-to-time. Johnson is also one of the two best rebounders on the squad and plays solid defense.

Theus does have one four-year player on the roster in senior Aaron Parks (6’3”, 210 lbs.), who is the third guard in the starting line-up. Parks may be the third offensive option on the team, but he can score points. He was one of last season’s leading scorers and has been close to 20 points in both the exhibition win and the opener. However, what makes Parks dangerous is his rebounding. He is the team’s best rebounder and arguably was last year as well. He tends to play in and around the paint, not minding setting screens and doing the little things to make the offense more effective. UCLA’s Bryce Alford will probably draw the initial task of guarding Parks, but the CSUN senior is stronger than Alford and likes to play more physically. If the Bruins are to improve their defense from Friday, then Coach Alford needs to mix and match his personnel to give the players the best chance of success.

Backcourt depth is provided by Theus’ junior son Reggie Theus, Jr. (6’6”, 217 lbs.), a South Carolina transfer, and sophomore Jason Richardson (6’2”, 210 lbs.). Theus had a poor shooting night against Pomona Pitzer, but it was his first real competition of the season, having missed the exhibition game. He is more of an outside shooter than a slasher, but he does have some ability to get into the paint. Size-wise, he is a like-for-like replacement for Johnson, but Theus will go bigger in the backcourt at times and play both in the guard positions.

Richardson is a nice player who, if Theus ever decided to play with four ‘smalls’, would start at the point, with Smith moving off the ball. He is probably the most mature decision-maker of the guards. He looks to pass first and the offense will look more fluid with him on the floor. He is simply not as talented as his backcourt mates. Still, if the Bruins play AAU-style basketball, Richardson will be the one to take advantage and put his team in a position to succeed on a possession-by-possession basis.

Unlike Pacific, CSUN’s starting frontcourt will have some size and strength. Junior Dylan Johns (6’11”, 240 lbs.), a Texas A&M transfer, and sophomore Rakim Lubin (6’8”, 257 lbs.), a UConn transplant, should be the starters. Johns is strictly an inside player on offense, but he hasn’t showed much in the two games on that end of the court because the Matador offense is so backcourt-heavy. He is a solid, but not great rebounder. His value comes from his shot blocking abilities and his ability to defend the paint in general. He isn’t a great shot blocker by any means, but he is good. UCLA’s Welsh will clearly be matched against Johns, as will Gyorgy Goloman from time to time.

Lubin is a better athlete than Johns, who will struggle against athletic players in the post, but Lubin is fairly raw. Despite his athleticism, he will struggle to guard UCLA’s Leaf. On the other end, if CSUN tries to get the ball inside, he could cause Leaf some issues when the UCLA frosh plays man defense.

Frontcourt depth is provided by freshman Mahmadou Kaba-Camara (7’3”, 273 lbs.) and junior Tavrion Dawson (6’8”, 202 lbs.). Kaba-Camara is a mountain of a player who is going to be difficult to dislodge from wherever he is on the court. He moves okay for his size, but that’s relative. He is a bit slow on rotations and he isn’t a shot blocker, at least not yet. He does clear space offensively and can score inside of six feet, but, like Lubin, he is raw, only moreso.

Dawson could actually play more than Lubin depending on need. He probably matches up better defensively with Leaf, although he would still be at a disadvantage. He isn’t a huge offensive threat, but remember that most of the Matador offense comes from the guards and wings. Theus has told his ‘bigs’ that their primary job is to play defense and rebound.

UCLA’s offense should be, without question, the best that CSUN faces this season. The Bruins are going to score points in this game, and probably most games this season. The issue is going to be on the other end of the floor. On Friday, the Bruins allowed Pacific to shoot 42% from the field for the game, which isn’t bad, but it’s certainly not good either when facing a relatively poor mid-major squad. The bigger problem for the Bruins, and one that has plagued them since Alford started in Westwood, is their three-point shooting defense. Friday saw the Bruins again go through stretches where they simply didn’t close-out on shooters and allowed open looks. Ball appeared to show some effort on defense, even if he has some things to learn about solid on-ball defense. Holiday is clearly a top-notch defender with the tools to eventually be elite. Hamilton, when he gives effort, as he did much of Friday’s game, will be passable. The problem on the perimeter is that teams still attack the side or area that Bryce is defending. He was certainly a bit better than he was for much of last season, but he still went through stretches where his defensive effort was poor. If he starts to play with more intensity on that side of the floor then the Bruin defense would certainly be passable enough for its offense to carry the team throughout the season. The Bruin post defense and rebounding won’t be great, Leaf’s ability on the glass notwithstanding, though it may improve over the course of the year and once Ike Anigbogu returns. In any case, the key will be the perimeter defense.

The Bruins certainly need some individuals to step up more on Sunday. Welsh, in particular, needs to show more intensity. He certainly has the point guard in Ball who will get him the rock in the correct positions. Welsh simply needs to work on getting to those spots. He’s probably not a kid who’s ever going to have a truly ‘mean streak’ but he needs to be closer to a 10 PPG and 8 RPG player for this team to have any chance against more elite teams.

Goloman also needs to step up and he can do so by simply playing smarter. He basically picked up a foul per minute on Friday and, with Anigbogu unavailable for a few more weeks and Alex Olesinski not available on Friday, Goloman needs to stay on the court. It was clear Coach Alford wanted to get him minutes on Friday, but Goloman didn’t oblige.

This game has the potential to be an up-and-down affair. The Bruins will win, but the fear is that it will devolve into a pick-up game. CSUN certainly has enough offensive talent to actually scare the Bruins for a few minutes. However, that doesn’t mean they should or even could win the game. It isn’t outside the realm of possibility that UCLA approaches 120 points again. However, especially if the Bruins play indifferently on defense for stretches, the Matadors could easily score between 90-100.

Theus is an offensive coach and his teams, even when he was at New Mexico State, struggled on the defensive side of the court while being able to put up a lot of points. This team appears to be built and coached in that mold, so UCLA shouldn’t struggle to score.

For this game to be an effective tool for the Bruins they need to take another step defensively and those players that had mediocre-to-poor games on Friday need to shake off that game and simply play better.

UCLA 112
CSUN 88


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