The UCLA men’s basketball team returns to the court Thursday night to host the Toreros of the University of San Diego (8 PM PST; Pac 12 Network).
The Bruins enter the contest at 2-0 on the young season while USD comes into the game with a 0-2 record. Quite simply this may be the least-talented, or at least the least-dangerous, opponent that UCLA will face this season. The Bruins will win, that much is obvious, so the goal of a game like this should be for Head Coach Steve Alford to really have the players work on the issues that have surfaced in the first two games, namely the team's lack of urgency at times and the overall team defense.
San Diego head coach Lamont Smith, who is in the beginning of his second year, really has quite a rebuilding project on his hands. The Toreros simply lack the necessary talent to be competitive. Smith is really starting from scratch, especially in the frontcourt. To put the plight of USD in perspective, UCLA’s Gyorgy Goloman and Alex Olesinski would clearly be 30-plus MPG players for this San Diego team, and they would be the best frontcourt players Smith would have by a country mile.
There is some talent in the backcourt, though. Sophomore Olin Carter III (6’2”, 190 lbs.) and freshman Nassir Barrino (6’0”, 165 lbs.) are certainly Smith’s best players and ones who could blossom by the time they are seniors. Neither is a true point guard but both can handle the duties of a point guard. They tend to share the load, although Barrino tends to pass more and Carter tends to be a bit better scorer.
Carter is the leading scorer, at 16 PPG, and he leads the team in minutes, but he is shooting a very mediocre 42% from the field and is tied for the team lead in turnovers. He will shoot from deep and will look to drive, but he should struggle with UCLA’s length and relative athleticism.
Barrino plays because he has to play. In a perfect world he’d be playing about 10 MPG while learning the game, but that is not going to happen with the lack of overall talent on the Torero roster. Barrino is a very good and smart shooter, averaging 12.5 PPG on over 60% shooting from the field. He has shown very good shot selection. Oddly, he has yet to attempt a three-point shot this season.
One of the struggles of both Barrino and Carter is their poor free throw shooting percentage. Carter is hitting 57% of his free throws while Barrino is stuck on 50%. Part of that could be the few attempts they’ve had, especially the freshman, but Smith would certainly expect better from his lead guards.
Backcourt depth is provided by sophomore Tyler Williams (6’5”, 190 lbs.) and freshman Mark Carbone (6’2”, 180 lbs.). They will both play roughly 20 minutes against the Bruins. That is more because of their effort, and in the case of Williams, his defense. Neither is an offensive threat and they both need to put some muscle on in the offseason.
The Bruins will have a major advantage in the backcourt because of the talent disparity, but the frontcourt match-up has the potential to be downright ugly. Not only will UCLA have a pretty large talent advantage, but the physical advantage is going to be massive.
The two starting “forwards” are senior Brett Bailey (6’6”, 205 lbs.) and junior Cameron Neubauer (6’7”, 220 lbs.). They both have to play in the low post because the only player getting significant minutes off the bench is freshman Juwan Gray (6’8”, 190 lbs.), who simply gets pushed around the paint. The Toreros do have one player with real height in freshman Jose Martinez (6’10”, 200 lbs.), from Puerto Rico. However, Martinez has only played 3 minutes total this season and is simply not ready for major Division I competition.
Neubauer and Bailey are the team’s rebounding leaders at 4 RPG and 5.5 RPG respectively (and Barrino is averaging 4 RPG). The Toreros struggle badly on the glass, averaging only 29 RPG on the season. That’s a bad number for an average high school team.
UCLA should dominate the defensive glass, holding USD to one-shot possessions most of the night. UCLA should also be able to score at will against the Toreros, but even if they can’t, the Bruins should be able to play bounce-ball off the offensive backboard. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if UCLA wins the rebounding battle by close to 30 (again, assuming the Bruins don’t shoot 70% from the floor).
Smith is almost certainly going to play a lot of zone against the Bruins but the lack of height should prove no problem. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Smith play man as a building block for the future. Either way, this should be a lopsided final score. Although the Toreros lost their opener to San Diego State by only 10, keep in mind that SDSU has a massively depleted line-up right now because of injuries and the Aztecs probably won’t be as good as they’ve been the majority of the past four seasons. After the SDSU loss, San Diego promptly went out and lost by 18 at home to might Samford. Not Stanford -- Samford.
With a decent Portland team and then the possibility of Dayton/Texas A&M looming, Coach Alford has an opportunity to have the players intensify their efforts, not simply play up or down to the level of competition and only “turn it on” (at least offensively) when they have to turn it on.
That means asking all of the players to intensify on the defensive end of the floor. When CSUN ran out to a 42-40 lead against the Bruins last Sunday, it was clear that the Northridge coaching staff was making a concerted effort, both in game-planning and in execution, of attacking Bryce Alford’s defense whenever possible. The help rotation was lazy and a step behind and the post players, when drawn out to the top of the key, struggled with plugging against the ball screens, let alone hedging against them. Alford should use the game as an opportunity to correct or to start to correct those things.
This will also be a good game to again give Gyorgy Goloman significant minutes, and to do the same for Olesinski, assuming he is healthy enough to play. As BRO has mentioned previously, both Goloman and Olesinski represent the frontcourt depth of the Bruins until Ike Anigbogu returns to action following his meniscus surgery. Heck, with the offensive firepower the Bruins should have at the other four positions on the floor, it wouldn’t hurt Alford to give Ikenna Okwarabizie a bit of a run as he is the most physical of the three post players coming off the bench right now.
UCLA will host a Long Beach State team on Sunday that is also struggling much more than expected before facing a Portland team that should be better than anyone else UCLA has faced up to this point. That means the Bruins have two more games (San Diego and LBSU) to start to create a culture of intensity and defense before the games become a good deal more difficult.
UCLA will certainly beat USD on Thursday, but that’s not the important aspect of the game. Growth and preparation of the team for tougher tests in the future are probably the most important aspects. We shall see if the staff agrees.
San Diego 64